LITR 255
Dec. 16, 2006
Final Exam - Essay


Perhaps one of the most intriguing ways both Herman Melville and Walt Whitman address the idea of the "American Individual" is how the individual seems to be able to function in society, especially regarding labor. Both authors use their text's primary character (or two characters, in Melville's case) to discuss this concept of "individual in society", and both do so in a very interesting way: by allowing those characters to represent

Melville's "Bartleby, the Scrivener" uses both a narrator/character (the lawyer) and an individual (Bartleby) to make itself complete. The narrator/lawyer has two "voices": He is "collective Americans", a representative voice; and he also represents a move toward a more aware, awakened, moral self. Bartleby too is both an individual and a "greater voice" -- but he is a message of suffering. Compare these to the "Song of Myself," which also employs a character who is both an individual and a representative voice. But Whitman's character offers a more optimistic perspective -- if Melville is emphasizing modern society as oppressive and unable to be transcended, then Whitman is reaffirming and celebrating all of life, even labor, and not by trying to purely transcend it but by revising and expanding the ideals and tenets of Transcendentalism.

Consider first the Melville text, and beginning with the narrator. As stated, it is an individual and collective voice, though the two are closely related. Early on -- before Bartleby joins the office -- and then in his early dealings with the scrivener, the narrator has been an "eminently safe man" (4) whose interests are in productivity, money and efficiency, and who was never one to let things bother him. "The easiest way of life is best" (4), he says, reaffirming this. He later says that he will "cheaply purchase a delicious self-approval" and gain "a sweet moral for my conscience" by befriending Bartleby. The entire story is often read as a criticism of the capitalistic, unfeeling modern society; Wall Street, the building of its walls, and the lawyer's behavior seems to bear this out. After all, everything seems cold and lifeless and barren, and the lawyer's attitude exemplifies the material concerns. He too is trapped, but he believes he enjoys the safety. But the lawyer does allow some of his newly awakened humanity and compassion to guide some of his actions, and he is definitely "awakened" to the human condition. He becomes somewhat of a moral voice as he realizes he ought to help Bartleby. The narrator has his limits -- especially as Bartleby rejects the offers of help -- but he sees that compassion awakened in himself: "The bond of a common humanity ... both Bartleby and I were sons of Adam" (23). He grapples with conscience versus his rational, 'what most people would do' self: "This old Adam of resentment grew in me. ... [I recalled] the divine injunction, ... 'love one another'" (34). So the narrator is ultimately some of each -- he speaks as the voice of the countless others in capitalistic America, but he also becomes a call to an awakening and to morality.

Bartleby too is a "dual voice," or something like it. We don't know why he is the way he is, but clearly he's not helped by his job and life in materialistic society. He is adding to the pessimistic and critical attitude toward it. The lawyer/narrator can't reach Bartleby (25), who is too far gone. Perhaps Bartleby is one who has failed to -- or who represents failure to -- transcend society and physical confines. And surely there are others who suffer as he does. Recall what Henry David Thoreau once said: "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." Bartleby is at once all of those others and an individual; the lawyer sees the pain and misery of one: "What miserable friendlessness and loneliness are here revealed! .. His solitude, how horrible!" (22) Bartleby writes "silently, palely, mechanically" (12) and "like an apparition" (21). His individuality and solitude shock the lawyer. Bartleby the individual stands outside of society -- he is an individual with no belonging. Work, life, Wall Street -- all are empty and crushing. Like dead letters, the multitude, he is many. This helps shock the narrator into his own awareness -- and into becoming a moral voice -- though ultimately, he cannot help Bartleby, either.

Walt Whitman is a bit of a different perspective. He is also both an individual and a greater voice (of all / of America, that is), but his message is clearly optimistic. He doesn't try to transcend society; perhaps that leaves one too isolated. Instead of trying to rise above society, he embraces it. Labor and work aren't oppressive if you consider them beautiful and accept them. Don't try to force the spiritual to rise above by subduing or repressing the physical. See man and God in yourself; in nature; in others! All inspires Whitman: "Echoes, ripples, and buzzed whispers ... loveroot, silkthread ... and vine" (25). As an individual, Whitman speaks more to his own self and body and the physical, but there is a transition, somewhat. In the last lines of Section 2 (lines 25-29), the focus is both individual and universal (26). Whitman "exists" as an individual voice, especially in creating (talking about) his poem, and much of Section 5 (28-29) suggests that people's individual experiences unite them. Union with God is personal, as is sexuality (29), and mourning is both an individual and a "communal" experience (30).

But overall, maybe Whitman's self is bound up with the greater, representative voice being established. That completes him -- unity with, speaking for, and experiencing things/life with others. I'm just one man, but I'm just like the rest of you, he seems to suggest. Sections 13 and 15 both portray the broader "landscape" of American labor (35; 37-40), but Section 26 is the most striking. Section 15, though, gives a sense of community (38-39) -- everything is ongoing / in motion, and one gets the feeling of being drawn into a diverse national community; everything is taking place and occurring; 'somehow you're a part of it all.' There are times when everyday life is "gritty" (37, for example), but Whitman lyricizes it still. Section 26 is a wonderful 'listing,' recitative, musical feeling where everything has life and is its own song.

Section 46 is the most transcendental, perhaps (79-81), and Section 49 reaffirms both life/birth and death (83-84); it feels like the creation of the poem itself. Labor unifies and gives life, too, and throughout the poem, the realism of everyday life is, like Whitman's body and sexuality, physical and a union; the "metaphysical" prose is the individual voice; these two come together as the "voice" of America -- both the physical and spiritual, and the individual and society.

Notice Section 6: "What is the grass?", asks a child to Whitman (29). It's the individual ("the flag of my disposition") -- and God / the spiritual  (the "handkerchief of the Lord"). It is a "uniform hieroglyphic" -- society, perhaps; all in one? It is birth and life ("a child ... the produced babe"). It is death again, too ("the beautiful uncut hair of graves"). But it is life once again. It is both, like a cycle. Notice the poem is composed of 52 separations -- the number of weeks in a year. Unlike Melville, Whitman says that society can be transcended by embracing it, not by rejecting it. The individual, both physically and spiritually, is complete and is united with life. The lawyer/narrator is a voice (as is Bartleby) who has been awakened to the grim reality. Whitman awakens others to reality, but for him, it is beautiful. He is an individual speaking for society, rather than trying to escape it, and that is the freedom that Melville's novel never sees or expresses.