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Melville's unknown pathology :


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Melville's unknown pathology : the humoral theory of disease and low grade lead poisoning in _bartleby the scrivener_
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Bogin, Gerard
University of South Florida
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Dissertations, Academic -- English -- Masters -- USF   ( lcsh )
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ABSTRACT: Melville wrote Bartleby the Scrivener as a literary portrayal of the Humoral theory of disease. Virchow disproved that theory five years after the novella was published, suggesting Melville was humanizing an unknown pathology. A clinical assessment of the text reveals low-grade lead poisoning, which best explains the strange behavior, abnormal appearance, and premature death of the character Bartleby as depicted by the author. In conjunction with the textual substantiation, historical evidence indicates that at the time Melville wrote the work, one in ten people he encountered suffered from the effects of the same disease. Informed with the identity of Melville's unknown pathology, the work can be critically read in terms of the Kubler-Ross Grief Cycle as an archetypal first-person account of a population whose societal norms are disrupted when confronted with the victims of undiagnosed lead poisoning.
Thesis (MA)--University of South Florida, 2010.
Includes bibliographical references.
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by Gerard Bogin.
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Melville's unknown pathology :
b the humoral theory of disease and low grade lead poisoning in _bartleby the scrivener_
h [electronic resource] /
by Gerard Bogin.
[Tampa, Fla] :
University of South Florida,
Title from PDF of title page.
Document formatted into pages; contains X pages.
Thesis (MA)--University of South Florida, 2010.
Includes bibliographical references.
Text (Electronic thesis) in PDF format.
Mode of access: World Wide Web.
System requirements: World Wide Web browser and PDF reader.
3 520
ABSTRACT: Melville wrote Bartleby the Scrivener as a literary portrayal of the Humoral theory of disease. Virchow disproved that theory five years after the novella was published, suggesting Melville was humanizing an unknown pathology. A clinical assessment of the text reveals low-grade lead poisoning, which best explains the strange behavior, abnormal appearance, and premature death of the character Bartleby as depicted by the author. In conjunction with the textual substantiation, historical evidence indicates that at the time Melville wrote the work, one in ten people he encountered suffered from the effects of the same disease. Informed with the identity of Melville's unknown pathology, the work can be critically read in terms of the Kubler-Ross Grief Cycle as an archetypal first-person account of a population whose societal norms are disrupted when confronted with the victims of undiagnosed lead poisoning.
Advisor: Tova Cooper, Ph.D.
Dissertations, Academic
x English
t USF Electronic Theses and Dissertations.
4 856


Melville’s Unknown Pathology: The Humoral Theory of Disease and Low Grade Lead Poisoning in Bartleby the Scrivener by Gerard Bogin A thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts Department of English College of Arts and Sciences University of South Florida Major Professor: Tova Cooper, Ph.D. Philip Sipiora, Ph.D. John N. Huy DC. DACBN. Date of Approval: November 5, 2010 Keywords: Plumbism, Burton, Cr oton, Aqueduct, Schizophrenia Copyright 2010, Gerard Bogin


i Table of Contents List of Tables ii List of Figures iii Abstract iv Chapter 1: Introduction 1 Chapter 2: Pathological Reading 3 Chapter 3: Croton Aqueduct 12 Chapter 4: Melville’s Use of Reality 20 Chapter 5: Critics and Schizophrenia 25 Chapter 6: Argument for Lead Poisoning 30 Chapter 7: Critical Reading 43 Chapter 8: Conclusion 50 Works Cited 51


ii List of Tables Table 1 Medical disorders that ca n induce psychiatric symptoms 32 Table 2 Medical disorders that ca n induce loss of appetite 33


iii List of Figures Figure 1 The Kubler-Ross Grief Cycle 43


iv Abstract Melville wrote Bartleby the Scrivener as a literary portrayal of the Humoral theory of disease. Virchow disproved th at theory five years after the novella was published, suggesting Melville was huma nizing an unknown pathology. A clinical assessment of the text reveal s low-grade lead poisoning, whic h best explains the strange behavior, abnormal appearance, and premat ure death of the character Bartleby as depicted by the author. In conjunction with the textual subs tantiation, historical evidence indicates that at the time Melville wrote the work, one in ten people he encountered suffered from the effects of the same disease. Informed with the identity of Melville’s unknown pathology, the work can be critically read in term s of the Kubler-Ross Grief Cycle as an archetypal first-person account of a population whose societal norms are disrupted when confronted with the vict ims of undiagnosed lead poisoning.


1 Chapter 1: Introduction This critical reading of Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener demonstrates that the narrative can be viewed in terms of the Kubler-Ross Grief Cycle as an archetypal first-person account of a populati on whose societal norms are disrupted when confronted with the victims of undiagnosed low-grade l ead poisoning. To date, there have been many numerous interpretations of Bartleby the Scrivener Early criticism centered on identifying the inspiration for the namesake character. Critics such as Lewis Mumford and Egbert Oliver sought to identify the source of inspiration for the character of Bartleby. Mumford suggests the origin of the character is autobiographical and lie with Melville himself while Felheim argues that Bartleby stems from “Thoreau’s withdrawal from society” (Felheim 432). Post-World War II critics widened their lenses to more diverse possibilities of meaning. One su ch critic, Nathalia Wright, argues that Bartleby the Scrivener is a scientifically orientated work informed by the Humoral theory of disease (Wright 3). The Humoral theory was disproven and replaced by the Germ Theory five years after Melville publishe d his work. If Melville was utilizing the antiquated Humoral theory, then he was por traying the effects of a pathology without knowing its actual causation. Lite rary critics such as Morris Beja have attempted to identify the unknown disease described by Melv ille. Many hypothesize mental illness as the cause, with specific diagnoses offered such as schizophrenia and autism. A clinical analysis of the text shows that low-grade lead poisoning better explains the observed appearance, behavior, and fata lity of the character Bartleby, as depicted by Melville.


2 Historical evidence discussed later in this work reveals that, following the 1848 completion of the Croton aqueduct, New York City was affected by cases of widespread lead poisoning. Tests show that in th e years after the Croton aqueduct became operational, New York City tap water ofte n exceeded the modern EPA guidelines by a factor between 100 and 200. This thesis links the pathological c onsequences of that construction project to Melvi lle’s novella and proposes that the author was humanizing the effects of plumbism with his characterization of Bartleby and also created the narrator to reflect the stages of emotional response negotiated by society when confronted with undiagnosed victims of disease.


3 Chapter 2: Pathological Reading The behavior and appearance of Bartleby has lent itself to many interpretations. Critics have suggested that Me lville’s portrayal is reflectiv e of Marxism (Foley 87) while others suggest it is an expre ssion of Existentialism (Rogin 2). An alternative to these readings is that the narrative is driven by pathology. The Narrator’s tale is one that reflects the confusion, frustration, and guilt when a person is forced to deal with a fatal undiagnosed illness. The strongest evidence for an illness driven reading of the text is the ending. Bartleby dies a premature and non-traumatic d eath. Although the Narrator is providing a subjective retelling and is theref ore unreliable, the fact of Ba rtleby’s death is concrete. Melville opens different aspects of the work for interpretation, such as Bartleby’s possible loss of sight, but his death is not debatable. Th e Narrator views the lifeless corpse. Due to its form, all the related detail s are informed by the knowledge of this final event. As a result Melville ’s Narrator can be seen as engaged in an exculpatory confession to relieve himself of guilt over the final outcome. On a basic level, Bartleby the Scrivener can be read as a retrospective firs t person narrative of a non-medical lay person forced to deal with a fatal illness in a stranger. That elemental reading can be extrapolated based on historical context to infer a greater si gnificance that is discussed later. As a pathology driven narrative, Bartleby the Scrivener can be seen as occurring in four parts. The first part consists of the introduction where the Narrator defines


4 himself and his world as he perceives it. The second part begins with Bartleby’s employment and ends with the Narrator’s unde rstanding that Bartleby is ill. The third part proceeds from this epiphanic moment to Bartleby’s premature death as the Narrator struggles with his own fear and guilt over the sick stranger who will not leave. The final part of the narrative comes in the form of a literary post script and serves as a type of selfabsolution. The Narrator rationalizes his innocence in Bartleby’s death. He implies his action or inaction ultimately did not ma tter because Bartleby had previously worked in the Dead Letter office and anyone who coul d do that work was somehow destined to suffer like Bartleby. Melville begins his work with the Narrator informing the reader of his particulars. He is an older man, self-described as “rather elderly” (3) who is a lawyer that sees himself as “eminently safe man” (4). He also imparts the fact that the story he is about to relate has already happened and is theref ore a retrospective, so immediately two important facts are establishe d. The Narrator is educated but not medically trained and he knows the final outcome. Melville’s Narrator proceeds to describe his office and his staff. His description of his employees establishes another im portant aspect of the work. The Narrator is an observant man who is unlikel y to search for causation. He is the antidetective and content if things just work. For example, the Narrator explains at length the odd appearance and behaviors of Nippers, Turkey, and Ginger Nut, but does not offer any explanations for them. The Narrator do es not hypothesize that Turkey’s face which “blazed like a grate full of Christmas coals” (5) was the result of drinking alcohol at lunch, instead the Narrator just accepts this daily odd occurrence, as well as those peculiar to Nippers and Ginger Nut, as a ma tter of course. The Narrator considers the


