Barkleby the Scrivener!


Bartleby the Scrivener, Herman Melville, 1853

Simone is tired of taking pictures of me and wanted to take pictures of her dog instead. So cute! He made an almost perfect scrivener, except he had a tendency to look happy, which is quite out of character. These pictures make me nostalgic for “Wishbone.”

I am one full year behind in my blogging. Meaning, I am posting about books that I read a year ago. Look, y’all, I’m a reader. I love to read. I have to read. I do it everyday. Writing posts takes time though, which I have none of during the school year. Taking pictures takes time too. I am trying to catch up. I reread Bartleby the Scrivener to prepare to write this. It’s a 90 page novella, so rereading didn’t take up too much time. I had some pretty poignant thoughts about this one, and I wanted to go over it again so I could express them to you adequately.

The story is set in a law office and narrated by the principle lawyer. He sets about to tell the tale of a very odd law copyist, or scrivener, that he employed, providing ample descriptions of his other scriveners for contrast. Compared to his colleagues Bartleby is something of a non-entity. While they exhibit signs of indigestion, drunkenness or ill-temper, Bartleby quietly does his copying, rarely ever behaving like a living organism with human needs.


The trouble begins when Bartleby refuses to do certain tasks. He answers requests from his employer with his signature phrase “I prefer not to,” and declines any further explanation of his behavior. The narrator is clearly befuddled by Bartleby’s behavior and does not know how to proceed. Employees are supposed to obey their employers, but there’s something so pallidly, passively helpless about Bartleby. He’s like an under-pigmented, bottom dwelling fish, incapable of thriving on land.

As the story proceeds, Bartleby prefers not to complete an increasing number of tasks. He remains in his workplace, but does no work. The narrator struggles to know what to do. He knows what is expected of him as an employer. He should throw Bartleby out on the street, but every time he determines to do this, a feeling of sympathy and concern swells up in him. What will become of this man who is so ill-suited to the world?

As Bartleby is such a blank, mysterious character, many interpretations can apply to the story. This is my blog, so I’ll tell you mine. Not quite every person has a brain capable of the functions required to live successfully and independently in human society. Not quite every person can adapt their behavior and personality to the demands of the world around them. Bartleby cannot, or prefers not to, take the actions necessary to function as an employed adult. The narrator grapples with the expectations of his role as an employer and his moral feelings as a compassionate person. The sad reality he faces is that the world does not provide a place for people like Bartleby.

You can see this story as commentary on mental illness, capitalism, individuality, free will or anything else you see in it. Trying not to give away the whole story, I do see a comment from Melville on the tendency of institutions to degrade human morality. Sad, sad, sad, but true. The story is bleak, but I found the narrator’s internal debate over how to treat Bartleby very touching.

Hold on while I Find some Quotes for You:

Now, the utterly unsrumised appearance of Bartleby, tenanting my law-chambers of a Sunday morning, with his cadaverously gentelmanly nonchallance, yet withal firm and self-possessed, had such a strange effect upon me, that incontinently I slunk away from my own door, and did as desired.

I believe that this wise and blessed frame of mind would have continued with me, had it not been for the unsolicited and uncharitable remarks obtruded upon me by professional friends who visited the rooms. But thus it often is, that the constant friction of illiberal minds wears out at last eh best resolves of the more generous.

You might like Bartleby the Scrivener if:

  • you hate Ayn Rand (and, really, what reasonable person doesn’t?)
  • you care about the misfits in this world, not the lovable, ragtag misfits, but the unlovables who need our care
  • you care about Trancendentalism

You might not like Bartleby the Scrivener if:

  • you have no interest in hearing about the habits and habitat of mid 19th century law copyists

Final Thoughts:

I like it. This is not a book for those craving adventure, but one for those who love a tale about the lack of social justice entailed in a capitalist system. Does that describe you? Give it a read.

Lyrical Ballads

Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner

Lyrical Ballads, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1798

Notable for:

  • initiating the Romantic Era in literature. 
  • containing the first known Public Service Announcement about albatross curses.

In 1798 Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth wanted to go on a walking tour of the Lake District in northern England.  Their conversation went something like this:

Wordsworth: Would you like to go on vacation?

Coleridge: Yes, but I haven’t any money.

