Thursday, November 10, 2011

Thursday Afternoon in the Financial District: "I Would Prefer Not to: A Marathon Reading of 'Bartleby, the Scrivener'" at The Atrium at 60 Wall Street

This afternoon we had the privilege of attending "I Would Prefer Not To," a marathon reading of Herman Melville's Bartleby, the Scrivener at the Atrium at 60 Wall Street.

Organized by Justin Taylor, whose The Gospel of Anarchy was one of the best new novels we've read this year,

along with the Housing Works Bookstore Cafe and McNally Jackson Books, and supported by People’s Library at Occupy Wall Street and to Melville House, publisher of the Art of the Novella edition of Bartleby, the Scrivener, this terrific event featured about two dozen acclaimed writers and editors taking turns reading the entirety of what Melville called "A Story of Wall Street."

We've read the story more than a dozen times, taught it half a dozen times (and will be teaching it again in our American Literature to 1865 class at Hunter College in a few weeks), seen several dramatic versions, and heard a fascinating lecture on "Bartleby" by novelist Stanley Elkin at the 1977 Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, but listening to it read in one sitting, in the neighborhood of its setting, was a powerfully moving experience.

Among the readers were: Nitsuh Abebe, New York magazine; Jami Attenberg, The Melting Season; Polly Bresnick, Pony & Midge;

Amanda Bullock, Housing Works blogger; Ryan Chapman, Farrar Straus Giroux; Joshua Cohen, A Heaven of Others;

Robert Colorafi; Allison Devers, Writers’ Houses; Stephen Elliott, The Adderall Diaries;

Rachel Fershleiser, Bookish; Molly Fischer, journalist; David Goodwillie, American Subversive; Michele Hardesty, People’s Library at Occupy Wall Street;

Michelle Legro, editor, Lapham’s Quarterly; Sam MacLaughlin, McNally Jackson Books; Maureen Miller, editor, Rap Genius; Maud Newton, When the Flock Changed;

Tom Roberge, New Directions; Sarah Sarai;

Erich Strom; Brendan Sullivan, Text, Drugs, & Rock ‘N’ Roll; Adam Wilson, Flatscreen;

James Yeh, editor, Gigantic; and Daniel Zilio.

Starting off with David Goodwillie, who's a terrific reader (we saw him at powerHouse Arena a couple of years ago) and Maud Newton, the readers could all be heard clearly even without a mic, through the story of Bartleby as told by the narrator, Melville's brilliant creation of a middle-aged, cautious, "unambitious lawyer" and bureaucrat, whom Stanley Elkin told us "probably never split a Republican ticket in his life."

Someone called this "the nerdiest protest ever."

Adam Wilson's segment of the story contained the first time Bartleby says "I prefer not to," but James Yeh, much later, got the comedy gold part in which all the members of the narrator's law office unconsciously start using versions of the word "prefer," much to their own amazement.

When Bartleby says, "I am occupied," people naturally laughed, and every mention of the O word got noticed, especially when the narrator says, "I endeavored also immediately to occupy myself. . ."

The best coverage of this protest comes from Molly McArdle, a wonderful writer, in Library Journal. She wrote, in part:

Less a production of or from Zuccotti Park, the gathering was an expression of solidarity with the protesters by a community of young, savvy, lit-oriented folks. (The event has been tumbled & tweeted vociferously and iPhones were a-flash as the reading commenced.)

It occupied a small corner of the large, faux-tropical atrium at 60 Wall Street—a room out of a Keaton-era Batman movie. For all of the space’s scale, it was terribly echo-y, and the readers’ voices were often overwhelmed by late lunch-hourers, chess players, backgammoners, groups of Occupiers in their own meetings. Where was the People’s Mike?

Still, many people had their own varied editions of Melville in hand and we tried to follow along. A police officer stood to the side, disinterested, and observed the proceedings. Snippets of dialog from a smaller Facilitation group directly behind us floated up and above the story. (I heard an impassioned “he screwed the pooch!” and a dark “then the GA turned on him…”)

On the other side of the reading, two ratty young men in unwashed-stiff black jeans and black hoodies pulled out a banjo and harmonica and played old-time folk music. As the story stretched on and the audience thinned, Occupiers themselves filtered through us, harvesting chairs for their groups.

The audience cheered on Bartleby’s first “I would prefer not to” and we all murmured when Stephen Elliot-as-narrator asserted, “Nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance.”

Savarese calls Bartleby the “ultimate disillusioned egalitarian” and Taylor claims he “starts out as a functioning part of the system he comes to oppose. His is not an outsider’s but an insider’s critique.” But for all of Bartleby as ur-Occupier, what has always struck me about the story is the character’s profound aloneness.

One could, and I’m sure many have, read the absence of Bartleby’s relatives or friends as the scrivener’s rejection of the hegemonic, rigidly classist structure of a family and connections—the stuff of which so many 19th century novels were made—Bartleby’s solitude as protest of all things nuclear and patriarchal. But it’s strange to do so in light of yesterday’s reading and this year’s Occupy movement, which is all about solidarity and community, the creation of new societal structures. I suspect, should Bartleby be set down in present-day Zuccotti Park, he would still “prefer to be left alone.”

Bartleby does not tell his own story; Melville’s narrator is a man who today would be in the one percent—a Wall Street lawyer. His reactions to Bartleby’s preferences veer dramatically, even comically, from resentment to pity, anger, powerlessness. Most effecting, I think, is his fear that his employee’s actions are somehow tainting him, that Bartleby’s very language is infecting the minds of all who surround him . . .

Bartleby’s protest (if we are to see it as such) is communicable, contagious. This ultimately is where Occupy Wall Street and the scrivener’s efforts best mesh. While the Occupy movement has avoided naming specific goals, and Bartleby speaks more about what he would rather not do than do, both have changed the conversation and indeed the very language we use to participate in it . . .

If you can read all of Molly McArdle's commentary here.

"Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!"

As a rather elderly lawyer ourselves, we're grateful we got to attend "I Would Prefer Not To."

Thanks to Justin Taylor, McNally Jackson, Housing Works Bookstore Cafe, and everyone else who worked so hard to make this a meaningful event.


d said...

Hey, thanks for posting the photos!

Matthew said...

A heartbreaking ending, of course, but some good humor on the way there -- people forget how funny Melville can be -- and fine salmagundi of readers.