Another Bartleby Surprise

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.

Picture of Bartleby from Crown of Horns
Bartleby, a defiant little rat creature from Jeff Smith’s book, Crown of Horns

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.

Reflections on Moby-Dick and The White Whale

Last week, a friend sent along a message about November 14, noting that this day marked the publication of Moby-Dick by Herman Melville. That would have been back in 1851, making the book 168 years old. He also said that makes November 14, White Whale Day, too, so I thought I’d take some time to reflect upon a few things related to my blog.

I launched The White Whale in January with a post about “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” another story written by Melville, and its connection to a recent trip to NYC. Since then I have published fifteen blog posts, and I’ve done a tremendous amount of personal writing, I’d venture to say more than I’ve done at any other point in my life. My audience has grown over the course of the year, and as of today, there are 204 likes on my Facebook page, which may not seem like much, but I’m content, especially when I compare that figure with other blogs. My most popular blog post, so far, has been about the first Fourth of July in Montrose, Pennsylvania, the small town where I have lived for over fifteen years.

Along with the theme here of celebrating the birthday of Melville’s Moby-Dick, I’d like to say that I intended to reread the novel in the past year, tackling at least a page a day, but that fell by the wayside. I really do enjoy Melville’s writing, though, and in the past few years, I’ve stuck by my decision to have my students read “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” but I couldn’t get beyond the first few chapters of Moby-Dick. I was in graduate school the last time I read through the novel, and the book was on the oral exam list for my master’s degree. They asked me about the “shark sermon” delivered by the cook, Fleece, in Chapter 64, and I believe that at some point during my response, they decided he’s wriggled enough with an attempt to answer this question, let’s move on to something else. They had found my Achilles’s heel.

Cover of Moby-Dick (1930, Random House)
Cover of Moby-Dick published in 1930 by Random House

For those of you interested in reading Moby-Dick, or anyone that might also need a refresher, I’ve discovered that The New Bedford Whaling Museum in Massachusetts stages an annual marathon reading of the novel in January. For those who can’t make the trip, there’s a live stream available. This year the event is scheduled for the first weekend in January, and according to their website, the reading takes 25 hours. I’m hoping to hear the shark sermon, once again, as I continue to wrestle with that demon from my past.

I’d also like to say a few words about the thumbnail image I’ve been using for the past year. The illustration of Moby Dick rising out of the water, clutching a rowboat with panicked sailors, is well-known, as any internet search quickly reveals. The image appears on page 510 of the 1896 edition of Moby-Dick. From what I’ve gathered from a blog post about Moby-Dick’s artwork at Apollo, there had been several illustrated editions of Melville’s novels by this point, but it wasn’t until this edition that Moby-Dick had been published with illustrations, probably because of its mediocre sales. Enter Augustus Burnham Shute, who completed four illustrations for this edition.

Intrigued by his work, I’ve been ever slow to discover much information about A. Burnham Shute, as he signed his illustrations. According to another website, Shute is also credited with illustrations for Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain. Two illustrators were hired at first, but as the publishers worried about meeting the book’s deadline, they brought on Shute to complete drawings for some of the chapters at the end of the book. What’s interesting, however, is that looking through copies of this book, Shute doesn’t sign his name to any of these illustrations whereas signatures of the other two illustrators are clearly identified with their pieces. I’m left wondering if the publishers wanted to disguise that Shute had been hired to ensure the project’s finish. Nevertheless, Shute is given recognition in modern editions, at least in the book’s credits, even if his name doesn’t appear alongside the artwork.

As I’m wont to do here at The White Whale, though, I started chasing something deeper about A. Burnham Shute, but there’s really very little to be found about him. No Wikipedia page. No biographies. Even my Norton Critical Edition of Moby-Dick includes no information on Shute’s biography or drawings. Many of his drawings are collected at the Wikimedia Commons, but in terms of biographical information, I couldn’t find anything.

It wasn’t until I searched newspapers for his obituary that I found anything specific about his life. According to the notice in The Boston Globe, which only runs a few paragraphs, Shute worked right up to his death on March 16, 1906, which lately had included book illustrations. The article states, however, that Shute first gained recognition as a newspaper artist, suggesting that Shute may have been the first artist to have his drawings published in The Boston Globe. Beyond his professional life, there’s almost nothing mentioned, so that remains a mystery, something to be chased on another day. Maybe the next time November 14 comes around I’ll have more to share about his life.

For now, I’d like to say thanks to my friend, John, for inspiring this post. Sometimes all it takes is a few words of encouragement, and I’ve found a new topic that interests me enough to do some research and writing. And likewise, thanks to all my readers over the past year as we continue to plumb the depths.