Wordsworth: Hmm.  Shall we write some poems?

Coleridge: That will surely provide the necessary funds.

So they each wrote some poems and published a little volume called Lyrical Ballads.  The publication funded their walking tour and launched a new era in English literature.  Jealous?  Are you wishing you were a Romantic poet and this was your life?  I wish that.  Almost every day.


In 1800 Wordsworth produced a second, highly modified, version of Lyrical Ballads.  He removed the best poem in the original volume, Coleridge’s “Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner.”  I read both versions.  “Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner” is a ballad about a sailor who shoots an albatross. Why? Why!  Killing the bird dooms the entire crew.  Without giving too much away, I’ll just say that they spend some time undead and the mariner must spend eternity spreading the message “Did you know that the gods love the albatross?  Well they do, so don’t mess with them!”  It is creepy and wonderful and one of my favorite poems.

The majority of the remaining poems are by Wordsworth.  It took me a long time to get through this volume, because I have a limited attention span for Wordsworth.  He was dedicated to making poetry more accessible to the Joe Plumbers of his time by using simpler language than his predecessors with their predilection for ornate style, classical references and sporadic Middle English phrases.  Ironically, I don’t find Wordsworth all that relatable.  In poems such as “The Female Vagrant,” “The Complaint of a forsaken Indian Woman” and “Song for the wandering Jew” Wordsworth writes from the perspective of common people, but ends up romanticizing and dramatizing their experiences so thoroughly that the poems feel disingenuous and bizarre. I mentioned before that I think his attempts to emulate Robert Burns failed.   Wordworth wanted to write about being a poor farmer, but he was not a poor farmer so his odes to poverty and rural living lack Burns’ sincerity and vitality.  Wordsworth is much better when he writes about his own experiences, as in “Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey.”  You can probably tell that good old WW is not my favorite Romantic poet (Keats! Coleridge!), but I found myself enjoying “Tintern Abbey” immensely.  I was actually inspired by the sentiment contained in the poem, and I can definitely relate to Wordsworth’s description of himself recalling scenes of natural beauty to ease his mind whilst in the city.  I do that.


You may like Lyrical Ballads if:

  • you love Romantic poetry.
  • you are interested in the origin of the Romantic movement.

You may not like Lyrical Ballads if:

  • you are not a huge fan of William Wordsworth.

Final Thoughts: This is an incredibly important work in the history of English literature.  If you’re a literature nerd, you should read it.  If you’re more casual in your poetry reading, you would probably prefer selected poems by these two authors.

The Mysteries of Udolpho

Mysteries of Udolpho

The Mysteries of Udolpho, Ann Radcliffe, 1794

Notable for:

  • providing the prototype for the Gothic novel.
  • influencing later authors including Jane Austen and Edgar Allan Poe.

I am the only one who will suffer if I turn out to be wrong about this, so I’m gonna go ahead and say it: this is the worst piece of literature on the Book List.  This has to be the nadir of my journey through the English canon.  I just don’t understand how Poe and Austen could have taken this as an influence and gone on to write anything worthwhile.  It’s so bad in so many ways! Ughghghghgh.

Radcliffe does one thing (only) well.  Her descriptions of European scenery are lovely.  As a young reader I was always tempted to skip over descriptive passages.  Who cares about the sunset; get back to the plot.  As a mature reader, I could read that stuff all day.  Tell me more about the shadows on the mountains!  Dear author, please continue surveying the shrubs that grow in the region you chose for the setting of your novel.  If you don’t have infinite patience and appreciation for details of landscape, there is nothing for you in The Mysteries of Udolpho.  Everything else sucks.  Plot, pacing, characterization all suck.  So much.

I just tried to summarize the plot for you, but I got too filled with rage.  These bullet points on why I hate this book will have to suffice:

  • Plot movement is stiflingly, exhaustingly slow.  So many scenes and plot lines could be eliminated with no effect on the overall story.
  • The protagonist, Emily St. Aubert sucks so much.  Every time something happens to her she faints.  Which means that every scene takes three to a billion times longer than necessary, because Radcliffe pauses the action every few sentences to inform the reader that Emily has yet again fainted and been revived.  Here’s an example of how a scene in this book might go:

Random Character: I have bad news.

