Bartleby the Scrivener (Part 1 of 2)

In a previous post, I discussed the claim that autism is a social construction; that in many ways, it is a product of modern society; and that autism hadn’t existed – in fact that it couldn’t have existed – before the diagnostic label known as autism had emerged. This is a somewhat controversial claim of course, and so it should be properly understood before we go any further. First, I should make it clear that the social constructivist perspective to autism does assert that in all likelihood, the various core biological and neurological aspects that are currently associated with as autism have been around since man existed. Yes indeed – there would always have been those people who experienced extreme sensitivity to sensory stimuli; who thought in patterns or pictures rather than in symbolic language; who found social interactions difficult, confusing, uncomfortable, or scary. None of this is new.

So to say that autism hadn’t existed before it was identified is merely meant to acknowledge and emphasize that the institutions associated with this specific label hadn’t yet existed; that the social and cultural ideas, stereotypes, beliefs, expectations and misconceptions regarding autistic people hadn’t yet existed; that relevant therapies and special education programs hadn’t yet existed; and that autism as a source of identity and understanding of one’s self hadn’t yet existed. So in the mid-1800s, for example, you simply couldn’t have been autistic. You might have had all the traits that would qualify you for an autism diagnosis today, for sure, but at the time, these traits would have been ascribed with very different meanings, interpreted differently, and framed differently by both you and others.

But the question arises: how would such a person been labelled back then?

An interesting way to try and approach this question is by asking how present-day autistic people – diagnosed late in life – were seen, labelled, and treated before they received their autism diagnoses. This is a question I often ask my interviewees, and the answers I receive are as interesting as they are varied. For an idea of the sort of answers I’m getting, it’s enough to take a look at this great post by Misplaced Mermaid (awesome blog title, btw – I like the mermaid metaphor better than the alien metaphor, though they’re admittedly quite similar) to appreciate just how many words, labels, categories, titles and adjectives are used to describe someone who for various reasons, just doesn’t quite “fit in” (of course, “doesn’t fit-in” is just another vague sort of label, isn’t it?). This is helpful in trying to imagine how autistic people (or, more accurately, people who today would have been labelled autistic) would have been seen and labelled before the category of autism ever existed.

An important thing to remember is that autism – fluid and dynamic as this category may be – is in fact quite fixed and steady compared to the labels one would have been ascribed with prior to the emergence of this label. Before, a person would have been said to be stupid by one group of people, and brilliant by another; labelled introverted by one, and outspoken by another; deemed crazy in one context, and holy in another. This is why so many people find relief and comfort in being diagnosed with autism later in life – finally they can stop negotiating a thousand different labels – some of which are actually in contradiction to one another – and settle on one single label that is supposed to replace all the others (of course, it doesn’t always fulfill that purpose).

But anyway, I digress. My point is this: claims that various historical figures were autistic need to be taken with a pinch of salt, as they say. They’re never entirely accurate. Sure, it’s an interesting intellectual exercise. And yes, it has very important political implications (namely, that autism can be a valued form of difference rather than a deficit or impairment) as well as research implications (e.g., that vaccines or modern-day pollutants do not cause autism). But given the very different social and cultural contexts in which people of the past lived, autism – as we currently understand and frame it – is just not a relevant category. It is an anachronism. Sort of like saying Jean of Arc was a feminist, or that Julius Caesar was Italian.

Right. Glad that’s over with. This very long introduction was merely a caveat for what this post is actually meant to be about – Herman Melville’s marvelous short story published in 1853: Bartleby the Scrivener.


It was recently mentioned to me that Herman Melville, the American novelist, has been said to be autistic (or that he had Asperger’s syndrome – though given the intrinsically inaccurate nature of both these claims, for the reasons outlined above, this is nitpicking). You can read about this claim here if you’re interested (“Writers on the Spectrum” by Julie Brown). It makes for an interesting read, surely, especially if you have read and loved Moby Dick; there are definitely parts in this novel when even the most enthused reader must stop for a moment and note that the author was really, really, really interested in whales. Like – really.

