Historical Context in Bartleby the Scrivener, A Tale of Wall Street

Wall Street: Melville foregrounds the importance of the story’s setting in its extended title: “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street.” As the epicenter of the American financial market, Manhattan’s Wall Street is a location with political, economic and philosophical significance. At the time of Melville’s writing of “Bartleby” in the mid-19th century, the American economy was rapidly expanding in step with the industrial revolution and the efforts of such tycoons and bankers as J.D. Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan, and John Jacob Astor, named in the story as a former client of the narrator. Wall Street came to be seen by many as an endeavor in greed, an opinion popularly held to this day. Melville touched on the theme of greed through the character of Bartleby, who willfully starves himself, to the puzzlement of the lawyers and businessmen around him. Melville never reveals whether Bartleby is a consciously moral figure or a chilling embodiment of the human realities against which Wall Street strives.

Historical Context Examples in Bartleby the Scrivener, A Tale of Wall Street:

Bartleby, the Scrivener 13

"John Jacob Astor..."   (Bartleby, the Scrivener)

John Jacob Astor was an American businessman and one of the wealthiest people in the United States at this time. He made his money through fur-trading and New York real estate.

"With kings and counselors..."   (Bartleby, the Scrivener)

This is a biblical quote from Job 3:14. In the passage, Job wishes for death. With this reference, the lawyer suggests that Bartleby is resting with all of those who have died before him. It also situates his death within a Western, Christian tradition.

"predestinated..."   (Bartleby, the Scrivener)

The adjective “predestinated” refers to predestination, the biblical concept that all life is planned by God. Souls are marked from birth for salvation or damnation. Nothing a person does on earth can alter the course of their life.

"Priestley on Necessity..."   (Bartleby, the Scrivener)

Joseph Priestley was an English scientist and religious writer that lived from 1733-1804. He is famous for his Doctrine of Philosophical Necessity Illustrated, a metaphysical treatise which argued that man has no free will and that everything is determined by the “author of nature.”

"Edwards on the Will..."   (Bartleby, the Scrivener)

This is a reference to Jonathan Edwards’s 1754 treatise The Freedom of the Will. Edwards was an American preacher who discussed man’s free will at length. The Freedom of the Will assumes the position that humanity’s will is inherently depraved and that it needs God’s grace and salvation to save it.

"violate the proprieties of the day..."   (Bartleby, the Scrivener)

At this time, the U.S. was predominantly filled with people who believed in a Judeo-Christian faith. According to the culture of these faiths, Sunday is the “lord’s day,” a day of rest on which no one is supposed to work. To “violate the properties of the day” is to work on Sunday.

"Cicero..."   (Bartleby, the Scrivener)

Cicero was a Roman philosopher, writer, and public speaker from 106-43 BCE.

"Byron..."   (Bartleby, the Scrivener)

Lord George Gordon Byron was a famous romantic poet from England. Lord Byron was known for his violent, unpredictable personality. The lawyer uses this reference to suggest that a scrivener must be reserved and quiet in order to be good at the job. This is probably due to the monotony that the job entails.

"Tombs..."   (Bartleby, the Scrivener)

The “Tombs” is a colloquial name for an infamous jailhouse in New York City. It was known for its horrific conditions. The structure was built on top of hemlock tree trunks that gave it a damp, sinking foundation which contributed to its unsanitary living conditions. On top of health issues, the prison was also rife with corruption. By the mid 1850s, many people were calling for its demolition.

"Monroe Edwards..."   (Bartleby, the Scrivener)

Monroe Edwards was an infamous counterfeiter and slave smuggler. He smuggled slaves into Brazil and Texas and tried to scam abolitionists by forging introductory letters. He was eventually arrested and convicted because he made the same spelling mistakes across his forgeries. He died of consumption in New York’s Sing Sing prison in 1847.

"John Jacob Astor; a name which, I admit, I love to repeat,..."   (Bartleby, the Scrivener)

John Jacob Astor’s presence in this story draws attention to the class conflict prevalent in this time. The Astor Place Riot of 1949 was the most deadly and violent class conflict in a series of disturbances in New York City from 1840–1850. Astor had built an elaborate Opera House that effectively separated the rich from the poor. At this time, theaters were a place in which all classes could gather equally. The riots culminated in 25 deaths and 120 injuries when the state militia shot into the crowd. Astor represents the rich upper class against which the working class and immigrant classes were fighting. The narrator’s love for Astor indicates that he is of the upper class.

"glass folding-doors divided my premises into two parts, one of which was occupied by my scriveners, the other by myself...."   (Bartleby, the Scrivener)

During the 1840s and 1850s, New York City was the site of many class disputes between the wealthy upper classes and the low-wage working class. There were strict divisions socially and economically between the rich and the poor. The “folding doors” that divides the lawyer’s office is symbolic of these class divisions and the alienation these divisions cause between the classes. Notice that as he describes his office, the lawyer’s light-hearted tone suggests that he does not recognize the symbolic division of his workers.

"It was the circumstance of being alone in a solitary office, up stairs, of a building entirely unhallowed by humanizing domestic associations..."   (Bartleby, the Scrivener)

Despite the ultimatum, Bartleby is still in the lawyer’s office. The lawyer argues with Bartleby to no avail and decides to wait before further pressing the matter. In this passage, he recalls the murder of printer Samuel Adams by his client John C. Colt in 1842. Notice here that he appears to suggest that an office atmosphere devoid of “humanizing domestic associations” could provide prime conditions for murder. The lawyer comes closer to understanding the damaging repercussions of an isolated work environment.