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Roberto Banda Aguilar

Larry Goldsmith

Inglés IV: History and Culture

23 March 2018

On “From Wall Street to Astor Place: Historicizing Melville’s ‘Bartleby,’” by

Barbara Folley

The historical account given by Barbara Folley on Melville’s “Bartleby” problematizes the

reception the story has had for criticism. The tale of the scrivener has been seen by criticism as a

metaphor of the writer’s alienation in a modern capitalist society; though, as Folley recognizes,

much of the time the critics had ignore the subtitle of the story that helps to historicize and create

a better interpretation of it. Wall Street, Folley claims, is vital to understand how the

setting/context has an important influence in the development of the characters traits during the

story. The behavior of the lawyer and his weird scrivener become more understandable when the

reader has an historical account that makes clear certain references that would remain obscure by

the cultural and historical distance that the story presents for contemporary readers.

Wall Street references in “Bartleby” go beyond the description of the setting and sense of

reliability that the narrator/lawyer gives to the reader. Folley finds that much of the themes

displayed in the story had a parallel in the historical context of New York during the 1840’s and

1850’s. The lawyer’s office becomes a microcosm of the sociopolitical class struggles that took

place near Wall Street during this period.

The “passive resistance” of the Scrivener is a pale reflex of the working class riots that

occurred during the 1840’s in New York. Folley hypothesizes that the Astor Place riot in 1849

may be one of the political events that inspired Melville to write the story. She proposes that the

apparent display of charity and paternalism that the lawyer shows to Bartleby in the story can be
interpreted as an act of bad conscience and guilt. The indirect participation that Melville had in

the events that derived in a massacre becomes a clue to unravel the political unconscious

elements that the story hides under the appearance of a weird tale. Folley claims give certain

coherence to the unexplainable traits and events that both Bartleby and the narrator display and

experience during the history, creating a new approach to the literary work from a perspective

that seemed neglected by criticism.