5 arrangement of two odd employees who only pr ovide the work of one as “a good natural arrangement, under the circumstances” (10). Only behavior far from societal norms, like Bartleby’s, is sufficient to coerce the Narrato r into the escalating responses which drive the story. With the introductory section of th e narrative, Melville se ts up the remaining action. He creates the Narrator as a resp ectable and observant non-doctor who is the position to describe the signs a nd symptoms of the title charact er lead up to the turning point of the narrative The second part begins with Bartleby’s hiring and ends with the Narrator’s epiphany. The Narrator admits he does not reco gnize Bartleby’s situation until later, but the retrospective nature of th e retelling suggests the Narrator is foreshadowing his later discovery. A closer look reve als the many textual clues that suggest the end stages of a progressive pathology in Bartleby. A series of proverbial red flags paint the picture of a young male exhibiting numerous signs and sympto ms consistent with that of a wasting disease such as weight loss, pale skin, loss of appetite, a manic like episode, flat affect, failure to thrive, and altered behavior Despite the brevity of text, Bartleby the Scrivener provides the reader with a large amount of information regarding the behavi ors and appearance of Bartleby. Any informed reader must take into account the unreliability of the narrator; however, the subjectivity of the narrator is offset by corroborating observations by other characters such as Turkey, Nippers, Ginger Nut, the Client, and the Grub-man. According to the observations of the Narrator, Bartleby is a young, approximately twenty-five-year-old male who is single and believed to have no children. Although his age is never specified, the na rrator describes Bartleby as “a motionless young man” (11).


6 At another point, the narrator describes Nippers as a “whiskered sallow, and upon the whole, rather pirati cal looking young man of about five and twenty” (7). While they do not necessarily need to be analogous, the description of Nipper’s reveals that the narrator’s concept of young is approx imately “five and twenty.” (7). The Narrator’s first impression upon meeting Bartleby is telling. He recalls “I can see that figure now-pallidly neat, pitiably re spectful, incurably forlorn!” (11). Two themes seen throughout the work from this point forward are Bar tleby’s weight and complexion. Repeatedly, the Narrator comm ents on how pale and how thin Bartleby appears, often at the same time. When the Na rrator discovers that Bartleby lives at the office, he notes “that so thin and pale, he never complained of ill health” (24). Both pale skin and weight loss are common symp toms in a wasting disease. The most common observation made by the narrative’s characters about Bartleby’s appearance is his pale complexi on. In its current forty-six-page form, as published by Viking Penguin, the terms “pallid,” pallor,” and/or “pale” are used ten times by the Narrator to describe Bartleby. The Narrator consistently remarks about how pale The second most common observation regard ing Bartleby pertains to his weight. The terms “thin”, “lean”, “cadaverous”, and/or “w asted” are used eight times in the text. The use of “cadaverous” is most revealing as it foreshadows Bartleby’s fate. The term is used twice by the Narrator while discussi ng Bartleby. After disc overing Bartleby in his chambers on a Sunday, the Narrator is forced to walk around the block while waiting for Bartleby to vacate which results in him ru minating on the situation and describing his employee’s behavior as “cadaverously gentlemany nonchalance ” (21). Later in the narrative, the Narrator st ruggles with the fact that Bar tleby will not leave his office and


7 vows to not “permit him to enjoy his cadaverou s triumph” (32). Ultimately, the totality of Bartleby’s physical deterioration is impa rted to the reader through the Narrator’s description of Bartleby’s body shortly after his death: “Strangely huddl ed at the base of the wall, his knees drawn up and lying on his si des, his head touchi ng the cold stones, I saw the wasted Bartleby” (45). The descriptions of Bartleby’s appearan ce strongly suggest an ill person but just as compelling is the depiction of his behavi or. Following his employment, Bartleby does something odd; he works for an entire da y and night without stopping. This episode reveals two things. It is cons istent with a manic like episode often seen in diseases that alter behavior but it also highlights the Narrato r’s role as the anti-detective. He thinks nothing about the odd occurrence except to comment on Bartleby’s mechanical disposition. It is on the third day of Bar tleby’s employment when the Narrator first observes behavior he considers bothersome. Bartleby refuses work for the first time. It is here that the Narrator first comments on th e pathological flat affect that Bartleby would maintain until his death. The Narrator notes “H is face was leanly composed; his gray eye dimly calm. Not a wrinkle of agitation rippled him” (13). Dismissing the incident as a singular occurrence, the Narrato r attempts to engage Bartle by again a few days later. Again, Bartleby refuses which leads the Narrator to reflect on Bartleby’s behavior. It is here that the Narrator realizes that Bartleby seldom eats. The text of Bartleby the Scrivener reveals that Bartleby’s ect omorphic appearance is most likely due to a lack of appetite. The Narrator notes, “I observed that he never went to dinner; indeed, that he never went anywhere” (16). He also notes that the only sustenance Bartleby is observed to eat is a peculiar kind of bisc uit called a gingernut whose si gnificance to gastrointestinal


8 symptoms is discussed later. The Narrator c ontemplates the implications of what he has seen: “He lives then on gingernuts thought I; he never eats a dinner, properly speaking; he must be vegetarian then; but no he neve r eats even vegetables he eats nothing but ginger nuts” (17). Bartleby confirms that his lack of appetite is the result of gastrointestinal symptoms when he responds to the Grubman’s offer of dinner with “I prefer not to dine today,” (44) and explains why, “it would disagree with me; I am unused to dinners” (44). Loss of appetite is anothe r symptom associated with a wasting disease. To this point in the narrative, Melville establishes that Bartle by shows signs of a pathological appearance consistent with a was ting disease that the Narrator has failed to recognize. Bartleby also exhibi ts several episodes of varied altered behavior and a flat affect. Melville continues with the Narrator resolved to indulge Bartleby as an act of charity but then giving into human nature the Narrator backpedals and incites a confrontation with Bartleby. Bartleby refuses that request and an ev en simpler request. This latest refusal forces the Narrator to c ontemplate the situation which brings to light, Bartleby’s dissociative episodes. It is here that the Narrator first mentions that his scrivener would “throw himself into a stan ding revery behind his screen” (20). While certain critics, like Beja, sugge st that Bartleby’s dead wall reveries are psychological in nature, it is also possible to view these episodes as neurol ogical. Numerous pathologies can alter behavior. One classic cau se of behavior similar to Ba rtleby’s is a particular type of seizure called a petit mal or absence seizure. “A petit mal seizure is the term co mmonly given to a staring spell, most commonly called an ‘absence seizure.’ It is a brief (usually less than 15 seconds) disturbance of brain func tion due to abnormal electrica l activity in the brain”


9 Symptoms of a typical petit mal seiz ure include the following: “Sudden halt in conscious activity (movement, talking, etc.), No movement, Staring episodes (unintentional), Lack of awareness of surroundings Hand fumbling (especially with longer spells), Flut tering eyelids, Lip smacking (especially with longer spells), and Chewing (especially with longer spells)” (Medline Plus). While the typical petit mal se izure is generally short in duration, there are atypical ones that begin slower, last longer, and result in the patient having a short period of confusion or bizarre behavior as well as no memory of th e seizure. A petit mal seizure is just one possible cause for a ne urological episode. Despite Bartleby’s ill appearance and increasingly pathological behavior, the Narrator has not considered that Bart leby may be suffering from a disease. The third part of the story begins with the Na rrator’s epiphany. Afte r discovering that Bartleby lives at the office, the Narrator comes to the realization that he is dealing with an ill man. He declares “What I saw that morning persuaded me that the scrivener was the victim of innate and incurable disorder” (25) He is forced to consider the difficulties involved in attempting to help a person such as Bartleby. He states, “They err who would assert that invariably this is owing to the inherent selfishness of the human heart. It rather proceeds from a certain hopelessness of remedying excessive and organic ill.” (24) The Narrator contemplates the limits of pity. He codifies his position suggesting that pity serves a purpose but only to a certain point. The remainder of the narrative reveals the struggle to define that point. The Narrators first response is that he has exceeded his limit of pity and decides to fire Bartleby but is interrupted by Nippers The following day as Bartleby’s symptoms


