Last year around this time, I launched The White Whale with a post not about Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, but rather his short story, “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” It’s such a curious story, and when I had written about it before, I had been obsessing about John Jacob Astor, a name mentioned by the narrator at the beginning of the story, which to my surprise, I had spotted on the façade of New York’s Public Library on a trip about a year ago now. As my family knows, I have a habit of repeating words or phrases that sound interesting to me, and just like the narrator in “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” I found myself compelled to reiterate that name, John Jacob Astor, many times to the irritation of my wife and children. Much of Bartleby was out my system, however, by this December, when another surprise fell into my lap.
As a high school teacher, I don’t receive many Christmas gifts from students, the routine usually having been dropped by the time I see them. This year, however, one of my students gifted me the graphic novel Crown of Horns from the Bone series by Jeff Smith. Seemed rather unusual, at first, but I realized her thoughtfulness since I had steered her toward graphic novels to help meet her requirement for independent reading. When I thanked her, I told her I’d make sure to read it over break so I could talk to her about it when we returned to school. As it turned out, it was the first book I read in the new year.
Here’s the surprise, which I would never have encountered, if it weren’t for the circumstances and the kindness of my student: I found another character named Bartleby. Yes sir! Bartleby! Bartleby! Bartleby! The name rolls off the tongue just like John Jacob Astor, and this new Bartleby is just as much a vagary as Melville’s Bartleby.
From what I can tell, Bartleby is a baby “rat creature” who Fone Bone, one of the main characters in the Bone series, has adopted. The rat creatures are monsters who attack the protagonists, but for whatever reason, this baby ran away from the others and joined the Bones. He’s also unusual, because as I’ve learned, rat creatures usually have their tails and ears cropped at some point, and although Bartleby lost his tail, he still has his big, fluffy ears. He’s rather cute, although baby rat creature doesn’t seem like a very attractive classification.
More importantly, he’s a nonconformist, perhaps the reason for his name. Melville’s Bartleby is considered by many to be literature’s ultimate nonconformist, who instead of doing as he’s told, simply states again and again, “I would prefer not to.” Along with the opening of Moby-Dick, this is probably Melville’s most famous line. It’s also the thing that marks Bartleby as a symbol for breaking the rules, which obviously relates to Jeff Smith’s Bartleby. Not only has he broken away from all the other monsters, leaving the great herd behind, but he looks different from them. It’s a great name to emphasize his nonconformity. It’s interesting to note, too, that Bartleby was a name invented by Melville, at least according to some sources I’ve read. I don’t know if that’s been verified by scholars, but it does add even more individuality to the character by having a name that’s never been heard before. And undoubtedly, when I came across the name in this graphic novel, the allusion to Melville’s Bartleby was instantaneous.
Of course, now I wanted to know more about the author, Jeff Smith. Turns out, he’s a graduate of the Ohio State University just like me. He started writing comic strips while attending Ohio State, having published pieces with some of the same characters from the Bone series in the school’s newspaper. In fact, he cites Moby-Dick as his favorite book, according to his Wikipedia page, which presents even more evidence for Smith choosing the name Bartleby with Melville’s story in mind. I’ve read that Bone also has many references to Moby-Dick, something I would have never imagined.
Besides just another great example of serendipity, which always intrigues me, this experience serves as a great reminder to keep an open mind about the world. There’s little chance I would have ever picked up the Bone series on my own. Sure, I’ve read a few graphic novels. I’ve enjoyed them, but if it weren’t for the thoughtfulness, and kindness, of one of my students, I would have never found this book. And maybe that’s the ultimate takeaway, that I should always try to lean into new things, because who knows what may come. It’s not a bad lesson to take with me into a new year and a new decade.