Melville & Beckett

December 18: Herman Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener concluded its two-part serialization in Putnam’s magazine on this day in 1853. Melville had enjoyed a considerable reputation for some of his earlier novels but, say some biographers, his more recent humiliation over Moby Dick caused him to publish the novelette anonymously. Below, the now-famous ending, in which the narrator, having heard that Bartleby became “a subordinate clerk in the Dead Letter Office in Washington,” reflects on the scrivener’s obscure life and death:

Dead letters! does it not sound like dead men? Conceive a man by nature and misfortune prone to a pallid hopelessness, can any business seem more fitted to heighten it than that of continually handling these dead letters and assorting them for the flames? For by the cart-load they are annually burned. Sometimes from out the folded paper the pale clerk takes a ring:—the finger it was meant for, perhaps, moulders in the grave; a bank-note sent in swiftest charity:—he whom it would relieve, nor eats nor hungers any more; pardon for those who died despairing; hope for those who died unhoping; good tidings for those who died stifled by unrelieved calamities. On errands of life, these letters speed to death. Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!


Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape was published on this day in 1959. It is regarded by many Beckett scholars as unique in two aspects, being Beckett’s most autobiographical and most optimistic play. The autobiographical elements do not include the device of the tape recorder itself — Beckett said that he had only once seen such a machine, and while writing he had to send for an instruction manual to clarify his stage directions. As for the optimism, some of Beckett’s comments at least predict that playgoers might find this play more heartening than his others:

…it will be like the little heart of an artichoke served before the tripes with excrement of Hamm and Clov. People will say: good gracious, there is blood circulating in the man’s veins after all, one would never have believed it; he must be getting old.
Being optimistic only relative to Endgame is not cause for unlimited cheering. As Krapp plays back his past he often approaches love, happiness and sense, and always yanks the plug:
TAPE: Spiritually a year of profound gloom and indulgence until that memorable night in March at the end of the jetty, in the howling wind, never to be forgotten, when suddenly I saw the whole thing. The vision, at last. …What I suddenly saw then was this, that the belief I had been going on all my life, namely — [Krapp switches off impatiently…]
KRAPP: Just been listening to that stupid bastard I took myself for thirty years ago….

 


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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