10 progress, evidenced by longer dissociative epis odes, he refuses to even copy anymore. The Narrator, struggling with his emotions, st eels himself and resolutely fires Bartleby but attempts to assuage his guilt by giving his fired employee twenty extra dollars. Bartleby does not leave forcing the Narrator to recalibrate his p ity point while he oscillates between violent anger and charity. He resets his pity tolerance higher and decides to buy some Christian indulgence and tolerate Bartleby’s presence for the sake of his own soul. He states: “At la st I see it, I feel it; I penetr ate to the predestined purpose of my life. I am content. Others may have loftier parts to enact; but my mission in this world, Bartleby, is to furnish you with office-ro om for such a period as you may see fit to remain” (35). The Narrator’s new found Christia n attitude lasts until he is the target of derision from fellow professionals which forces the his hand and he takes the drastic step of abandoning his offices to escape the ill Bartleby and the Narra tor’s own conflicting emotions towards his sick employee. Afte r successfully detaching himself from his burden, the Narrator is again forced to face t hose same emotions with similar frustrating results. This time the Narrator’s response is to flee the scene and the city. Upon returning he learns of Bartle by’s imprisonment where he repeat s the cycle one more time. He engages Bartleby, attempts to intervene to assuage his guilt, and leaves frustrated with the results. The narrator is relieved of his physical burden wh en Bartleby dies but not of his guilt which prompts the fourth an d final part of the narrative. The post script reveals the guilt suffe red by the Narrator ove r Bartleby’s death because even “a few months after the scri vener’s death” (46) he is engaged in rationalizing his role in the outcome. Earl ier, at the turning point of the story, the Narrator minimized his debt to Bartleby when he realized that he was suffering from a


11 disease. He limits his obligation based on th e perceived severity of the problem or “a certain hopelessness” (24) but then struggles with this subjective measurement until Bartleby’s death. In part four, in an act of self-absolution, the Narrator implies that Bartleby was destined to suffer his fate no ma tter what, so therefore, his involvement in Bartleby’s fate is inconsequential. Ultimately, the final rationalization of the Narrator serves to reinforce a pathol ogical reading of Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener. It illustrates that the confusion, frustration, and guilt a non-medical lay person struggles with when dealing with a fata l illness extends even past the death of that person.


12 Chapter 3: Croton Aqueduct One tenet of fiction is that it requires no vested basis in reality. An author is free to write any scene, any character, or any narra tive, and none need be te thered to a real life corollary. In reality, many authors do use experiential components in their writing. Melville’s predilection toward incor porating autobiographical components, especially his experiences with illness a nd medical deformity, has been documented by authors such as Richard Sm ith. In order to read Bartleby the Scrivener as a fictionalized representation born of New York City’s st ruggle with widespread undiagnosed lead poisoning, it is necessary to id entify the historical analogue. Bartleby the Scrivener was first published in Putnam’s Magazine in 1853. That same year the Academy of Medicine met in Ne w York City to addre ss the possibility of widespread plumbism caused by New York City tap water. The issue stemmed from the 1848 completion of the Croton Aqueduct. Th e new conduit was designed to bring fresh drinking water to the city and replace th e current surface wells, which were easily contaminated. The problem was that the aque duct was constructed of lead pipe. Shortly following the completion of the new system, phy sicians in the city such as Dr. George Kingsbury began describing pati ents who were suffering from a strange assortment of symptoms that were difficult to diagnose. Eventually, lead poisoning was implicated in many of the cases. Physicians linking the cases of lead poisoning to the new water supply were met with strong opposition from many members of the medical establishment. Despite assurances at the time fr om those authorities, st atistics reveal that


13 water plumbism was indeed a widespread prob lem and affected a large percentage of the population in New York City, the setting of Bartleby the Scrivener and Massachusetts, the site of Herman Melville’s farm. The Croton Aqueduct is just one example of a larger trend. The mid-nineteenth century saw the advent of lead pipe use in water distribution. Due to availability, low cost, and ease of use, many municipalities in the United St ates and other parts of the world installed lead pipes to distribute drinki ng water. By 1900 lead pipes were being used in “85% of all large American cities in their water distribution systems” (Troesken 10). Cities and towns were not the only one s employing lead piping. Many farm owners in rural settings used lead pi pes to connect their houses to water wells and springs. The effects of those lead pipes are invest igated by Werner Troesken in his book The Great Lead Water Pipe Disaster. The central thesis of Troesken’s book is that “water related lead poisoning repr esents one of the world’s great environmental disasters. Yet few hi storical observers would have ever classified it as suc h, and most people today are unaware that lead water pipes were widely used in the mode rn world, let alone constitute a source of disease” (Troesken 199). Troesken documents that “lead water pipes ki lled or harmed many more people than were injured by events in Chernobyl, Bhopal or at Love Canal,” (Troesken 21) and have adversely affected “the lives of millions of people around the world” (Troesken 21) Pertinent to this reading of Bartleby the Scrivener is the correlation be tween the onset of Troesken’s “public health catastrophe” in New York City and Massachusetts and the timing of Melville’s novella.


14 Lead has been known as a toxic agent da ting back to the second century BCE, but the scientists and engineers who designed a nd built the public work projects in the midnineteenth century relied on a hydro engineering principle known as the Doctrine of Protective Power. This precept dictated that “lead pipes could be used safely when the associated water supply was hard or ot herwise encouraged the formation of an impermeable coating on the inte rior of the lead pipes” (Tro esken 17). The problem with the Doctrine of Protective Power is that it re lied on a time factor to enable the coating of the interior of pipes. In addition, many municipalities disreg arded the necessity of their local water to contain the leve l of necessary minerals requir ed (Troesken 17). If the water supply contained little or no calcium, then no protective coating was provided and lead leached into the water supply. The variation in the chemical constituen ts of drinking water explains why lead pipes caused more symptoms in certain areas of the country and few effects in others. Available statistics reveal that New York City and Massachusetts were significantly affected. Troesken documents that “between 1870 and 1940 lead levels in New York tap water exceeded the modern EPA guidelines by a factor from 100 to 200”(6) while at the same time “water-lead levels in parts of New England often exceeded the same guidelines by a factor from 100 to 1,000.” (16). To put these numbers in perspective, in several towns in Massachusetts “one need have consumed only 10-20 ounces of tap water per day to have ingested the same amount of lead as was contained in the recommended daily dose of abortion pills” (Troesken 16). The aforementioned lead levels were not isolated to a few households or even towns. A widespr ead study conducted during the same period suggests that throughout New Engl and “between one-qua rter and one-third


15 of the population that employed lead piping wa s lead poisoned due to lead contaminated water,” which means that in Massachusetts “between 10 and 12 pe rcent of the state’s population suffered from water plumbism” (Tro esken 115). Statistically, chances were that every one in ten people that Melville had contact with in his daily life were affected by undiagnosed water-borne lead poisoning. In New York City, evidence of lead -related symptoms began shortly after completion of the new aqueduct. Dr. James R. Chilton, a New York City chemist, was sent to examine tap water from houses in wh ich several inhabitants had become suddenly ill. After testing, he concluded that “the e ffect of lead from drinking of Croton water under such circumstances, is of frequent o ccurrence, but not rec ognized as such by the physicians, or rather not attributed by them to the true cause” (Troesken 7). One physician who did link the city’s new source of water to the strange illnesses he was treating was George Kingsbury. In May 1851, Kingsbury published a paper in the New York Journal of Medicine and Collateral Sciences entitled “Remedies upon the Use of Lead as Conduit or Reservoir for Water for Domestic Purposes, With Case of Lead Colic Resulting from That Cause.” Kingsbury begins the paper by summarizing the situation in the city since the introduction of the Crot on aqueduct. Physicians were examining patients with strange illnesse s and were unable to identify the cause. Kingsbury describes how “cases simulating lead colic” have been seen but the “usual well known causes of that disease” were not found, so “the sympto ms have usually been ascribed to other causes or left altogether unaccounted for” (308). Kingsbury also identifies hesitancy on the part of physicians to at tribute symptoms to the use of tap water because of the “seeming improbability of a sufficient amount of lead poison being held in solution by


16 the Croton water” (308). Ki ngsbury’s stated purpose for publishing his paper was to address the “use of lead pipe s, and the evils resulting ther efrom.” His case studies “are offered for publication with th e view of calling the attention of the profession, especially those residing in large cities which are s upplied with water from a distance conveyed through lead pipes.” (Kingsbury 309). Kingsbury details four recent cases of l ead poisoning he treated. One patient was a fellow doctor, and Kingsbury’s descrip tion bears similarities to details in Bartleby the Scrivener Kingsbury describes how his patient’s “appetite en tirely disappeared, his stomach rejecting all kinds of food,” and as a result the patient “rapidly lost flesh, his appetite diminished and he continually compla ined of excessive weariness” (310). Prior to Kingsbury’s evaluation, the patient consulted with several other doc tors to identify the cause of his symptoms. Initially he was told he was “neuralgic.” Kingsbury also mentions that the patient “was also freque ntly annoyed by the volunteered opinions of his medical brethren. One thought he had organic disease of some sort or other” (311). Finally, after five months of suffering, a gr oup of three physicians diagnosed the patient with lead poisoning and determined the source as “the Croton Water he was continually drinking” (Kingsbury 312). Dr. Kingsbury recounts three other pa tients whom he treated between May 1949 and August 1950, all suffering from diverse symp toms associated with lead poisoning. One patient was a medical student who liv ed in the same boarding house as the abovementioned doctor/patient. All four patients improved significantly when they stopped drinking tap water. In the end Kingsbury asks,


