Bartleby the Scrivener and The Confidence Man (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

Bartleby the Scrivener and The Confidence Man (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

by Herman Melville, Mike Lee Davis

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Although most people do not think of Herman Melville as a particularly funny writer, his "Bartleby, the Scrivener" and The Confidence Man have kept readers laughing for a century and a half.

"Bartleby" is a simultaneously accurate and absurd depiction of life in a Wall Street office in the middle of the nineteenth century. It is the gentle comedy of a boss' helpless inability to control a stubborn employee, who when asked to do ordinary chores around the office simply responds, "I prefer not to."

In The Confidence Man, Melville skewers the hypocrisies and inadequacies of America and Western civilization through ridicule. His biting satire leaves many readers smirking until the moment when they recognize someone remarkably like themselves as the next target in the con man's sights.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781411429956
Publisher: Barnes & Noble
Publication date: 09/01/2009
Series: Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 368
File size: 733 KB
Age Range: 3 Months to 18 Years

About the Author

Herman Melville was born in August 1, 1819, in New York City, the son of a merchant. Only twelve when his father died bankrupt, young Herman tried work as a bank clerk, as a cabin-boy on a trip to Liverpool, and as an elementary schoolteacher, before shipping in January 1841 on the whaler Acushnet, bound for the Pacific. Deserting ship the following year in the Marquesas, he made his way to Tahiti and Honolulu, returning as ordinary seaman on the frigate United States to Boston, where he was discharged in October 1844. Books based on these adventures won him immediate success. By 1850 he was married, had acquired a farm near Pittsfield, Massachussetts (where he was the impetuous friend and neighbor of Nathaniel Hawthorne), and was hard at work on his masterpiece Moby-Dick.

Literary success soon faded; his complexity increasingly alienated readers. After a visit to the Holy Land in January 1857, he turned from writing prose fiction to poetry. In 1863, during the Civil War, he moved back to New York City, where from 1866-1885 he was a deputy inspector in the Custom House, and where, in 1891, he died. A draft of a final prose work, Billy Budd, Sailor, was left unfinished and uncollated, packed tidily away by his widow, where it remained until its rediscovery and publication in 1924.

Author biography courtesy of Penguin Group (USA).

Date of Birth:

August 1, 1819

Date of Death:

September 28, 1891

Place of Birth:

New York, New York

Place of Death:

New York, New York


Attended the Albany Academy in Albany, New York, until age 15


Most people do not think of Herman Melville as a particularly funny writer, but his "Bartleby the Scrivener" and The Confidence Man have kept people smiling, chuckling, or laughing outright for a century and a half. The tremendous popularity of "Bartleby" doubtless has a great deal to do with Melville's simultaneously accurate and absurd depiction of life in a Wall Street office in the middle of the nineteenth century. Presumably that popularity also has something to do with Melville's captivating prose style, his neatly balanced characters and tight structure, and the seemingly unanswerable question of what to make of the title character's puzzling behavior. Nevertheless, the force that has kept one generation after another turning the pages of "Bartleby" is primarily the force of humor-the gentle comedy of a boss' helpless inability to control a stubborn employee. The humor of The Confidence Man, on the other hand, is anything but gentle. Here Melville skewers the hypocrisies and inadequacies of America and Western civilization through ridicule. His biting satire leaves many readers smirking until the moment when they recognize someone remarkably like themselves as the next target in the confidence man's sights.

Melville is best known for his masterpiece, Moby-Dick (1851), a text regarded by numerous literary critics as the great American novel because of its dense imagery, provocative symbolism, and profound commentary on the effects of power structures (ships, nations, churches, and other socially constructed phenomena) on individuals. However, the celebrated story of Captain Ahab's pursuit of the white whale is only part of the reason that Melville is considered perhaps the single most important writer in American history. He lived at just the right time and in just the right circumstances to understand the complex and ever-evolving identity of America as few people have. Although he was born into a well-connected family in New York City in 1819, the death of his father in 1832 left the family in difficult financial circumstances. By the age of twenty-two, Melville's days as an affluent urban youth were well behind him, as he had begun the hard life of a common sailor. That experience provided rich material for the fiction he would begin publishing in the 1840s, when suddenly Melville found himself moving back among the socially fashionable circles of his youth. On the basis of his early success as a writer, he married Elizabeth Shaw (daughter of the chief justice of Massachusetts) in 1847, but he soon found that he was unable to earn enough money as a writer to support his family, and he was forced to take a job in the New York harbor as a customs official. He continued writing, but not with any real hope of financial success. Another prose masterpiece (Billy Budd, Sailor) would be left unpublished until after his death, and his poetry was published at his own expense. He knew America before the Civil War and afterward; he lived in New York City through the building of the Brooklyn Bridge and the corruption of the Tweed Ring; he experienced both notoriety and obscurity on a personal level. When he died in 1891, people who had read his books in their youth confessed that they thought he must have died years-even decades-earlier.

