In what year is "Bartleby the Scrivener, A Tale of Wall Street" taking place?

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William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

According to the eNotes Study Guide:

"Bartleby the Scrivener" was written by Herman Melville in 1853 and was first published in Putnam's Magazine in the November/December issue of that year.

Evidently the events described have taken placeĀ  around the year 1853. One of the interesting features of this long story is a description of the setting and routine of a law office in New York in the middle of the nineteenth century. There was a need then, as now, to make multiple copies of documents but no way to do this except by having each copy patiently written out by a human hand. We now have photocopy machines that can produce perfect copies with just the touch of a button, but there must have been thousands of clerks all over in United States and in Europe who did virtually nothing but make duplicate copies of legal documents as well as all sorts of other business papers.

No doubt a lawyer who was sending out a letter would want at least one copy of that letter for his own records, and he might have a reason for wanting more than one. Melville describes how the copies of the more important documents had to be scrutinized and compared word for word with the original, including every punctuation mark.

It is, of course, an indispensable part of a scrivener's business to verify the accuracy of his copy, word by word. Where there are two or more scriveners in an office, they assist each other in this examination, one reading from the copy, the other holding the original.

This must have been very tedious and time-consuming. It took over a hundred years for machines to be invented that could make good copies through photographic printing. Nowadays we take these for granted, but in the 1850s they would have been considered an impossible dream. There must have been many silent drudges like Bartleby who spent most of their lives making copies of copies and more copies of those copies.

A critical point in the story comes when the narrator is handling an exceptionally important legal document.

A few days after this, Bartleby concluded four lengthy documents, being quadruplicates of a week's testimony taken before me in my High Court of Chancery. It became necessary to examine them. It was an impoirtant suit, and great accuracy was imperative. Having all things arranged I called Turkey, Nippers and Ginger Nut from the next room, meaning to place the four copies in the hands of my four clerks, while I should read from the originial.

This is when Bartleby flatly refuses to participate in the important ritual with the statement, "I would prefer not to." What is most interesting about the scene is the amount of human effort that had to go into the simple matter of making four copies of one document. Nowadays it would be done in a few minutes. A modern photocopy machine would print out four identical manusripts all separately collated. But in those days it might have taken a week. The narrator says they were lengthy documents of a week's testimony.

"Bartleby the Scrivener" preserves a picture of the business world on the mid-nineteenth century better than anything in Dickens or anywhere else. Bartleby himself was certainly in the right profession. The narrator says of him:

As if long famishing for something to copy, he seemed to gorge himself on my documents.

The story seems to be intended mainly as a character study of an extreme introvert long before the terms "introvert" and "extrovert" had been coined by C. G. Jung in Psychological Types.

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