Bartleby and the Missing Professor

I recently received an e-mail from someone who makes athletic jerseys with literary names (here’s his website).  He has one for Herman Melville’s character Bartleby, which put me in mind of an English teacher I once knew who mysteriously disappeared.  Here’s his story and the Bartleby connection.

In case you need reminding, Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street (1853) is about a man who refuses to follow orders.  Bartleby is a scribe in a law firm, and whenever his boss, the story’s narrator, tells him to do something, he always responds, “I would prefer not to.” The lawyer is a genial and humane man, and Bartleby’s passive resistance ties him into knots.  By the end of the novella, Bartleby prefers not to eat and dies of starvation.

My story involves a man that the Emory English Department hired for a one-year appointment when I was a graduate student there.  I’ll call him Sidney.

We all thought Sidney was a little strange, and looking back we should have been aware that something was not right when he lost his voice drinking Ouzo during the hiring process.  He could barely make himself heard the following day, but that may have helped him.  We assumed he had more intelligent things to say than he actually did.

Anyway, at the beginning of the second trimester, he didn’t show up on the first day of classes.  No one could contact him, and after two or three days, the police broke into his apartment, where they found a very hungry cat.  Thinking that perhaps he had been murdered, they did a thorough search.  At the back of his desk drawer, they found the following note:

Now I know how Bartleby felt.

It was a tad melodramatic—actually it sounds a bit like the narrator of Melville’s story—but at least we now had a clue.  We knew that Sidney was depressed.

For two or three months there was no further news.  We did learn, however, that his PhD had been fabricated.  Then he finally surfaced (not at Emory), and we discovered that he had been hopping all over the south, going from one motel to another.

At the end of Melville’s novella, the narrator provides a grand summation that seems overblown and overly dramatic although not altogether inappropriate.  “Ah, Bartleby!” he says.  “Ah, humanity!”

Ah, Sidney.  When the pressures became too great, you turned to Melville.

Returning to those athletic jerseys, incidentally, I’m imagining athletic occasions where one might wear a Bartleby shirt.  How about a precocious kid playing recreational soccer under pressure from his parents?  I can imagine this conversation on the sidelines:

“Son, go in there and substitute for Johnson.”
“Coach, I’d prefer not to.

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  • http://kholvoe.livejournal.com Kristian Holvoet

    He could barely make himself heard the following day, but that may have helped him. We assumed he had more intelligent things to say than he actually did.

    That reminds me of a lesson taught to me as an officer trainee that second lieutenants are better seen and not heard. Here is how it was explained to us: ‘It is better to remain silent and thought a fool than speak an remove all doubt.’ While that pithy statement is not strong enough to be a truism, nevertheless it has been a very good rule of thumb throughout my life (more so if you are talking to a police officer).

    Perhaps Sidney had internalized this lesson, at least.

    As for preferring not to continue in a contest, it need not be precious child. Fighter Roberto Duran (‘No Mas’) and Scottie Pippen (refused to reenter a playoff game during the final seconds when the play wasn’t created for him) both preferred not to as professionals.

  • Robin Bates

    As a Bulls fan, Kristian, I still remember (with great distress) Scottie Pippin’s “I’d prefer not to moment.” As I recall, he was upset because the last shot was supposed to go to Tony Kukoc rather than him and he felt insulted. And then, with Pippin sitting on the sideline, Kukoc made the shot and won the game. Perfect example.

    By the way, I never responded to your very useful quotation from the Jacksonian tradition. It made me realize that the debate we were having had a long history. And once we realize that, we should have a better shot at civil discourse. After all, we need both those who are moralistic and those who are pragmatic. Either one without the other is dangerously unbalanced.

  • http://www.mournival.com Kristian Holvoet

    It made me realize that the debate we were having had a long history. And once we realize that, we should have a better shot at civil discourse.

    Isn’t it the case, though, that the longer the debate has been going on, the harder it is to have a civil disussion? At some point, the two sides begin to harden their hearts (or in Pharoh’s case, God hardens it). It is the conflict that spans decades that is the fertile ground bitterness thrives in.

    To bring it back to Bartleby, we have a lot of ‘leaders’ from all aspects of civilization — political, business, religious, judicial, miltary and even acedemic — that are all too often responding ‘I’d prefer not to’ when asked to fix or even at time admit there are serious problems that need to be dealt with. Let us hope that civilization is not going to follow Bartleby into myopic demise.


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