17 Is lead a proper substance to be us ed as a conduit for water for domestic purposes? Are not many diseases, such as colic, arthralgia, paralysis, rheumatism, and many other diseases, accompanied by obscure symptoms, traceable to the introducti on of lead into the system through the medium of water running through lead pipes? (309). The medical establishment at the time reacted with strong opposition to the possibility of water-borne lead poisoning. Kingsbury relates how fe llow doctors able to confirm their patient’s diagnosis via the pa thopneumonic blue line th at appears in the gums of late-stage lead poisoning victims refu sed to consider tap wa ter as the cause. He writes, “They [the treating physicians] were willing to admit they did not know the cause of the patient’s suffering but could not believ e there was sufficient lead in Croton water to induce them.” (312). Other physicians refu sed to even acknowledge lead poisoning as the cause of the unusual symptoms afflicting New Yorkers. At the time, Dr. Meredith Reese was the editor of the New York Medical Gazette and Journal of Health Reese dismissed Kingsbury as a “medical savant” who treats patients “under a monomania on the subject of lead poisoning” (Troesken 8). Referring to Kingsbury’s patients, Reese claims, “We have known some of them,” and he attributes their strange symptoms to overindulgence despite the presence of the tell-t ale blue gum line in two of them. Reese writes that the causes of the strange sympto ms were more likely “the effects of high living, generous wines, and still more misc hievous excess in sensual indulgence” while others were just “noted h ypochondriacs” (Troesken 8). The growing concern over possible lead poisoning in New York City tap water was sufficient enough that the Academy of Medicine addressed the issue in 1853, the


18 same year that Melville published Bartleby the Scrivener An entire session was dedicated to the subject. The medical docto r who chaired the discussion, Dr. Joseph A. Smith, dismissed any concerns, and most of th e attendees agreed. Smith “asserted that New York’s water was perfectly safe and free of harmful levels of lead. Most of the other doctors at the conference shared Smith ’s view that Kingsbury was mistaken and that there were no cases of water related lead poisoning in New York City” (Troesken 23). As a result, no steps were taken by th e city to investigate further. In 1936, researchers from Long Island University ran te sts to monitor lead levels in New York City tap water. They discovered that “whe n New York water was allowed to remain in service pipes for more than a few days, it w ould have routinely di ssolved enough lead so that water from taps contai ned about 4ppm 267 times the EPA standard and 40 times the level recommended by the United States Public Health Service in 1936” (Troesken 5). No official action was taken by the c ity to investigate further, but the New York Times “ran a very short story in which it recomme nded that homeowners in the city flush their pipes when returning home from summer vacat ions. The story was printed on page 21.” (Troesken 5) The city of New York did eventually acknowledge the issue of lead contamination in its drinking water. In 1992, 144 years after the installation of the Croton aqueduct, the City of New York took action. Troesken states: “The city began treating the public water supply with chemicals to help lim it the amount of lead leached from the interior of old water pipes” (5). As mentioned earlier, sta tistically, chances were that one in ten people that Melville had contact with in his daily life were affected by undiagnos ed water-borne lead poisoning. Evidence reveals that in the ye ars following 1848, New York City physicians


19 struggled with a number of residents suffe ring from a unusual symptoms sufficiently large enough to warrant a meeting of the A cademy of Medicine. Retrospectively, many of those cases can be attributed to undi agnosed plumbism; however, during the period Melville was writing Bartleby the Scrivener authorities did not have any conclusive explanation for those patien ts’ strange complaints.


20 Chapter 4: Melville’s Use of Reality As discussed previously, fiction need not be ba sed in reality, but in practice, often is. Some critics argue that the act of writing ca nnot be divorced from personal experience at all. In his book Creativity and Disease Philip Sandblom writes, “Whatever the source of creativity, art is always founded on experience; one cannot create from nothing” (11). Whether all fiction is informed by its author’s cognitive content is not the question addressed here; instead, Melville ’s use of personal experien ce—especially with illness, deformity, medicine, and science—is. For Bartleby the Scrivener to be read as a fictionalized first-pers on account of a person forced to de al with a victim of low-grade lead poisoning, it is beneficial to demonstr ate that the author was likely to ground his work in autobiographical deta ils and contemporary events. Melville is an example of Sandblom’s nexus between art and experience. Biographers and critics have documented numer ous correlations between Melville’s life experiences and his works. One of the best examples of life informing art is Melville’s first novel Typee based on his experiences on a South Seas whaling ship. In this text, as in others, experiential elements that frequently crossed over into Melville’s works were lifelong encounters with diseas e, infirmity, medicine, a nd death. Biographers have identified many of Melville’s autobiographica l episodes with disease and their literary corollaries. This close association betw een life and works becomes important when attempting to view Bartleby the Scrivener as a scientifically based work.


21 Brooke Blake-Taylor agrees with Sandblom ’s hypothesis. In her article “Science and Creativity: How Illness, Medicine, Psue dosciences, and Sciences Have Influenced Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville,” she explores Melville’s interactions with the medical sciences and their influence on his works. She writes, “Literature is not created in a vacuum; th ere are myriad of influences upon any one author. For Melville and Hawthorne, bot h shared common influences—the personal experiences associated with illness, injur y, and contact with doctors, scientists, or pseudoscientists—that has an influential role in shaping elements of their writing” (6). Specifically she notes that “M elville draws heavily upon his pa st nautical experiences, creating a detailed picture of life and death upon the seas and, more subtly, critiques of popular nineteenth-century scie nces” (6) Blake ci tes the earlier work of Richard Smith, MD, to illustrate her hypothesis. In his book Melville’s Complaint Doctors and Medicine in the Art of Herman Melville Smith offers a detailed dissection of Melville’s works whenever they reference disease or illness. He overlays literary points with known autobiographical personal and familial episode s that he believes influenced that piece of writing. For example, in Melville’s first work Typee Smith associates Tommo’s crippling condition with that of Melville’s sister He len Melville, who was born with a congenital condition resulting in lameness. Smith also suggests that pe rsonal health issues are evid ent in Melville’s writing. He discusses the incidence of back pain in Melville’s literature from early on. Smith writes: “Melville mentions back pain in near ly all of his writings, a complaint that would plague him in later years. Including it in Omoo may indicate that it began about this time when he was twenty five years old” (14). Evidence of back pain is also seen in Bartleby


22 the Scrivener When the Narrator describes his employees, he touches on Nippers’s ongoing battle with back pain. Me lville writes, “If, for the sake of easing his back, he brought the table lid at a sharp a ngle up to his chin. . If now he lowered the table to his waistbands, and stooped over it in writing, then th ere was a sore aching in his back.” (8). If a personal health problem such as back pain was represented by Melv ille in the text of Bartleby the Scrivener, is not unreasonable that other health related corollaries may exist. Back pain and lameness are just two exam ples of health issues that found their way into Melville’s writing. Smith documents more instances, citing at least ten novels that reference ailments th at Melville had personal know ledge of. Smith summarizes Melville’s use of nineteenthcentury disease and science: A chronological examination of Melvill e’s books in regard to his use of medical subjects reveals his attitude s about illness and medicine. He included many physicians and medical desc riptions in his works, as well as a number of medical metaphors whic h reflect the changes occurring in science and medicine in America duri ng the first half of the nineteenth century. Melville suffered no exotic or mystifying diseases; however his sailing experiences undoubtedly brou ght him into contact with many diseased and disfigured individuals. Along with an ability to assimilate dry uninteresting reports, his literary use of contemporary theories and trends is masterful (11) One of the contemporary theories Smith alludes to is the Humoral theory of disease; understanding it is integral to reading Bartleby the Scrivener as a medically driven narrative because it was how disease was contextualized at the time. Smith writes,


