And like a treadmill, it takes a lot of effort, dexterity even, to stay in one place. No wonder this new class is so anxious. “The son of the chairman of the board may expect to become a successful businessman (or at least a wealthy one) more or less by growing up,” the Ehrenreichs noted. “The son of a research scientist knows he can only hope to achieve a similar position through continuous effort.” Most of these efforts are directed toward acquiring the kind of fluency with words and numbers that allow them to become good paperworkers. Dental hygiene and computer skills also count for a lot. But the most important thing of all is psychological well-being, whether that means “healthy self-esteem” or “playing well with others” or “good at sharing” (not to be confused with “indiscreet”). You don’t want your son or daughter to become that guy, the one played by Steve Carell in The Office or Carol Kane in Office Killer.
Two of the smartest inquiries into the psychopathology of paperwork were published in the nineteenth century: Herman Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street (1853) and Gustave Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pécuchet (1881). Critics have tended to interpret these texts as allegories of the creative process or capitalism or some other, loftier problem. This may well be the case. But if they were allegorical, they were also topical. Melville and Flaubert were both interested in the physical and psychical consequences of office work.
The critic and biographer Andrew Delbanco has suggested several possible sources of inspiration for Melville’s story: the character of Nemo in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, serialized in Harper’s shortly before Melville started work on Bartleby; an article in the Albany Register from 1852 about the Dead Letter Office where letters accumulate “containing undelivered love notes, locks of hair”; the first chapter of a novel printed as an advertisement in the New York Times from 1853 about a legal clerk named Adolphus Fitzherbert whose “countenance was shaded with constitutional or habitual melancholy”; or Melville’s visits to the law office of his uncle, Peter Gansevoort.
Bartleby is narrated by a lawyer whose thirty years of practice have “brought me into more than ordinary contact with what would seem an interesting and somewhat singular set of men, of whom, as yet, nothing that I know of has ever been written—I mean the law copyists, or scriveners.” Four centuries of print technology had done little to ease their burden; even in this era of mechanical reproduction there was as yet no cheap and fast way of making an exact copy of a document, let alone a fair copy. Indeed, in the 1850s, a copyist’s tools still resembled those of a medieval monk in many ways, not least in the reliance on a quill pen, the steel nib still being relatively novel. Like their medieval predecessors, they sat at angled desks; like their predecessors, too, they worked either by natural light or candelight. Industrially produced wood-pulp paper was cheaper and more plentiful than parchment, which meant that it cost less to start all over again, but the laboriousness of copying meant that mistakes remained inevitable, costly or otherwise.
Melville carefully attended to these details. One of the copyists struggles with his writing implements, constantly splitting then mending his nibs, splattering blots of ink on the documents. Meanwhile another fiddles constantly with the height of his desk: “He put chips under it, blocks of various sorts, bits of pasteboard, and at least went so far as to attempt an exquisite adjustment, by final pieces of folded blotting paper.” The light in the law offices at No.— Wall Street is perpetually dim, with windows looking out onto a brick wall, at one side, and a shaft, on the other. As the lawyer remarks, “This view might have been considered rather tame than otherwise, deficient in what landscape painters call ‘life.’”
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