What is a possible historical research question for "Bartleby the Scrivener: A Tale of Wall Street"?

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Karen P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

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There are several interesting historical question associated with Melville's story about Bartleby, the scrivener. I can suggest three possibilitites, each of which would add to the rich texture of Melville's text and add insight into an interpretation of this story that has been analyzed through the lenses of several critical approaches, which has yielded several possibilities in interpretation.

The first historical question you might consider researching is: What is nihilism and how does it relate to "Bartleby"? Nihilism is a politico-philosophical position that was prevalent in the 1800s as a reaction, in part, against the autocratic industrial barons who were getting rich on the oppressed labor of deprived and alienated the lower classes. Some critics say that Bartleby can be seen as having nihilistic qualities or tendencies, especially when he wastes away in prison. Since nihilists believe in "nothing" other than the materialistic, mechanistic natural order, you might ask how this how this tenet of nihilism applies to Bartleby.

The second historical question you might consider is: What was the economic environment at the time of the story, in other words: What was happening on Wall Street? This would be an interesting question that might shed light on the position and role of the narrator, who function it is to tell Bartleby's story and whose role it is to react to Bartleby and, through Bartleby, the era they live in. This might question might help shed light on the literary question of who the protagonist of the story is, Bartleby or the narrator.

The third historical question you might consider researching is: What is the history, function and purpose of the U.S. Post Office Dead Letter Office? There is surprisingly quite a bit about the Dead Letter Office (now called the mail recovery center (MRC)) available on the Internet, just search [ us post dead letter office history ] to get a good start on relevant information. Since Melville has the narrator place Bartleby in the Dead Letter Office before seeking employment with him, this research might shed quite a lot of light on both Bartleby and the philosophical themes of the story.

This wasn't the letter morgue you might imagine. Here, the misguided missives were not simply forgotten. Instead, a group of skilled dead letter detectives set about to discover the correct destinations so that the mail might get delivered. (James H. Bruns, "Remembering The Dead," National Postal Museum)

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