23 “the Humoral theory formulated by Pythagor as dominated medicine from 500 B.C. until finally refuted by Virchow in 1858,” which was five years after Bartleby the Scrivener was published. (125) Smith summarizes the no w disproven theory th at proposed that all living beings are composed of four elements: earth, air, fire, and water; each had a quality: dry, cold, hot, and mo ist. The four elements with their four qualities formed the four humo rs of the body: blood-hot and moist, yellow bile-hot and dry, phlegm-cold and moist, and black bile-cold and dry. The relative proportion of the four humors determined a person’s disposition, his mental qualities, and his state of health (125). Nathalia Wright argues that the novella is medical fiction based on the Humoral theory of disease. In her work “Melvill e and ‘Old Burton,’ wi th ‘Bartleby’ as an Anatomy of Melancholy,” Wright asserts that Melville was heavily influenced by Robert Burton’s book The Anatomy of Melancholy. In his text, Burton codified the longstanding theory originated by Pythagoras. Wright argue s that the novella’s four office workers are portraits of the four humors. She states th at Melville “purchased a complete edition of the work in 1848,” five year s prior to the publishing of Bartleby the Scrivener. Wright contends that “ Bartleby the Scrivener, published in November and December 1853, is [Melville’s] most concentrat ed study of melancholy and the work by him which perhaps owes most to Burton’s work, both in theme and in form” (3). Melville’s use of Burton is significant for the purpose of this work because it allows Bartleby the Scrivener to be viewed as a literary sketch of a c linical nature. At the time it was written, disease was understood in terms of the four humors. Melv ille was illustrating that theory, so Bartleby is not a victim of melancholy as it is viewed today, as a pervasive sadness. Instead,


24 Bartleby is a victim of mela ncholy as it was understood in 1853, an imbalance of humors that led to ill health and di sease. At the time an unknow n pathology would be described in terms of the four humors. The Humoral th eory was not disproven until five years after Melville published Bartleby the Scrivener At the time Melville wrote the work, he was illustrating the current medical theory for the cau sation of all disease, not just psychiatric ones.


25 Chapter 5: Critics and Schizophrenia Critically reading Bartleby the Scrivener through a medical lens is not a new development. Although no one has associated the narrative w ith the high incidence of lead poisoning in New York at the time the novella was written, many critics have commented on the suspected cause of Ba rtleby’s strange appearance and altered behavior, which the psychiatrist Henry A. Miller has named the “Bartleby Complex” (Sullivan 1). A review of the literature reveals a tendency to blame various mental illnesses. William Sullivan suggests that the “Bartleby Complex” is actually infantile autism. Agree or not, Sullivan argues that “Bartleby in every way fits the pattern of a reasonably successful, coping, autistic adult” (1). Sullivan explains that the real tragedy of the story is that Bartle by nearly found “the structured environment and understanding personal supervisor” he needed to flourish. Another psychiatric pathology that has more often been identified with th e story is schizophrenia. In a 1978 article published in the Massachusetts Review Morris Beja attempts to identify the most likely cause of Bartleby’s behavior. He writ es, “A clinical analysis of Bartleby would probably identify him as at least schizoid, probably schizophrenic. ‘Schizoid’ refers to a nonpsychotic pers onality disorder in which key traits are withdrawal, introversion, aloofness, difficulty in recognizing or relating to ‘reality’ or an acute over sensitivity coupled with an inability to express ordinary hostility or aggressive feelings” (556). Beja references at least six different works to support his statement. He specifically cites a case study in the British Journal of Medical Psychology as a real life


26 example of Bartleby. The article, entitled “Clinical Research in Schizophrenia—The Psychotherapeutic Approach,” was written by James Chapman, et al. In it, Chapman relates the history and the development of symptoms in a young male in a paper: History and Development of Symptoms. The patient, a young apprentice in Chartered Accountancy, was admitted to hospital in January 1958, at the age of 23 years…On leav ing school at 17 he embarked on a career of his own choosing, that of char tered accountancy with a City firm. For the five years his performance was beyond reproach. . . . The initial change was a general slowing up and impairment inefficiency in carrying out his usual ac tivities, both at work in the office and at home. . . . When setting out for work…he began to stop and stand still at street corners, aimlessly looking abou t for 5-10 min. A few weeks later, he stopped going to work altogether, and th ereafter, for a period of one year, he remained at home and did not leave the house except on one occasion for a few hours only. . . He preferred to stay up very late at nights. . In general he preferred to remain upright and would each day stand rigidly in the same spot for periods varying from 1 to 3 hours. . . . Movement by the patient was associated with visual perceptual distortion of the environment which he described at various times as “a flatness,” “a flat streak of col our,” “a painting,” “a wall”. .


27 . “I can do something about what I see For example I could turn round and look at this blank wall. Bu t I can’t do anything about sounds.” (Beja 555) Using Chapman’s case study to refine his diagnosis, Beja writes, If Bartleby is indeed psychotic, his disorder is probably the most common of all psychoses: schizophrenia. More specifically, I believe he displays the symptoms and behavior patterns of “schizophrenia, catatonic type, withdrawn.” He is detached, withdr awn, immobile, excessively silent, yet given to remarks or associations that do not make sense to others, depressed, at least outwardly apathetic and refraining from all display of ordinary emotion, possibly autistic, a nd compulsively prone to repetitive acts or phrases (“I would prefer not to”) (557). Some of the similarities between Bar tleby the character a nd the young patient in the case study are notable, but the resemb lance does not hold up under scrutiny. There are parallels in age and profession. The behavi or of standing for l ong stretches certainly brings to mind Bartleby’s dead wall reveries. Also similar is the increasing agoraphobic behavior. None the less, just as striking are the differences. The length of time for progression of symptoms is one important difference. In Bartleby the Scrivener the narrative takes place within a few months at best. Beja’s case study shows a very slow progression of symptoms wh ile Bartleby goes from high functioning to dead in a relatively short period. Also Bartleby never relates any se nsory disturbances nor makes any comments that could be construed as suc h. All of his responses to questions are in


28 context, and he never appears to deviate from being orientated to person, place, or time, which is a key symptom in diagnosing schizophrenia. Beja cites several other critical works to buttress his assertions, but despite the breadth of his work, he expr esses concern over the lack of “clinical” standards. He writes, “Although a number of commentators ha ve applied the term ‘schizophrenic’ to Bartleby, few have been much mo re specific than that or have pursued the implications of the term in its clinical sense” (Beja 557). In other words, crit ics are quick to use psychological terminology when analyzing Melv ille’s work, but often those critics are not using the terms in a co rrect medical framework. One critic who argues against Bartleby suffering from schizophrenia is the earlier mentioned Richard Smith, MD. He argues agains t a modern diagnosis of schizophrenia. Smith specifically responds to the critic Richard Chase who, like Beja, argues that “Bartleby is a study of schi zophrenia, the passivity and inactivity of Bartleby may represent catatonia.” (Smith 124). Smith counters that common supposition with textual evidence: “Bartleby became more communicativ e near the end of the story especially while in the Tombs. Such sympto ms argue against catatonia” (124). Smith’s observation of incr eased communication does seem to rule out catatonia, and in turn rules out Beja’s more clinical diagnosis of “schizophr enia, catatonic type withdrawn” (20). Smith compares Bartleby to the characters in another of Melville’s works to bolster his argument. Smith argues that “the example of emotional discord in Bartleby is not as extreme as the cases noted in Pierre which are more characteristic of catatonia and schizophrenia” (124).


29 Beja and Chase are examples of critics who refer to mental illness as a default diagnosis for Bartleby. For them, the questi on is not whether Bar tleby as depicted by Melville is suffering from a psychiatric di sease; instead they are concerned with identifying which disease afflicts Bartle by. A licensed physician could not be more specific with a diagnosis than Beja’s “s chizophrenia, catatonic type, withdrawn” diagnosis. This diagnosis ha s its own code (295.10) in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-IV (DSM-IV) published by the American Psychiatric Association. The DSM-IV documents the list of official psychiatric disorders as compiled by the American Psychiatric Association The problem with diagnosis 295.10 is that Smith’s argument about Bartleby’s increasing talkativity appears to rule it out, and a premature death, not caused by suicide, argue s against mental illness in general.


30 Chapter 6: Argument for Lead Poisoning Melville was humanizing an unknown pathol ogy in the context of the Humoral theory of disease. Why, aside from histor ical documentation, is low-grade plumbism the best explanation for the fatal disease depict ed by the author? How does plumbism, more commonly known as lead poisoning, best explai n the signs and symptoms that Melville fictionalized? The answer lies in a forensic a ssessment of the text. Bartleby the Scrivener details a premature and non-traumatic death preceded by altered behavior. During the narrative, the character of Bartleby demonstrates common pathological symptoms such as loss of appetite weight loss, and pallor. Critics like Beja, Chase, and Sullivan attribute that altered beha vior to psychological disease. Even if Bartleby’s abnormal behavior can be associat ed with schizophrenia, his premature death cannot be. Schizophrenia is not a fatal di sease. The narrative pr ovides readers with no reason to believe he committed suicide. We know he did not starve to death, because a person in the final stages of starvation is too weak to walk. Two guards at the Tombs report that he walked to his place of death on the same day of its occurrence. (Melville 45). Medical probability suggests that th e signs and symptoms a patient exhibits immediately prior to a premature death are most likely associated with the cause of death. As described by Melville, Bartleby’s death is not due to starvation, suicide, trauma, or schizophrenia. The medical textbook Bates’ Guide to Physical Ex amination and History Taking describes the process of diagnosis: “select a nd cluster relevant information, analyze their