Although he met his end in obscurity, Melville was a literary celebrity in his early manhood. He became a sort of overnight success with the publication of his first book, Typee (1846), which recounted his adventures among a tribe of South Sea Islanders after he and fellow sailor Toby Greene jumped ship on a voyage through the Pacific. Typee was popular with American and English readers even when people thought that Melville had made up the story. Later, when Greene stepped forward to vouch for the authenticity of the tale, Melville's position in the literary community as an authority on maritime adventure was cinched. In this early phase of his career, his readers knew what to expect of him, and he seemed all too eager to deliver it, as evidenced by the subtitle of his second novel, Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas (1847). After Omoo, however, Melville changed. The philosophical, theological, and epistemological questions that were either glossed over or only touched upon in his early work began to consume Melville as a man and occupied more and more of his attention as a writer. Unfortunately for Melville, his audience did not share his interest in these questions. Not surprisingly, readers who wanted to follow the adventures of a happy-go-lucky sailor cavorting in Polynesia were disappointed by the figure of a maniacal captain named Ahab who spent a lot of time fuming about his vexed relationship with God and nature. Today's readers may be aware that Moby-Dick was a commercial and critical failure at the time of its release, but few appreciate how thoroughly self-destructive it was for Melville to follow his epic on the white whale by writing Pierre (1852), a story of an implicitly incestuous ménage a trios in Greenwich Village. Pierre prompted at least one journalist to label Melville "crazy," and Melville's fifteen minutes of literary fame seemed relegated to the distant past by the time he published "Bartleby the Scrivener" and The Confidence Man in the mid-1850s. Indeed, generations of readers have regarded both of these texts as Melville's coded commentary on his own development as a writer and his uneasy relationship with his audience.

"Dollars damn me," wrote Melville in a letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1851. He added, "What I feel most moved to write, that is banned.-it will not pay. Yet, altogether, write the other way I cannot, so the product is a final hash, and all my books are botches." Although his reputation today may not suggest it, Melville struggled mightily when it came to the very tricky negotiation of what his audience expected of him and what he demanded of himself in his fiction. Both of the texts included in this volume clearly attest to that struggle, as they are two of Melville's more remarkable attempts to break out of the pigeonhole into which his contemporaries confined him-since he was regarded in his own lifetime as a writer of sea stories whose chief claim on the attention of his readership was his own experience as a sailor and his uncanny ability to render the circumstances of life on the high seas in ways that landlubbers could understand and appreciate. However, in both "Bartleby the Scrivener" and The Confidence Man, Melville deliberately deprives himself of the maritime perspective that was the primary draw of his fiction, concentrating instead on the comic manner in which defiance can be made to look and feel submissive (in "Bartleby") and the tension between gullibility and mistrust (in The Confidence Man). The inexhaustible richness of the texts themselves indicates that Melville was, just as he imagined himself to be, something more than a writer of nautical yarns. Nevertheless, the fact that he would not publish another novel in the thirty-four years between the appearance of The Confidence Man and his death suggests that Melville never believed himself to have escaped the literary pigeonhole in which, for many readers, he remains to this day.

