While reading Bartleby the Scrivener and our course readings about Herman Melville, I became both curious and troubled by the difficulties faced by those on the spectrum during Melville and Bartleby’s period of life–namely, the late 19th century. The fact that Bartleby ended up jailed in a place called “the Tombs” deeply disturbed me, and provoked me to do a little more research into what exactly the Tombs was, as well as what sort of conditions Bartleby would have faced while he was there.
As it turns out, the Tombs was the colloquial name for a prison in the Five Points area of New York City. It was a dark, damp, and dreary place, probably due to its being built on top of a poorly filled-in pond; the building’s foundations were partly sunk into the messy bog the pond had become, and it was constantly suffering from leakage and flooding, as a result. It was eventually condemned by the Grand Juries.
This imagery recalled for me the dark, dreary institutions described in last week’s reading, and it struck me then that I could not tell on first read whether the Tombs was a prison or an institution (I had to go back and re-read the passages describing it to be sure). Even the fairly friendly jail-minder was very similar to the overseers found in institutions.
The comparisons between the two seem to almost jump out: the dark, dreary environment; the physical confinement; the menial labor to which inmates and patients are often consigned; the indifference or even disgust of the overseers who keep track of the inhabitants; the discomfort and revulsion with which outside society treats those who are condemned to live within the walls–even the substandard medical care and lack of general regard are comparable.
Why do we treat those on the spectrum like criminals? It gives me some comfort to know that we’ve come a long way since the 1800s, but institutionalization remains a feature of our society. Those who society cannot bother to consider or deal with are given substandard qualities of life, and while it can be argued that this sort of treatment is necessary for those who have committed criminal acts, what crime has an autistic person committed besides being born?
There is a part of me that feels we have a long, long way to go, despite all the progress we’ve made, if we still treat the neurodiverse as if they’re something to be shut away, to be ignored. As we discussed in class, institutional space is created by the neurotypical for the neurodiverse–aren’t the neurodiverse capable of creating their own spaces? Even in the 1800s, Bartleby manages to do just that: create autistic space by himself, for himself. As Brown said in her analysis, he is clearly comfortable and desires to be in the office, despite all the obstacles he faces. Perhaps if the people around him were imbued with fewer prejudices against his “odd” behavior, Bartleby wouldn’t have ended up dead in a prison yard.
Pentecost, Neil. “The Tombs.” NEW YORK CITY looking back. N.p., 9 Dec. 2011. Web. 19 Sept. 2016. <http://newyorklookingback.blogspot.com/2011/12/tombs.html?m=1>.