Emily: *Swoons.  Revives*

RC: Your father has died.

Emily: *Swoons.  Revives*

RC: He asked you to burn all of his journals.

Emily: *Swoons.  Revives*

RC: He asked to be buried in the monastery nearby.

Emily: *Swoons.  Revives*

  • Swooning is not an acceptable response to danger.  Very ineffective.  This would be a better story if the first time Emily swoons she gets eaten by a wolf.
  • Radcliffe’s idea of mystery and suspense is to withhold all of the interesting information until the last 20 of 600 pages.  For example, Emily sees something really scary and of course passes out.  Radcliffe waits another 300 pages to explain what she saw.  That would an acceptable literary device if those 300 pages contained anything else compelling enough to hold the reader’s interest.  But they don’t.
  • Characterization is weak.  Radcliffe just tells you that the villain, Montoni, has a mean look in his eye.  She does nothing else to make him seem scary.  He doesn’t actually do anything too frightening until about page 400.  Yet, Emily swoons 50 times from fear of him before page 400.
  • All the supernatural phenomena are explained in the end.  Just like an episode of “Scooby Doo,” the ghosts turn out to be dudes in costumes.  I like my ghosts to be scary ass ghosts, not just regular guys wearing cloaks.  I liked “Scooby Doo” as a kid, but I always hoped that just once the swamp monster wouldn’t take of his scales and confess to being a local businessman.
  • I have to stop.  This book fails in many other ways, but I’m losing interest so you must be too.

Final thoughts: Don’t read it.

Charlotte Temple

So downtrodden.

So downtrodden.

Charlotte Temple, Susanna Rowson, 1794

Notable for:

  • being the most popular American novel until Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  What?  Yes!  And you’d never heard of it, huh?

Charlotte Temple is another of those morality tales for women.  Just like Evelina and Clarissa it warns of the danger that seductive men pose to innocent, susceptible ladies.  Charlotte Temple, however, is much more susceptible than either Evelina or Clarissa.  Those venerable ladies mount sustained resistance to their would-be seducers.  Charlotte just gets confused and does whatever the closest person to her tells her to do.  Sigh.

Poor Charlotte is pretty English girl of just fifteen when Mademoiselle La Rue, a teacher at her boarding school, colludes in her seduction by a handsome young soldier named Montraville.  Her teacher!  Outrage!  La Rue is evil.  Charlotte, La Rue and Montraville go to America.  Montraville really does love Charlotte at first, but he abandons her to marry someone rich, as you do.  When he finds out that Charlotte is with child he sends some money through a f(r)iend who pockets the money and tries to seduce the ruined Charlotte himself.  Our downtrodden protagonist, pining for her loving and morally upright family back in England, appeals to La Rue.  The conversation goes something like this:

Charlotte: It’s pretty much your fault that I’m here.  Can you help get me out of this mess by buying me passage back to England?

La Rue: Whatever.  I’m busy with trying to marry this gullible rich guy and sleeping around.  Also, you’re poor and gross and a buzzkill.  Get off my porch.

I would not call Charlotte Temple a great work of literature by any means, but it is my favorite of the 18th century seduction novels that I read, mostly because it is mercifully brief at only 82 pages.  That leaves little, but still some, room for preaching.  Rowson writes in a melodramatic style that is laughable, but entertaining.

Here’s an example:

“’Oh, my father!’ cried Miss Eldridge, tenderly taking his hand, ‘be not anxious on that account for daily are my prayers offered to heaven that our lives may terminate at the same instant, and one grave receive us both; for why should I live when deprived of my one friend.’”

This novel contains some truly, gut-wrenchingly sexist sentiment.  Rowson describes Charlotte’s mother’s face as “tempered so sweetly with the meek affection and submissive duty of the wife.”  My apologies if you lose your lunch after reading that.  Here’s another piece of drivel, “Look, my dear friends, at yonder lovely Virgin, arrayed in a white robe devoid of ornament; behold the meekness of her gait; her handmaids are Humility, Filial Piety, Conjugal Affection, Industry, and Benevolence; her name is CONTENT.”  See ladies, the path to happiness is filial piety, even if your dad is an asshole.