No, no – this doesn’t prove a thing. In mentioning Melville’s apparent obsession with whales I wasn’t intending anything but to make a humorous anecdote. Nor does Julia Brown’s engagement with Melville’s rigid breakfast habits, late onset of speech, preference to withdraw from the company of others, awkward social demeanor and difficulties with making eye-contact indicate anything but a curiousity… Ok, enough with this cuteness. Let’s face it: If the statements about Melville are correct (and I’ll leave this to be determined by others much more skilled and enthusiastic about this sort of thing than I am), then it’s a safe bet that had he been alive today, he could have safely been said to be autistic. And why not? Melville is certainly a respectable addition to the seemingly ever growing “historical figures with Asperger’s” club. Granted, I personally have no urge or desire to act as a gatekeeper for this club. I’m quite happy to sit in the stands, and quietly sulk over the inaccuracy of it all.


If Melville had indeed had all the traits that today would have indicated an autism spectrum condition, then it is probably not a coincidence that Bartleby the Scrivener, the protagonist of Melville’s story that bears his name, is himself so stereotypically autistic. Except he can’t be stereotypically autistic, because autism hadn’t existed. Which means that the autism stereotype (or rather, in this case, the Asperger’s stereotype) hadn’t existed. So Bartleby is not a stereotype. And yet so many of the traits with which Melville describes him are commonly associated with Asperger’s. Here are a few quotes that I highlighted from the book (page numbers refer to the Kindle edition):

“Meanwhile Bartleby sat in his hermitage, oblivious to every thing but his own peculiar business there”. – 178-178

(Bartleby tends to get extremely focused on his work to the point of being oblivious to his surroundings)

“His late remarkable conduct led me to regard his ways narrowly. I observed that he never went to dinner; indeed that he never went any where.” – 179-180

(Bartleby withdraws from society, and avoids social gatherings and interactions)

“He lives, then, on ginger-nuts, thought I; never eats a dinner, properly speaking;” – 183-184

(Bartleby is a picky eater; in fact, he only ever eats this one type of food)

“I had a singular confidence in his honesty. I felt my most precious papers perfectly safe in his hands.” – 224-228

(Bartleby is not inclined to deception or theft)

“He did not look at me while I spoke, but kept his glance fixed upon my bust of Cicero, which as I then sat, was directly behind me, some six inches above my head.” – 299-301

(Bartleby avoids eye-contact)

“”I would prefer to be left alone here,” said Bartleby, as if offended at being mobbed in his privacy.” – 321-322

(Bartleby is uncomfortable with his privacy being invaded)

“If he would but have named a single relative or friend, I would instantly have written, and urged their taking the poor fellow away to some convenient retreat. But he seemed alone, absolutely alone in the universe. A bit of wreck in the mid Atlantic.” – 342-344

(Bartleby is socially isolated)

“Going up stairs to my old haunt, there was Bartleby silently sitting upon the banister at the landing. “What are you doing here, Bartleby?” said I. “Sitting upon the banister,” he mildly replied.” – 481-483

(Bartleby interprets questions literally)

“”No: at present I would prefer not to make any change at all.”” 499-500

(Bartleby is resistant to change of any kind)

That’ll do for now, I suppose. In my post about Lars and the Real Girl, I mentioned how pointless it is to try and diagnose a fictional character. That it’s just speculation, anyhow. I still think it is pointless, but I have to admit that when this character was written at a time when autism hadn’t yet existed, and by an author who presumably would have been diagnosed with Asperger’s had he been alive today – then there’s actually something quite interesting (and confusing) about this sort of speculation. Is Bartleby autistic? How would this question even be properly phrased? It would need to be something along the lines of “assuming that Bartleby was an actual person; and assuming he had been alive today; (and assuming he had access to diagnostic services); would he have been diagnosed as autistic?” That’s a lot of ifs. Trying to resolve this intricate matter in any intellectually honest way would take way longer than I intend this post to be (this post in already way longer than I intended it to be). So I shall resolve this question the same way I resolved my query about Lars and the Real Girl – by tossing aside my objections, and simply proposing this: Let’s assume Bartleby was autistic. It will have to do. Sorry if you feel you’ve been cheated out of a long dialectic over the ontological status of cognitively deviant past fictional characters – but let’s just leave that one for another time.

Oh dear. I’m already at over 1600 words and I haven’t even started making my point about Bartleby yet.

Well then… To be continued.