Melville's thematic concerns (the subtle workings of authority, the ability of strangers to trust one another, the many ways in which we deceive ourselves) are as relevant today as they were in his own lifetime. However, some aspects of these stories are difficult to appreciate without a broader understanding of the context in which Melville lived and wrote. The abundance of photocopiers and computer printing equipment in our own time may prevent today's readers from fully grasping how tedious or how important the work of scriveners such as Bartleby was in the nineteenth century, and our own jaded awareness of the con games played on us by everything from advertisements to certain unscrupulous telemarketers is apt to make Melville's portrait of a con man strike us as relatively unsophisticated. However, in both cases, Melville does an arresting job of using the cultural phenomena of his own time to raise questions as rich and complicated as any twenty-first century reader could hope for-so long as we are willing to face them.

The central figure of The Confidence Man is loosely based on a criminal arrested in New York City in 1849, a man named William Thompson whose modus operandi was to accost strangers on the street, assure them that they knew him and had forgotten him, and then ask them whether they had enough confidence in him to trust him with their watches until he should see them again. Apparently the stress that Thompson himself placed on the importance of "confidence" in his conversations with his dupes prompted such newspapers as The New York Herald to label him "the confidence man," a term that was quickly truncated to con man and is, quite obviously, still widely used today.

Because Melville devoted an entire book to a Thompson-like figure less than a decade after "confidence man" entered the American vocabulary, it is tempting to credit him as a pioneer in the creation of what has proved to be an immensely popular and clearly enduring sub-genre of literature and film. In truth, however, the reader who expects to encounter in The Confidence Man a story akin to Hollywood's classic film The Sting or David Mamet's House of Games or the more recent Matchstick Men (starring Nicolas Cage) will be sorely disappointed by Melville's novel. What appeals to most fans of movies about con games is the elaborate con itself, the way it is pulled off so cleverly as to trick dupes into handing over extremely valuable items or enormous sums of cash of their own volition-often as the result of plots so complicated that the readers or viewers themselves do not realize who is being conned until the story reaches a neatly balanced denouement in which things turn out to be not quite what they seemed all along. Although one might argue that Melville's manipulation of the reader of The Confidence Man serves as just such an elaborate con, the tale itself is not structured by the twists that characterize the films mentioned above. Melville's title character relies primarily on something very close to the routine attributed to Thompson. He tells numerous other passengers aboard the Fidele (a Mississippi steamer) that he wishes to test their confidence by asking them for relatively small sums of money. Of course, he is no one-trick pony. He also impersonates a cripple who begs for alms, a peddler of a concoction called the Omni-Balsamic Reinvigorator who is the stereotypical snake oil salesman, and an agent of the Black Rapids Coal Company who sells spurious stock to would-be investors. But these small-time cons do not culminate in some grand scheme to defraud a millionaire of a fortune or the Fidele's owners of their boat. They appear to serve as opportunities for Melville and the reader to meditate, over and over again-and always from a slightly different perspective-on what it means to be gullible or suspicious, trusting or wary, credulous or critical.

Precisely because of this fascination with the way that skepticism functions and malfunctions, The Confidence Man makes an almost perfect kind of sense as the last novel that Melville would publish in his lifetime. The book serves in many ways as a crystallization of one of the most pervasive concerns running through Melville's corpus: the difficulty that we all face when it comes to interpreting texts or the world or each other. Like a novelist, the confidence man must tell stories that his audience will find persuasive enough to "buy." He must mix fact with fiction and establish his credibility with his listener if he is to get away clean with whatever profits the story may produce. Just as Melville's readers must be induced (perhaps seduced) to suspend disbelief in a story that they know to be fictitious, the confidence man's auditors must be persuaded to put their faith in the tale of a stranger.

The success of the confidence man has a great deal to do with the stories he tells. But perhaps more importantly for Melville, it also has a great deal to do with the mindset (in terms of the tendency towards gullibility or skepticism) of those to whom the stories are being told. The difficulties that the confidence man encounters when trying to con large groups of people aboard the Fidele (such as being struck publicly by a man who regards his Omni-Balsamic Reinvigorator as a humbug) serve to remind us of the difficulties that Melville saw the writer of fiction as facing because of the distinctions between readers. The most famous such distinction that Melville would make appears in his essay, "Hawthorne and His Mosses":

But with whatever motive, playful or profound, Nathaniel Hawthorne has chosen to entitle his pieces in the manner he has, it is certain, that some of them are directly calculated to deceive-egregiously deceive-the superficial skimmer of pages. To be downright and candid once more, let me cheerfully say, that two of these titles did dolefully dupe no less an eagle-eyed reader than myself.