You might like Charlotte Temple if:

  • you like books that are short.
  • you like melodrama.
  • you have a strong stomach when it comes to sexism.


You might not like Charlotte Temple if:

  • the quotes above made you queasy.

Final thoughts: I am so glad I’m done reading 18th century literature.  This genre of novel is worthless.  Worthless!  I find it hard to care about the astoundingly avoidable problems of the 18th century female literary heroine.  If Charlotte’s parents had just switched this conversation:

Parents: Stay away from men.

Charlotte: Why?

Parents: We can’t tell you.  It’s indelicate.  We must protect your innocence.

for this conversation:

Parents: Stay away from men.

Charlotte: Why?

Parents: They are rascals.  They will make you think they love you and then abandon you pregnant in the New World.

Charlotte: What does “pregnant” mean?

Parents: Take a seat, this may take a while.

none of this nonsense would have happened.

Sarah Wentworth Morton


Sarah Wentworth Morton, poems, late 1700s

Sarah Wentworth Apthorp Morton was such a popular poetess in her day that she earned the moniker “American Sappho.”  If you have read any Sappho, you will understand the magnitude of that compliment.  As a native Bostonian, Morton’s poems contain distinctly American subject matter.   I read just two of her poems, the epic Ouabi and her most remembered work The African Chief. 

The African Chief is a stridently anit-slavery poem.  Morton laments the death of a captured African chief.

Ouabi is an epic poem in four cantos.  The story is essentially that of the love triangle between Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot  if Lancelot were a strapping young European who abandons society to wander in the North American wilderness and is taken in by a kind, wise and powerful Indian chief.  The Lancelot figure then of course falls in love with the chief’s lovely bride.  Drama ensues.  Morton’s compassionate yet romanticized view of Native Americans is certainly out of date and may be why this poem has been largely forgotten.  However, she writes incredibly beautiful verse.  Her meter and rhyme are impeccable and unlike Freneau, the last poet reviewed on this blog, she achieves lovely style without needing to twist her sentences into Yoda-like syntax.

A Quote from Ouabi:

Her limbs were straighter than the mountain pine,

Her hair far blacker than the raven’s wing;

Beauty had lent her form the waving line,

Her breath gave fragrance to the balmy spring.

You might like the poetry of Sarah Wentworth Morton if:

  • you like epic poems.
  • you are interested in 18th century attitudes toward minorities.

You might not like the poetry of Sarah Wentworth Morton if

  • you are offended by 18th century attitudes toward minorities.

Final thoughts: Morton writes beautiful poetry.  Her subject matter is controversial and whether you find her perspective refreshing (she’s obviously in favor of better treatment of minorities) or offensive, her poems are certain to arouse some uncomfortable feelings.

Phillip Freneau

the death of Death

Phillip Freneau, poems, late 1700s

Notable for being:

  • the “Poet of the American Revolution.”
  • a proto-Romantic.
  • an originator of the Gothic genre in poetry.

Phillip Freneau’s epithet, Poet of the American Revolution, makes him sound more exciting than he is.  I think he is more notable for what he wrote about than how well he wrote.  He published anti-British poems, which was a big deal at the time, but they don’t hold much interest now as Americans no longer need to be persuaded against being a British colony.  I’ll tell you about a few of his poems.

The Wild Honey Suckle is your typical Romantic “flowers are pretty, life is fleeting” type of poem.

The Indian Burying Ground romanticizes the Native American method of burying the dead in a seated rather than reclining position.  Freneau is for it, because instead of sending the dead off to eternal rest, one sends them to sit among their friends.  I don’t know. It’s tough to relate to the 18th century attitude toward Native Americans.  I’m not a fan.

The House of Night is my favorite of the Freneau pieces that I read, but I don’t love it.  The poem consists of 136 quatrains with an ABCB rhyme scheme.  The narrator relates the tale of a spooky adventure that befell him when he was out walking one night.  He wanders into a garden and then into a house where Death himself lays dying.  Our narrator speaks with Death for a while, who fears his approaching demise as he is worried that he won’t get into heaven.  Really.  The poem ends with a description of Death’s funeral and all the spooks that attend.  It’s not the best poem I have ever read in terms of style, but I like the supernatural subject matter.  The narrator views the death of Death as a good thing, but I’m not sure it wouldn’t result in zombie apocalypse.  Freneau is the first truly American author on this list, which is pleasant because when our narrator describes the trilling of a bird it is a North American bird and he mentions the Chesapeake, which is a body of water that I know.  Feels nice.


