Bartleby, The Scrivener

Are you feeling a little overwhelmed by the recent spate of films about the unethical and immoral activities of Wall Street professionals? From Leonardo DiCaprio’s dissipated performance in Martin Scorcese’s The Wolf of Wall Street to the current film adaptation of Michael Lewis’ The Big Short, we seem to be inundated with tales of banking dishonesty and brutality.

Come to think of it, though, has there ever been a successful film or book about a moral and upstanding Wall Street professional? It’s awfully difficult to name one. After all, even Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey in It’s A Wonderful Life conducted business in Bedford Falls, which was a long way from downtown Manhattan. And the classic Christmas movie hardly portrayed financiers in glowing terms, pitting Bailey against the evil banker Mr. Potter.

In fact, we might need to reach all the way back to the year 1853 to find a published tale about an admirable Wall Street professional. Bartleby, the Scrivener, written by Herman Melville just two years after he published Moby Dick, is a short story about a kind-hearted Wall Street attorney who hires a para-legal assistant named Bartleby and then doesn’t have the heart to dismiss him.

Or, to be more accurate, he tries repeatedly to dismiss him, but he doesn’t have the heart to insist that Bartleby leave when the employee decides to stay. So what’s a generous boss to do when a gentle but utterly unproductive worker politely refuses to go home?

The brief text begins as a light comedy, but quickly evolves into a perplexing mystery and then concludes as a spiritual metaphor. The entire content is now in the public realm, and is available for free download from the Project Gutenberg web site.

What compelled Melville to write such a story? It’s possible that he was terribly disappointed by the dismal failure of Moby Dick, which reportedly only sold 3,200 copies during his life, earning him a mere $1,200. Melville’s Great American Novel was only rediscovered by the literary world after the First World War, decades after his death.

In a sense, Captain Ahab’s compulsive connection with the Great White Whale is analogous to the attorney’s inability to squirm free of his pale skinned employee. Perhaps Melville wrote both stories to symbolize how writers become enslaved to their own blank white sheets of writing paper … or, in today’s terms, to the blank white screens of word processing files.

Even if these interpretations are a bit too surrealistic for your tastes, I’d recommend giving the Bartleby story a little of your time. Considering all of the vicious characterizations that have lately plagued our friends in the banking industry, the tale might restore your faith that there is a little human goodness in every corner of the world.

Yes, even on Wall Street.