Although this passage seems to suggest that it is better to be an eagle-eyed reader than a superficial skimmer, the fact remains that eagle-eyed readers like Melville can be duped by writers like Hawthorne just as one reader aboard the Fidele (a man with his nose buried in a volume of Tacitus when the confidence man first approaches him) resists the initial ploys of the con artist, but succumbs when the title character returns in a different disguise.

In virtually all of his fiction, Melville does an extraordinary job of compelling his audience to ponder the process of interpretation and to reflect on the many different kinds of readers that there are in the world. But perhaps what sets "Bartleby the Scrivener" and The Confidence Man apart from the bulk of Melville's corpus is that these two texts so clearly dramatize Melville's awareness of the many different kinds of writers that there are in the world and his own profound anxiety about whether he himself belongs to the right class. Since most of his contemporary critics either ignored or ridiculed Moby-Dick when it appeared, Melville quickly recognized that if he was to make a living as a novelist, he would have to assume a role analogous to that of the confidence man, a figure who has to be forever changing his disguise and telling a different story in response to his own best guess about what the listener wants to hear-all in the hope of being rewarded with a tiny bit of cash.

Similarly, numerous critics (notably Leo Marx, Richard Chase, and Lewis Mumford) have seen the character of Bartleby as a thinly veiled metaphor for the author himself. The most obvious parallel is that, as a man whose job is to produce documents, Bartleby struggles to make his living by writing. His almost unimaginably dull job of copying text by hand is, according to this interpretation, Melville's scathing response to the readers and critics who ridiculed his more thoughtful work and seemed to demand that he write Typee and Omoo over and over again. This reading is compellingly supported by the fact that unreceptive reviewers of Mardi, Moby-Dick, and Pierre urged Melville to return to the kind of story that had won him acclaim when he first came onto the literary scene. But just as Bartleby flummoxes his Wall Street boss by saying, "I prefer not to" when asked to do ordinary chores around the office, so does Melville refuse to perform his job to the specifications of his publishers, critics, and readers. They may want him to make another copy of Typee, but Moby-Dick is Melville's way of saying, "I prefer not to." When pressed to its logical conclusion, this line of argument makes an engaging (if depressing) sort of sense of the final section of the short story. There we learn that Bartleby is rumored, before he took the job as a scrivener on Wall Street, to have worked as a clerk in the dead letter office. If Bartleby does stand in some way for Melville, then perhaps Melville saw the works that he produced before the short story as so many dead letters. Whether we are persuaded by such interpretations or not, there can be no disputing that the audience to whom Melville attempted to address his work in the early 1850s was nowhere to be found.

We do not have to embrace such intricate metaphorical interpretations, however, to understand how thoroughly Melville was absorbed by questions about the process of writing and the manner in which narrative functions. There are jarringly obtrusive sections in The Confidence Man that engage such questions explicitly. For instance, the fourteenth chapter (with the ridiculously convoluted and tautological title "Worth the Consideration of Those to Whom It May Prove Worth Considering") brings the action of the story to a screeching halt so that the narrator can address the reader directly. He points out that a character to which we have been introduced has just behaved in a way that is apt to strike most of us as inconsistent. Bizarrely, he spends an entire chapter raising this objection to his own character on the reader's behalf-only to justify the characterization by pointing out that since real people are usually inconsistent, it is only appropriate for fictional characters to be inconsistent as well. He later turns this logic on its head in chapter 33. Once again, he abruptly stops the story to object on the reader's behalf that the tale lacks verisimilitude. But this time, instead of defending himself by saying that his tale is truer to life than it may at first appear, he counters by rejecting verisimilitude as a desirable ingredient in fiction:

Strange, that in a work of amusement, this severe fidelity to real life should be exacted by anyone, who, by taking up such a work, sufficiently shows that he is not unwilling to drop real life, and turn, for a time to something different. Yes, it is, indeed strange that anyone should clamor for the thing he is weary of; demand of him who is to divert his attention from it, that he should be true to that dullness.

Whether this seeming vacillation on the value of verisimilitude is meant to deceive the superficial skimmers or the eagle-eyed readers is anybody's guess, but it is likely to strike many readers as exasperating.

