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Herman Melville’s famous novella, Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street (1853) focuses on a mysterious clerk, who increasingly resists social interactions with others and refuses to accept any change. Whenever he is asked to do something in the office, he merely stares at a blank wall and politely repeats the phrase: “I would prefer not to.” His growing resistance and isolation become so extreme that they ultimately lead to his death, for he refuses to leave the premises, even after the office has been forced to move somewhere else. This strange tale is narrated not by Bartleby but by the conventional lawyer who originally hired him and who eventually ordered the move. After Bartleby’s death, the lawyer projects his own false explanations onto this person he could not understand. Citing the rumor that Bartleby once worked in the “dead letter” office where he must have acquired a case of fatal depression, the lawyer tries to clear himself of any responsibility for his death, concluding sympathetically, “Ah Bartleby, ah humanity!” This sentimental comment reveals more about the lawyer than it does about Bartleby, for by treating him as a metaphor for the human condition, he persists in misunderstanding him and measuring him against himself. It is this sentimentalized misunderstanding that characterizes most popular representations of ASD, where the person with autism is made to stand for some form of victimization or some other abstract condition but is rarely allowed to define himself.
In Representing Autism (2008) , Stuart Murray presents a rich reading of Melville’s story, calling it “the great literary text of autistic presence.” Murray was struck by Bartleby’s similarity to his own son with Asperger’s syndrome, who, whenever his teachers urged him to play with others instead of playing alone, used a similar polite form of resistance: “I’d sooner not, thank you.” What Murray perceived in Bartleby was an intelligent man who could do detailed work but who was totally isolated in his own world, avoiding social interactions with others and using minimal, repetitive language. Murray writes:
“I want to claim that 'Bartleby the Scrivener' presents a radical narrative of autistic presence, and that it does so some 90 years before the condition began to be recognized within the terms of clinical medicine (at the time of the story's composition the attitude towards disability in the US was a process of exclusion and education, with the creation of numerous institutions which in fact served to harbor the poor as much as care for the impaired). There are two aspects to this claim. The first is that the representation of Bartleby is recognizably that of an autist, and that the text offers a clear account of autistic behavior. The narrator's descriptions of Bartleby time and again echo the 'triad of impairments' (communication, imagination and socialization) central to any outline of autism. The second element to the claim is what we might call the critical consequences that come with the admission of the fact of autistic presence, the manner in which Bartleby's subject position determines the various narratives that might interpret the story as a whole.” (Stuart Murray)
Because autism had not yet been defined at the time Melville wrote this haunting story, one is bound to wonder whether he personally had any connection to ASD. In 1826 his father Allan Melville described him as being "backward in speech and somewhat slow in comprehension," traits sometimes associated with autism. Although Melville enjoyed some early successes in his career as a writer, his greatest disappointment came in 1851, when he finally published his grand work Moby Dick, which achieved neither critical nor commercial success and was basically ignored. After that disappointment he allegedly became so reclusive that some thought he was going insane. Yet he continued writing, publishing another long novel called Pierre in 1852, which proved to be another critical and financial disaster. As if that were not sufficient discouragement, in 1853 a disastrous fire at his New York publisher’s office destroyed most of his books. This was the context in which he wrote "Bartleby the Scrivener" (1853). Despite his lack of success, Melville was still a prolific writer who married and had children. In 1867, before reaching the age of 20, Melville’s second son Malcolm shot himself to death after having argued with his father. Some suspect he was autistic, others blame the indifference of his father.