31 possible meanings, and try to explain them l ogically using principles of biophysical and biomedical science” (783). A review of the text reveals that Bart leby as portrayed by Melville was a young, approximately twenty-fiv e-year-old male Caucasian, most likely of Western European descent. His occupation pr ior to death was that of a scrivener in a law office. No work, personal, or family hi story prior to his bein g hired as a scrivener was available. Bartleby was observed to ha ve no sources of social or financial support other than his own. Bartleby was observed to not smoke, not drink alcohol, and not use illicit drugs or prescribed pharmaceuticals. Clinical findings include an untimely, nontraumatic death preceded by altered behavi or or mentation comprised of numerous dissociative or neurological episodes of increasing freque ncy and duration, a prolonged flat aspect, as well as one observed possibl e manic episode. Other symptoms include loss of appetite, weight loss, pale skin, failure to thrive, and a possi ble loss of vision. The most distinct symptoms in Bartleby’ s case are behavioral. Table 1 on page 21 lists medical disorders that can induce psychiatric symptoms. At first glance, we can rule out numerous causes. As mentioned pr eviously, traumatic injuries like subdural hematoma can be ruled out. Most likely, we can also rule out a congenital cause because of the approximate age of the patient. The ma jority of congenital diseases that are not compatible with life cause death prior to th e age of twenty-five. Finally, infectious causation can most likely be ruled out because the hallmark of an infectious disease is a fever. None of the observations made rega rding Bartleby suggests fever. Ruling out trauma, congenital, and infectious causa tion leaves inflammatory, immunologic, neoplastic, metabolic, nutritional, degenerative, vascular, or toxic causation as the source of Bartleby’s death. Next, the disorders from Table 1 that have not been ruled out are


32 Table 1 Medical disorders that can induce psychiatric symptoms Source: Chuang, Linda, “Mental Disorders Secondary to General Medical Conditions, ” emedicine Medical Review, 2009, 8 Apr. 2010, . Medical and Toxic Effects CNS Infectious Metabolic/Endocrine Ca rdiopulmonary Other Alcohol Cocaine Marijuana Phencyclidine (PCP) Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) Heroin Amphetamines Jimson weed Gammahydroxybutyrate (GHB) Benzodiazepines Prescription drugs Subdural hematoma Tumor Aneurysm Severe hypertension Meningitis Encephalitis Normal pressure hydrocephalus Seizure disorder Multiple sclerosis Pneumonia Urinary tract infection Sepsis Malaria Legionnaire disease Syphilis Typhoid Diphtheria HIV Rheumatic fever Herpes Thyroid disorder Adrenal disorder Renal disorder Hepatic disorder Wilson disease Hyperglycemia Hypoglycemia Vitamin deficiency Electrolyte imbalances Porphyria Myocardial infarction Congestive heart failure Hypoxia Hypercarbia Lupus Anemia Vasculitis


33 Table 2 Medical disorders that can induce loss of appetite Source: “Loss of Appetite,” MedicineNet, 2009, 18 Apr. 2009, . Addison’s Disease Cancer Cat Scratch Fever Dementia Depression Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease Peptic Ulcer Stroke Bowel Disease Brain Damage Hormone Inflammation Medication Aneugesia


34 compared against Table 2 on page 22, which lists disorders known to result in loss of appetite. Cross referencing the two lists rev eals three possibilities that can also cause a fatal outcome: adrenal disorder / Addison’s dis ease, thyroid disorder / endocrine disease, cancer/ CNS tumor. The thyroid disorder / endocrine disease that causes altered behavior and weight loss is hyperthyroidism, a condition that result s from elevated levels of thyroid hormone in the body. Erik Schraga, a specialist in emergency medicine, explains the complexity involved in diagnosing a thyroid disorder: “because of the many actions of thyroid hormone on various organ systems in the body, the spectrum of clinical signs produced by the condition is broad. The presenting sy mptoms can be subtle and non-specific, making hyperthyroidism difficu lt to diagnose in its early stages without the aid of laboratory data” (Schraga 1). While it is difficult to diagnose, what makes hyperthyroidism unlikely as causation in Bartleby ’s case is the clinical presentation of the typical patient. Symptoms associated with hyperthyroidism typically include weight loss and altered mentation. Also symptomatic of hyperthyroidi sm are nervousness, anxiety, emotional lability, palpitations, heat intolera nce, and increased perspiration associated with warm, moist skin. The majority of symptoms resulting from hyperthyroidism do not correspond with the established health hi story of Bartleby the patient, making the diagnosis unlikely. The second possibility revealed is an adrenal disorder / Addison’s disease. Addison’s disease is a disorder in which th e adrenal glands produce insufficient steroid hormones. Williams summarizes symptoms associated with Addison’s disease:


35 The symptoms of Addison’s disease develop insidiously, and it may take some time to be recognized. The most common symptoms are fatigue, dizziness, muscle weakness, weight lo ss, difficulty in standing up, anxiety, diarrhea, headache, sweating, changes in mood and personality, sudden drops in blood pressure especially when going from a seated position to standing, and joint and mu scle pains. (1) Many of the symptoms of Addison’s correspond with the Bartleby’s history. The disease can be a primary cause of death. Like hyperthy roidism, Addison’s disease is difficult to diagnosis. Brody explains why Addison’s disease is often misdiagnosed. “The diagnosis is often tricky because the symptoms typica lly develop and worsen over a period of years . with symptoms like loss of appetit e and weight, fatigue, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, dizziness and abdomina l pains, patients are often mistakenly thought to have anorexia nervosa” ( 1). Addison’s disease is consistent with much of Bartleby’s health history, but there is one important disc repancy. Addison’s disease causes hyper pigmentation. Brody clarifies: “Most characteris tic is a gradual darken ing of the skin and mucous membranes” (1). Nowhere in the text is there mention of da rk spots or darkening of skin. Instead, as discussed in the prior chapter, there are several descriptions of Bartleby’s pale skin. While Addison’s shoul d be considered, it would not be considered the most likely cause. The third possibility from the cross refe rencing the two lists is cancer/ central nervous system (CNS) tumor. In his me dical summary “Neoplasms, Brain,” Stephen Huff explains “Brain tumors may originate from neural elements within the brain or they may represent spread of distant cancer. Pr imary brain tumors arise from CNS tissue and


36 account for roughly half of all cas es of intracranial metastatic lesions” (1). A brain tumor is similar to a fingerprint in that every patie nt’s is different, and as a result, the effects and symptoms vary greatly. Huff explains, “Tumors of the brain produce neurologic manifestations through a number of mechanisms Small strategically located tumors may damage vital neurologic pathways traversing the brain. Tumors can invade, infiltrate, and supplant normal parenchymal tissue, disrup ting normal function” (1). In laymen’s terms, symptoms resulting from a CNS neopl asm depend on which part of the brain is being pushed on by the expanding tumo r. Huff further clarifies: Symptoms may be non-specific and include headache, altered mental status, ataxia, nausea, vomiting, we akness and gait disturbances. CNS neoplasms may also manifest as fo cal seizures, fixed visual changes, speech deficits or focused sensory abnormalities. The onset of symptoms usually is insidious but an acute ep isode may transpire when bleeding into the tumor occurs” (2). Simply put, the signs and symptoms related to a CNS neoplasm are diffuse and difficult to categorize because most often they are wide -ranging and slow to appear until a tipping point is reached physiologically due to a lack of intr acranial space. Huff details the possible changes in a patient with a CNS neoplasm. He notes “mental status changes especially memory loss and decreased alertness may be subtle clues of a frontal lobe tumor. Complaints may be as mundane sleeping longer, appearing pre-occupied while awake and apathy.” A dditionally, Huff explains, “Vision, smell and other sensory disturbances may be caused by a brain tumor” (3).


