Bureaucracy: The Piazza Tales

Melville, Herman. The Piazza Tales. New York: Dix & Edwards; London: Sampson Low, Son & Co., 1856.


This first edition of Herman Melville’s short story collection The Piazza Tales was published by Dix and Edwards in 1856.  With the exception of the story “The Piazza,” all of the stories were originally published in the magazine Putnam’s Monthly.  Joshua Dix (a former employee of Arthur Putnam) and Arthur Edwards had purchased that magazine in 1855, with the new book and magazine publishers working to maintain the successes of their predecessors.

The Piazza Tales contains six novella-length stories, from “The Encantadas” to “Benito Cereno” and “Bartleby the Scrivener.” Both “Benito Cereno” and “Bartleby” thematize bureaucracy by representing and replicating its material forms. “Bartleby” is set among the increasing visibility of large businesses and their managerial practices in the nineteenth century, which included the rise of the American corporation, the codification of managerial practices, the advent of Wall Street, and the privileging of efficiency over individuality.  At the same time, by using as his subtitle “A Story of Wall Street,” Melville located the story in a space of labor activism and debates about the rights of workers (Reed). The actions of the titular scrivener—a copyist who replicated business and legal records—indicates how the bureaucratic system is susceptible to resistance from within. Bartleby’s famous line, “I would prefer not to,” is often referenced as a mantra of dissent towards the bureaucratic power of the state or capitalist economy. At the end of the story, Bartleby refuses to move from the law office where he is employed even when the lawyer who employs him switches buildings; when he is thrown in jail, he refuses to eat and dies.  The story mocks the functions of bureaucracy—namely, the copying of obscure documents that the lawyer required of his clerks—while highlighting their effects on the human mind.

The lawyer who employs Bartleby places great emphasis on efficient, correct, written communication, even as he recognizes repeatedly that these bureaucratic ideals are undercut by the particular ages, bodies, preferences, work practices, whims, and hands of his clerks.  While Turkey, Nippers, and Ginger Nuts might produce work of uneven quality, it is Bartleby and his statement that he “would prefer not to”—his refusal to work and to vacate the law office at night and, eventually, at all—that disrupt the efficient office and force the lawyer to move. Bartleby is further identified with non-efficiency at the end of the story, when the lawyer notes that he had previously worked at the Dead Letter Office, a repository for letters that, after failing to reach their recipients, were sent to the office to be destroyed. Bartleby’s jobs represent how bureaucracy must organize and consume all documents; they must be put into place regardless of whether or not they served their purpose.  At the same time, Bartleby’s refusal to complete his tasks highlights the ways that bureaucratic systems are highly contingent on individuals and their participation in the system.

Melville temporarily adopted the role of a scrivener himself when he transcribed legal documents from Amasa Delano’s Narrative of Voyages and Travels in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres (1817) in order to write “Benito Cereno” (DeLombord).  These documents formed the foundation of the short story, and Melville inserted selections from the actual legal deposition, or testimony, at the end of the novella. There, Benito Cereno, the Spanish captain of a slave ship, explained how the slaves took over the ship, held him captive, and forced him to pretend that he had freed them and trusted them. Finally rescued by an American captain, Amasa Delano, Benito Cereno gives a legal account of the events that led him to pretend as if the rebellion’s mastermind, a man named Babo, was his trusted manservant.  The deposition provides only one perspective of the revolution and plot, since enslaved Africans’ testimony was not permitted in court.  Moreover, the deposition employs the law and its bureaucratic forms to transform the past into historical record and to endow it with authority.  As both “Bartleby” and “Benito Cereno” show, both the individuals and the forms required to complete this transformation resist it, and interestingly, they accomplish this resistance through inaction—by Bartleby’s preference not to and by Babo’s silence.  If the point of Cereno’s deposition is to create an “officially sanctioned retrospective narrative” (DeLombard 37), then Babo’s actions and his silence throw that narrative into question. And, if the point of Bartleby’s vocation is to reproduce and recirculate letters, then his preference “not to” stalls that process and highlights its dependence on material forms and manual labor.

Find The Piazza Tales in the UNT Libraries Catalog.