John Jacob Astor

The weekend before Christmas my family and I went to NYC to see a college basketball game at Madison Square Garden.  The trip was sponsored by the basketball booster club at my son’s high school, and besides watching the game, we had a few hours to explore the city on our own.  I knew it would be crowded, but I didn’t realize the horde of tourists who descended upon the sidewalks at this time of year.  And of course, we were part of that mass pushing our way toward the tree at Rockefeller Center like pilgrims on their way to Mecca.

Besides the people, the basketball game, and the gifts still needing to be purchased, I had Bartleby on my mind.  My juniors were reading Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, The Scrivener” at the culmination of our unit on Dark Romanticism.  It was their first encounter with Melville.

As for me, I’d been reading about Bartleby since college.  I’d shared the story with some of my high school classes over the years; other times, I preferred  just moving on to something a little more palatable to their tastes such as Emerson and Thoreau.  Maybe just as difficult, but certainly less enigmatic.

This time around, instead of reading the story, I decided to listen on my Echo while I graded papers, figuring why not get two things done at the same time.  What stood out, at the beginning of the story, was the narrator’s esteem for John Jacob Astor.  You sense that this man was someone influential, someone well-respected by the narrator, and who obviously becomes a sort of foil to poor old Bartleby and his preference for doing nothing.

As I began to fall under Bartleby’s spell, my daughter, who might be a bit precocious for a sixth grader, wandered into the kitchen and quickly began interrogating me.  As I tried to explain, she said, “And you’re making your class read this?  Your poor students.”  I chuckled.  She may have been right.  “Well I prefer not to listen,” she said, leaving me alone once more.

Call me weird, but contrary to my daughter’s opinion, I thoroughly enjoyed listening to Melville’s story, and now, with it fresh in mind, I was pushing and pulling my family through the swarm at Bryant Park.  Eventually, we found some breathing room in front of the New York Public Library, and after some quick photos on the steps, I spotted something special in the building’s facade.  There, at the top of the building, was inscribed a dedication to John Jacob Astor. 

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He wasn’t fiction. He was real.  John Jacob Astor!  I shouted his name, letting the sound roll off my tongue as Melville writes in his story.  John Jacob Astor!  He was real.  I shouted his name again, risking that I might be disowned at that very moment by my family. 

I should have known, perhaps.  But no one ever told me, there wasn’t a footnote or anything to suggest the reality of John Jacob Astor, and I had never been to the New York Public Library until that day in December.  Now, of course, I know that Astor, at the time of his death in 1848, was the richest man in America, and in his will, he left the equivalent of 11.6 million dollars to build the city’s library.  Now I know.  And yet I wouldn’t have it any other way.  There is something so beautiful about chasing the truth, especially when it’s serendipitous.  It was definitely better, and I prefer it that way.