Scribblers and scriveners: Poe, Melville's Bartleby, and antebellum literary New York

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Critics have variously read "Bartleby, the Scrivener," a tale about the death of a legal copyist and putative Dead Letter Office worker, as Melville's statement about failed attempts at communication, the lack of an audience for the American literary artist, and his own increasingly futile search for readers. As he penned "Bartleby," Melville probably had in mind another author of serious and significant literature compelled to eke out a living by writing for magazines. That author was Edgar Allan Poe, who, from late 1844 to early 1845, labored at hackwork a mere seven blocks away from Wall Street to support himself and his family. Drawing on the recollections of friends, acquaintances, and business associates who knew the ill-fated writer, Melville describes his scrivener in terms that recall contemporary accounts of Poe during his New York years, and he includes in "Bartleby" allusions to "Some Secrets of the Magazine Prison-House" and "The Cask of Amontillado." Undoubtedly aware that Poe's dreams for sustained editorial and artistic independence had failed to materialize, Melville created a narrative about a man whose skills cannot secure for him the life he desires-a story about a thwarted writer, a figure whom Melville, in 1853, very likely feared he had become.

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Poe Studies: History, Theory, Interpretation

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