Dim burnt the lamp, and now the phantom Death

Gave his last groans in horror and despair —

“All hell demands me hence,” — he said, and threw

The red lamp hissing through the midnight air.

You have to admit “All hell demands me hence,” is a pretty great thing to say.

You might like the poetry of Phillip Freneau if:

  • you read all of Wordsworth and are looking for yet further poems about flowers.
  • you like ghost stories.

You might not like the poetry of Phillip Freneau if:

  • you are offended by the “Noble Savage” attitude.
  • you are offended by mediocre poetry.

Final thoughts: No, I did not completely mess up the carpals and metacarpals!  Death has abnormal anatomy specialized for clutching the soul from your body.  Duh.

Robert Burns

Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, Robert Burns, 1786

Bobbie Burns is notable for:

  • being the most beloved Scottish person ever.
  • writing Auld Lang Syne, the song you mumble through on New Years Eve.
  • writing in Scots dialect.
  • living hard and dying young.
  • influencing the Romantic poets.
  • being a farmer rather than an  aristocrat, which was uncommon for poets at the time.

Robert Burns is a big deal, a cultural icon.  He was voted “Greatest Scot” over William Wallace in a poll conducted by a TV network.  People love this guy, myself included.  The crazy part about his enduring popularity is that his poems are not very accessible.  18th Century Scots dialect is hard to read.  Here’s the first stanza of “Tam o’Shanter”:

When chapmen billies leave the street,
And drouthy neibors, neibors meet,
As market days are wearing late,
An’ folk begin to tak the gate;
While we sit bousing at the nappy,
And getting fou and unco happy,
We think na on the lang Scots miles,
The mosses, waters, slaps, and styles,
That lie between us and our hame,
Where sits our sulky sullen dame.
Gathering her brows like gathering storm,
Nursing her wrath to keep it warm.

Not only is that difficult to understand, but it’s hard to imagine what it’s supposed to sound like.  I’ve been reading Burns aloud to myself in the best Scottish accent I can muster.  It’s not perfect, but damn is he ever an amazing poet!  Even if you’re not sure what he’s talking about you can’t miss the life-affirming vitality of his poems.  They are so full of energy they make me want to jump up and accomplish stuff.

Just listen to this:

You feel happier now, right?  Poems like this are why I am obsessed with literature.  He’s apologizing to a mouse for wrecking her house with his plough!  How wonderful is that?  And it sounds glorious.  When I read literature of this quality I feel that maybe the world is a wonderful place full of beauty after all.  Seriously, Robert Burns makes me excited about life.

I feel weird about the Romantics claiming Burns as an influence.  I see very little resemblance between Burns’ vigorous and sincere odes to farm living and Wordsworth/Coleridge/Keats’ effete lamentations about the lives of the rich and useless.  Sidebar: I love Coleridge anyway.  The Romantics admired Burns, but they never pulled off his style or subject matter.  It’s like when Lady Gaga claims David Bowie as a musical influence.  You can’t just paint a lightening stripe on your face and pretend that your music bears any relation to David Bowie’s music!

Anyway, back to Burns.  My recommendations:

  • The Twa Dogs—a dialogue between a fancy, well-bred dog and a lower class farm dog about whether the rich or the poor have better lives.
  • To A Mouse—OMG, possibly the best poem ever.  Also the origin of the title “Of Mice and Men.”  This poem will break your heart and build you a better heart.
  • Tam o’Shanter—a delightful, mystical cautionary tale warning husbands of the dangers of staying out too late drinking.  Yay.
  • The Auld Farmer’s New-Year-Morning Salutation to His Auld Mare Maggie—an ode to his horse.

You might like the poetry of Robert Burns if:

  • you like things that are good.

You might not like the poetry of Robert Burns if:

  • you can’t be bothered reading Scots dialect.  It’s not exactly easy.

Final thoughts: If you’ve read this far, I think you know how I feel about Robert Burns.  He’s a champion.