Even more exasperating, for most readers, is a cluster of chapters near the end of the novel in which the confidence man, while pretending to be named Frank, converses with a stranger named Egbert who has agreed to pretend to be named Charlie. At first glance, their conversation appears to be an excuse for Melville to put the story of another character named China Aster into the mouth of Egbert-as-Charlie. But the story itself is almost lost under successive layers of seemingly superfluous introductory material. Apart from the fact that the men are pretending to be two people who they both know they aren't, there is Egbert's lengthy preface concerning the distinction between the content of the story he is about to tell and the form of it and the way in which he approves of the one but disapproves of the other and then a digression about how the manner in which a story is told can influence our retelling of it even against our will and better judgment.

Once all of this preliminary material is out of the way, we finally get to the story of China Aster, but the tale itself concludes with yet another seeming digression about the wordy epitaph that Aster wanted for his tombstone and the decision of a character nicknamed Plain Talk to shorten it. Just as Egbert claims to value the content of the story he is telling but not the manner in which he is telling it, Plain Talk (a character within that story) "did not disagree . . . with the sentiment of the epitaph," but objected to "the language." The result is that we as readers never get to see what the original epitaph was, only the revision made by a character named Plain Talk. Whatever message there might be here about the value of straightforward communication or the distinction between form and content is only further complicated by the fact that Frank and Charlie cannot agree about what the content of the story means. Still more vexingly, when the confidence man-as-Frank storms off in a huff, poor Egbert-as-Charlie is left wondering whether he offended the stranger he met on the boat or the man named Frank that the stranger was pretending to be.

We should not forget, however, that if we do become annoyed by the story of China Aster, it is our choice to do so. Instead of allowing ourselves to become impatient, we can always step back from Melville's text and laugh. If we do not find the ironies within the story amusing, perhaps we can smile at the way we keep telling stories even though we know how easy it is for them to be misinterpreted, lost in revision, or eclipsed by the disguises we put on in order to tell them. If nothing else, we can laugh at Melville's ridiculously overwrought chapter titles, such as "In Which the Last Three Words of the Last Chapter Are Made the Text of Discourse, Which Will Be Sure of Receiving More or Less Attention from Those Readers Who Do Not Skip It." Even if we cherish Emersonian philosophy, we can laugh at Melville's caricature of Emerson in the character of Mark Winsome. We can laugh at these things in the same way that we laugh at the helpless frustration to which the narrator of "Bartleby" is reduced by his employee's repetition of a simple four-word phrase. One might say that if we don't laugh at these things in The Confidence Man, we are almost forced to become the narrator of "Bartleby," tormented by a writer who prefers not to conform to our expectations.

Melville can be cutting and perhaps overly intellectual with his humor, but these are the texts in which he comes closest to being a humorist. The fact that the humor is wry and detached and as surreal as anything in Franz Kafka is unsurprising when we consider that Melville was morose in the estimate of Hawthorne and other acquaintances. But the fact that Melville could evoke, in "Bartleby," the kind of farcically brooding unease that we see in "The Metamorphosis" thirty years before Kafka was even born is nothing short of remarkable. Melville's humor is so merciless that it may strike the casual reader as mean-spirited, but we do him a disservice if we forget that his jokes about writers and readers and failures of communication are told primarily at his own expense. Perhaps he was capable of laughing off the fact that except for Hawthorne, his important literary contemporaries (Walt Whitman, Emerson, Mark Twain, Edith Wharton, Henry James) paid little attention to him. If he expected to get the last laugh, however, he was justified, as later generations of writers (including William Faulkner, Ralph Ellison, Thomas Pynchon, and Toni Morrison) have admired and emulated his techniques. Contemporary readers are already aware of Melville as a tortured genius, but while his genius is more readily apparent in such works as Benito Cereno and Billy Budd (and, of course, Moby-Dick), his torture is nowhere (with the sole exception of Pierre) more vividly displayed than in the two short works of fiction contained in this volume.

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Bartleby the Scrivener and The Confidence Man (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading) 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener and The Confidence Man are both very excellent and interesting novels. The introduction in this edition is also very excellent, informative, and well written. I would recommend this particular edition for anyone who is interested in Herman Melville.
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