37 After reviewing the diffuse neurological symptoms associated with its onset, a CNS neoplasm should be considered to explai n the symptoms and death of Bartleby. A space-occupying lesion would explain the altere d mentation, single episode of mania, and lack of appetite. The diagnosis even leaves room for the debated loss of vision. Finally, a CNS neoplasm is an insidious and progressive disease process that results in death; however another classification of pathology can also cause signs and symptoms similar to a CNS neoplasm: heavy metal poisoning. A toxic pathology is difficult to id entify because it involves multiple body systems and organs and therefore imitates many other diseases. One common form of poisoning that causes a wide spectrum of symptoms, making it historically hard to diagnosis, is lead poisoning. Troesken ela borates on the wide-ra nging toxic effects of lead: Because lead affects so may physiological processes, it can produce a wide variety of symptoms, includi ng vomiting, constipa tion or diarrhea, colic, flatulence, jaundice, dizziness, hearing difficulty, headaches, fever, epileptic like convulsions, depression, irritability anxiety, strong thirst, loss of appetite, anorexia, bad brea th, a peculiar taste in the mouth, weariness and lethargy, sleep disorder s, vision problems, weakness in the extremities, pain, cramping, burning sens ations in the extremities, memory loss, hallucinations, rheumatism, gout paralysis (especia lly wrist drop), anemia, and menstrual disorders (34). The reason lead poisoning presents such a wide variety of symptoms is that lead affects everyone differently. “In particular,” Troesken notes, “three genes have been


38 identified as possibly shaping an individual’s vulnerability to lead poisoning” (35). The physiology of those specific ge nes and their expression is be yond the scope of this work; but the fact remains that “literature on lead poisoning emphasizes the idiosyncratic effects of lead on specific individuals,” which depends on “nutrition, age, sex, and hereditary factors” (Troesken 35). Two forms of lead poisoning exist: high grade and low grade. High-grade or acute lead poisoning involves large amounts of exposure in a short period of time and leads to distinct symptoms. At high le vels of exposure, lead poisoning induces unmistakable symptoms, such as wrist and foot drop and a blue gum line. These symptoms are not usually seen in associ ation with other pathologies, and make a diagnosis of lead poisoning at high exposure levels relatively easy. In contrast, lowgrade level poisoning causes diffuse symptoms th at can be difficult to associate with any specific toxicity and can produce the wide vari ety of symptoms noted above. Troesken explains, At low levels of exposure, the symptoms of lead poisoning are more subtle and generic, such as lethargy, irrita bility, constipation, hearing loss, and difficulty sleeping. These symptoms are in no sense unique to lead poisoning and are more typically cau sed by aging, mood disorders, and other sources. As such, low grade le ad poisoning is more easily mistaken for other pathologies than hi gh grade lead poisoning. (35) Why then would low-grade lead poisoning be considered a more likely diagnosis for Bartleby than a CNS neoplasm, if both ailments can explain the symptoms and behaviors described? In asse ssing a patient, Bates recommends that strong consideration


39 be given to “the statistical pr obability of a given disease in a patient of this age, sex, ethnic group, habits, lifestyle, a nd locality.” (786). Accord ing to Massachusetts General Hospital, there is a .000082-percent chance of a person developing a primary central nervous system neoplasm, (Segal 1) while th ere is evidence that a large (approximately 10 percent) percentage of the population encountered by Me lville was affected by the toxic effects of lead at the time he was writing his book (Troesken 115). The combination of textual clues discussed in th e previous chapter a nd historical trends suggest that Melville’s unknown pathology is lead poisoning. Add itional evidence lies in how closely textual clues mirror documente d cases of low-grade lead poisoning. A British physician named Norman Porritt publishe d an article entitled “Cumulative Effects of Infinitesimal Doses of Lead” in the British Medical Journal in which he describes a condition of his own that escaped diagnosis While there are many articles discussing lead poisoning, this one is pertinent to an understanding of Bartleby because it was written by a physician regarding his own expe rience with the disease, so it details personal reflections on the emotional impact of the disease. Porritt’s description bears a strong resemblance to Melville’s depiction. Porritt wrote, A strange lethargy creeps over the sufferer; he feels as if a cloud had settled over him; he loses intere st in life; everyt hing is a trouble--a weariness of flesh and brain. He prefer s to sit over the fire to tackling his work, through when he forces himself through his tasks he finds no diminution of brain or bodily power As the condition continues he becomes gloomy and taciturn. Inst ead of joining in conversation with relatives and friends he sits sile nt and apathetic, as if overcome by


40 thoughts too melancholy to utter. Al l his faculties and bodily powers are sluggish. His bowels are constipat ed and stubborn; he derives no satisfaction from his food, and has perhaps abdominal discomfort, which he puts down to indigestion. The strange lethargy of body and mind increases. Sleep brings welcome re spite, but he gets up tired and weary, as if he had not been to bed, though he has slept heavily all night; so tired, indeed, that to bathe, wash, and dress are ordeals he wishes he could shirk. (92). Not surprisingly, Porritt init ially diagnosed himself with a thyroid condition and took the appropriate medication with no improve ment. He then took a long vacation that helped his condition, but upon returning home, his symptoms returned, which led him to test his urine and drinking water. He disc overed lead levels 80 times the modern EPA standard. Porritt began to filter his dr inking water and his symptoms remitted. A closer look at Bartleby the Scrivener reveals that the Ba rtleby characterization shares many similarities with Porritt’s experience. Porritt describes how his gastrointestinal symptoms led him to avoi d food. Melville’s por trayal of Bartleby reflects this particular aspect of plumbism As mentioned earlier, a lack of appetite similar to Porritt’s is obser ved by the narrator. Bartle by’s only observed form of sustenance is consistent with a portrayal of pathology. The only food Bartleby is described to eat is ginger-nuts. The narrato r notes Bartleby’s choice and contemplates the implications of such a diet: “Now what was ginger? A hot, spicy thing. Was Bartleby hot and spicy? Not at all. Ginger, th en had no effect upon Bartleby. Probably he preferred it should have none.”(17) What the narrator does not consider is that ginger is


41 a folk remedy that has been used since anci ent times to help treat digestive problems. Ginger beer was used in Coloni al times as a remedy for dia rrhea, nausea, and vomiting. It seems an odd coincidence that Bartleby is observed eating small amounts of only one particular kind of food that contains a we ll-known folk remedy for an upset stomach. The most striking similarity between Po rritt and the characterization of Bartleby is how closely Porritt’s real life experien ces mimic Bartleby’s dead wall reveries. The first mention in the text is after Bartleby refu ses to walk to the post office. He has already refused to help review documents, but his la test refusal causes the narrator to reflect upon his newest employee. It is he re that the narrator first mentions any sort of “revery” (Melville 20). The narrator considers Bartleby a good employee based on “[h]is steadiness, his freedom from all dissipations, hi s incessant industry” (20). His only pause results from when Bartleby chooses “to thro w himself into a standing revery behind his screen.” (20). From the narrator’s standpoint the dead wall reveries progress to episodes that last all day. Prior to Bartleby’s announcement that he will no longer copy, the narrator remarks that Bartleby had done nothi ng for the day except “s tand at his window in his dead wall revery” (28), Certainly the similarities between Porritt ’s description and Melville’s work are striking, but it is the social aspect of Porritt’s ordeal that informs this critical interpretation of Bartleby the Scrivener Porritt is careful to not e the effects his condition has on those around him. He points out that, due to the idiosyncrasies of lead poisoning, the victim “is usually the only person in the house to behave so strangely,” which “increases contempt for the sufferer.” It is the phrase “contempt for the sufferer” that is applicable here. If Porri tt’s article depicts a first-pe rson account of a victim of


42 undiagnosed plumbism and its resulting social isolation, then Bartleby the Scrivener can be read as a fictionalized fi rst-person account of a person forced to deal with someone in Porritt’s circumstances which I will exam ine in detail in the next section.


43 Chapter 7: Critical Reading A critical reading of Bartleby the Scrivener as a fictionalized fi rst-person account of a person forced to deal with a victim of low-gr ade lead poisoning allo ws the narrative to be viewed in terms of the Kubl er-Ross Grief Cycle. The now famous model by the Swiss medical doctor Elizabeth Kubler-Ross identified that a person forced to confront anything they perceive as a negative event, espe cially an illness, will proceed through a progression of discreet stages. Originally five, the stages of the Kubler-Ross Grief Cycle have been expanded to include stability, immobilization, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, testing, and acceptance, which are illustrated below. Figure 1. The Kubler-Ross Grief Cy cle. Kubler-Ross, Elisabeth. On Death and Dying New York: MacMillan, 1969. In his book, A Topical Approach to Life-Span Development John Santrock discusses two aspects of the Kubler-Ross Grief Cycle that is important to the understanding of Melville’s work. The fi rst is that the indi vidual “steps do not necessarily come in order nor do people nece ssarily experience all stages but all people will experience at least two” (2). The second is that people who are forced to deal with significant negative events will often “experience several stages in a roller coaster effect


44 switching between two or more stages return ing to one or more several times before working through i” (2) It is this “roller coaster” pattern of re sponses that defines Bartleby the Scrivener The narrative can be viewed as several smaller micro cycles of emotional response inside a larger macro cy cle as the narrator, representative of the inhabitants of New York City, slowly progr esses along the continuum of the Kubler-Ross Grief Cycle while forced to d eal with Bartle by’s pathology. The story is written as a retrospective first-person acc ount that calls into question the reliability of the narrator. The entire narrative is colored by the death of Bartleby because the narrator has already experienced it. The events, as told, are not to be trusted, but the narrator’s emotional response to those events may occur because they are conveyed at the time of the narration. This subjective retelling allo ws Melville to impart the current visceral impact the narrator sti ll feels regarding the fr ustration and confusion surrounding his experience w ith Bartleby’s illness. The narrator begins the story by establis hing himself as an occupant of the first stage of the cycle, stability. He claims he is older, “rather elderly,” (3) and that all who know him consider him “an eminently safe man,” even scions of the business world like the late John Jacob Astor (4). As menti oned previously, he is narrating the story retrospectively, using present-tens e phrases such as “I am a rather elderly man” (3) and “I am one of those unambitious lawyers.” (4). This frame of reference is important, as it imparts to the reader that no matter what has transpired in the events he is about to divulge, the narrator views himself as a person who once was and is again in a position of stability. The narrator’s opening conveys a complete journey but also establishes a