Bartleby the Scrivener (Part 2 of 2)


14 thoughts on “Bartleby the Scrivener (Part 1 of 2)

  1. hello, i get your blog ..HAVE WE MET IN PERSON BEFORE

    i ask this because I HAVE ASPERGERS ,i take part in a lot lot research

    from lot universities ..,london ,manchester,sheffield,norwich and YES

    CAMBRIDGE .have got lot results..i have met in person ..UTA FRITH

    speaking with her for 45 mins .my e.mail if you would like a chat ask

    me any thing is,

    i am married 13 years we have 2,boys and 1.girl .WE LIVE IN MARCH.CAMBRIDGESHIRE

    mark________________________________ > Date: Fri, 7 Mar 2014 11:30:35 +0000 > To: >

    1. Hi Mark.

      Thanks so much for offering to help. No, we never met, but I would certainly appreciate the opportunity to meet up for a chat. I will email you over the next few days. Have a lovely weekend.


  2. The more of this blog I read – the more I start asking myself “Is Ben really as NT as he thinks he is?”.

    The apparent desire to be as accurate, and truthful, as possible, such as this, for example “…It would need to be something along the lines of “assuming that Bartleby was an actual person; and assuming he had been alive today; (and assuming he had access to diagnostic services); would he have been diagnosed as autistic?”…” could have come straight from the keyboard of a spectrumite.

    Or perhaps the autistic attention to detail and desire for clarity is rubbing off on you? 🙂

    1. 🙂 I do think I’m as NT as I think I am (well, obviously), but it’s true that I have an inclination to be as accurate as I possibly can. It’s certainly possible that this desire for clarity and attention to detail are rubbing off on me from my autistic friends and interlocutors, but they’re also particularly crucial in my discipline. When writing about people, accuracy and clarity are extremely important, because in some ways at least, they’re the antidote of stigma and stereotype. And while social anthropology is often guilty of sacrificing clarity for the sake of accuracy, at least in academic writing, I love the fact that this blog gives me a chance to try and achieve both. I’m very flattered that you think I’ve succeeded.

      1. Oh, I do think you have – at the expense of brevity, of course! 🙂

        Please excuse the extended metaphor below!

        I watch NTs taking shortcuts all the time in interactions with one another. It seems to me that their trains of thought always follow the same lines. So they could start in London, one could declare “Here we are in Brighton!” and all would nod along, being mutually quite familiar with every station in between that led, inevitably, to Brighton.

        But whenever I took a shortcut in conversations with friends and family as a kid they would accuse me of changing the subject. I could never understand why they hadn’t followed my train of thought to Hastings. After all, we all started in London!

        As I grew older, I gradually learned that my train of thought and those of other people often followed different rails from the starting point. In vain would I list each station on the way, with full descriptions, to make sure that they were with me. Usually, I found that they were stubbornly on the Brighton line, didn’t even want to follow me to Hastings, and even accused me of attempted derailing.

        In many such small ways we are told that we are wrong, from the moment we start to try communicating. When everyone tells you that leaving London means that you end up in Brighton, it becomes harder and harder to try to explain that Hastings is an equally valid destination; and, since no-one wants to hear about the stations in between, they express thoughts that you are crazy to come to that conclusion. They’ve always ended up in Brighton. They’ve never been to Hastings. All the rails and trains inside Victoria are parallel to one another; they obviously must all end up in Brighton! They don’t see the subtle divergence of the rails as their train leaves the station. They are so busy chatting to one another on the Brighton train that they don’t notice the points which send my train to Hastings. 🙂

        That is why, in communication, we tend to be very careful to ‘show our work’. Which, I’m afraid, tends to make NTs think we are verbose and monopolise the conversation. Written communication is easier; we can be as precise and accurate as we need to be. Although that leads to ‘walls of text’ that are dismissed as ‘teal deer’ (TL;DR – ‘Too Long; Didn’t Read’).

        If you ever manage to explain autistic experiences and viewpoints to NTs in such a way that the NTs can understand us, and vice versa, you’ll deserve all the prizes available!

  3. Reblogged this on All these things I can never describe and commented:
    I’d like to start an occasional discussion on
    autistic characters in literature.

    Bartleby originally came to me as a reading recommendation from a former colleague, an ex civil servant whistleblower who had been forced out by HM Revenue and Customs for preferring not to desist from doing so.

    I don’t think I could analyse it better than this.

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