45 starting point. If the narrative is a macro cycle of the gr ief continuum, then this is clearly the beginning stag e, stability. The first micro cycle of response occu rs approximately the third day after Bartleby is hired. Until this point, Bartleby ha s only displayed pathological behavior in the form of a manic episode in which, according to the narrator, he “did an extraordinary quantity of writing” and “ran a day and ni ght line, copying by sun light and by candle light” (12). Despite the fact that the narrator should have been pleased with the amount of work done by his new employee, the he is he sitant, subjectively coloring the narrative by foreshadowing the ending. He notes, “I s hould have been quite delighted with his application,” but Bartleby “wrote on silently, palely, mechanically” (12). On that third day of Bartleby’s em ployment, the narrator experiences two hallmarks of low-grade lead poisoning, lethar gy and fatigue. He ca lls Bartleby into his office to verify some copies, and Bartleby refu ses. The narrator’s immediate response is immobilization, as he recalls, “I sat awhile in perfect silence, rallying my stunned faculties.” (13). Asking again, the narrator gets the same response from Bartleby and moves to the next stage, denial, askin g, “What do you mean? Are you moonstruck?” (13). A third refusal from Bartleby quickly moves the micro cycle to a third stage, anger. The narrator reveals, “I should have violently dismissed him from the premises.” (13). Despite his violent inclinati on, Bartleby’s pathological flat affect gives the narrator pause. Comparing Bartleby to his plasterof-Paris bust of Cicero, he notes, “Not a wrinkle of agitation ripples him.” (13). Time constraints convince the narrator to forget the incident, which ends the first micro cycle.


46 A similar scene repeats itself “a few days after,”(14) according to the narrator’s recall. Again calling Bartleby into his office to help review documents, Bartleby refuses. Again the first response in this micro cycle is immobilization: “For a few moments I was turned into a pillar of salt.”(14). Anot her refusal from Bartleby and the narrator progresses to anger, stating, “With any othe r man I should have flown outright into a dreadful passion, scorned all further words, and thrust him ignominiously from my presence.”(14). However, the narrator checks his impulse and moves to the next stage, bargaining. He explains, “I be gan to reason with him,” but wh en that fails, the narrator begins to question the events closer and “stagger in his own faith.” (15). Confirming with his other employees that the current circum stances are unusual, th e narrator moves on for a second time, but has now gone through two mi cro cycles of the emotional response. Having proceeded as far as the bargaini ng stage, the narrator takes time to contemplate the prior events. He cons iders Bartleby’s diet, missing the probable connection between the folkloric properties of ginger and Bartleby’s loss of appetite due to the gastrointestinal pain of lead poisoning. What the narrator does do is move along the continuum to testing. He reveals, “I felt strangely goaded on to encounter him in new opposition,” (17) and decides to antagonize Bart leby into conversation. That interaction again elicits a third micro cycl e of response with the narrator First, Bartleby refuses to review a copy and then refuses to go to the pos t office. Again the narrator notes that he first experiences immobilization—“I staggere d to my desk, and sat there in a deep study”—but quickly proceeds to anger, admitting, “My blind inveteracy returned.” (19). At this stage the narrator’s anger is so in tense that he leaves his own office to avoid violence.


47 Following the third micro cycle, the narrato r vacillates between anger and denial. He admits he is angry at Bar tleby’s refusals but convinces hi mself it is easier to ignore the problem. In another moment of introspe ction, he contemplates Bartleby further. He mentions for the first time Bartleby’s patholog ical tendency to stand for long periods in a “revery,” a behavior associated with lead poisoning and similar to the symptom that Porritt had mentioned that caused a problem with his social support system. Next, the narrator recalls how he discovere d Bartleby living at his office s when he just happened to stop by on a Sunday. This supposed finding seem s to be revisionist narration because, prior to this accidental happenstance, he adm its coming to the realization that Bartleby “was always there,” (20) refe rring to his office. Despite this realization, the narrator does not admit that stopping by his office on a Sunday was planned. Revisionist or not, the discovery of Bartleby’s circumstances elic its two responses. It convinces the narrator that the unusual appearance and strange behavior s he had witnessed unt il that point is the result of an illness. He states, “What I saw that morning persuaded me that the scrivener was the victim of innate and incurable disord er.” (25) This realization pushes the narrator along the macro cycle continuum to th e stage of depression. He declares, “For the first time in my life a feeling of over-pow ering stinging melancholy seized me,” (23) and projecting his final knowledge of the outcome on the narrative, reports having a vision of a dead Bartleby. Following his movement to the stage of de pression, the narrator enters a fourth micro cycle in which he moves between the st ages of denial, bargai ning, and anger. The narrator decides he will get rid of the problem by bargaining with Bartleby. He will offer him twenty dollars over his owed salary to l eave. His plan is in terrupted by Nippers.


48 The next day, the narrator finds Bartleby’ s symptoms are progressing with a daylong “dead wall revery” as well as a refusal to perform even his basic duty of copying. Although Bartleby never specifies, the narrator c onvinces himself the refusal is a result of visual dysfunction. Still the narrator proceeds with his plan and tries to buy off Bartleby, which does not work. Bartleby’s refusal prom pts a move to a stage of anger severe enough to bring to mind murder. After calmi ng down and reflecting on the situation, the narrator moves toward the stage of bargaini ng. He convinces hims elf that Bartleby has been thrust upon him by a higher power for a reason he is not meant to understand. The narrator decides he will deal with the problem by allowi ng Bartleby to stay, but soon oscillates toward another stag e of anger, giving the excuse that his fellow professionals are questioning his judgment. When one last unsuccessful attempt to bargain with Bartleby fails, the narrator take s the drastic step of moving hi s entire office, thus entering the stage of denial along the macro cycle continuum. He is figuratively as well as literally running away from his problem. Wh en his problem follows him in the form of the new tenant forced to deal with Bartle by, the narrator confirms his current stage of denial with the proclamation, “the man you allu de to is nothing to me—he is no relation or apprentice of mine, that you should hold me responsible for him.” (38). Despite his protests, the narrator returns to Bartleby a nd attempts to bargain once again, offering a clerkship, a job bartending, and ot her positions of employment. He even offers to take Bartleby home with him. Bartleby turns dow n all offers. Leaving in frustration, the narrator in an ultimate display of the stage of denial flees his problem by traveling out of the city.


49 Having gone through four micro cycles, the narrator enters his fifth and final one. Upon his return from trying to escape his proble m, he learns Bartleby has been sent to the tombs, and so goes to visit. He first bargai ns with authorities to provide Bartleby with “as indulgent confinement as possible”(42). Ne xt he tries to convi nce Bartleby that his situation is not shameful and his circumstances not so terrible. The narrator tells him, “it is not so sad a place as one might think. L ook there is the sky, and here is the grass.” (43). In his final act of bargaining, the narrator pays the Grub-man to feed Bartleby during his incarceration, which Ba rtleby refuses. According to the narrator, “some days after” (45) his last interaction with Bartle by, the narrator returns to find him dead; but the narrator does not complete his continuum along the grie f cycle immediately. To complete the cycle, the narrato r tells the reader that he di scovered Bartleby had held the position of assistant clerk in the Dead Letter Office in Washington. The narrator uses the implications and repercussions of such a difficult job to rectify his experience with Bartleby and achieve the final stage in the grief cycle, acceptance.


50 Chapter 8: Conclusion Melville wrote Bartleby the Scrivener as a literary portrayal of the Humoral theory of disease. Virchow disproved th at theory five years after the novella was published, suggesting that Me lville was humanizing an unknown pathology. A clinical assessment of the text reveals that low-grad e lead poisoning best explains the strange behavior, abnormal appearance, and premat ure death of the character Bartleby as depicted by the author. In conjunction with the textual subs tantiation, there is historical evidence that at the time Melville wrote the work, one in ten people he encountered suffered from the effects of the same disease. Informed with the identity of Melville’s unknown pathology, the work can be critically read in term s of the Kubler-Ross Grief Cycle as an archetypal first-person account of a population whose societal norms are disrupted when confronted w ith the victims of undiagnosed low-grade lead poisoning. Bartleby appears throughout the st ory. From his first impression of Bartleby as “pallidly neat” (11) to his final description which c ontains the phrase “pal lid hopelessness” (46) the Narrator manages to convey a strong sense of a pathological lack of coloration in the title character.


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