Thaxton, Analysis 2, Blog 1

“Herman Melville was a truly great American writer. His Asperger’s syndrome helped him to be a great observer and to focus… persons with Asperger’s syndrome are capable of this [success in a career].” – Michael Fitzgerald

Throughout my college career, I may have read Bartleby at least two other times. And in those times, none of my professors even mentioned that the text could be analyzed in an “autistic perspective”. I never learned that Herman Melville himself displayed characteristics of those with Asperger’s Syndrome, and that many theorized if he was on the spectrum or not. Until now, I felt cheated.

Part of me wants to believe that the teachers merely forgot to mention that Melville wrote Bartleby to be similar to him—similar to someone with AS. Part of me thinks that they simply did not know either, and if they did know, they didn’t know how to roach the subject of talking about AS and ASD. I also wonder about the stigmas that those two disorders have, and if that has impacted the conversation surrounding Melville and his work, if that’s why no one mentioned it, because the entire story would be deduced to: “Bartleby had autism and the story ended with him becoming institutionalized.” It breaks my heart.

Fitzgerald mentions throughout his argument that Melville displayed many common characteristics of someone with AS:  eccentric social behavior, narrow interests, motor clumsiness, and a tendency to be controlling. I think that his inference about misogyny here (pg. 54) seems like a stretch and doesn’t polarize the two from each other enough to the reader. Nonetheless, Bartleby, as a supposed translation of Melville, displays these similar qualities. He repeats himself throughout the story, and he refrains from social interaction with his co-workers. Bartleby thrives in the workplace through routine and structure and also through independence. When these aspects of the job begin to change, Bartleby becomes insubordinate. When Melville felt the same shifts in life, he displaced it onto his family.

Reading Bartleby and regarding Melville through an “autistic perspective” is vital to understanding the breadth of the story. Bartleby, who acts “luny”, is sent away to prison at the end instead of being understood. The lawyer, who feels compassion for him, in the end cannot empathize and cannot resolve his own misunderstandings around his employee. Like many real life individuals with autism, they become institutionalized because of this frustrations and misunderstandings. This builds the negative stigmas surrounding AS and ASD, and the educational process goes down the drain.

So why don’t more English teachers teach stories about AS and ASD individuals to their students in high school? Why has it become so taboo to the point that even fiction is uncomfortable to speak of? I wonder about my own teachers, even still, and perhaps they just preferred not to teach it that, to deduce Bartleby to a series of stereotypes to be misinterpreted; but, by doing so, a great message is being lost to those who need to hear it.

This individual wrote a compelling blog post about Melville’s story in regards to the conflict being “neurotypical vs. neurodiverse”. He states that there is a “double empathy” problem between the two groups, as neither can truly understand each other in total empathy (that most ASD individuals lack). Thinking of who to blame in the story, (lawyer? Bartleby?), it is interesting to think of the double-empathy problem to see that no one is truly “at fault” (though debatable).

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2 thoughts on “Thaxton, Analysis 2, Blog 1

  1. sgrit96

    I understand your frustration at the lack of prior knowledge that Melville is believed to have exhibited traits of ASD. I found it extremely unfortunate that nobody ever explained that to me the first few times I read this story as well because understanding the reason behind Bartleby’s behavior is crucial to understanding Melville’s message.
    Michael Fitzgerald suggests that “Captain Ahab was similar to Melville in terms of narrow autistic obsession” (53). I found this idea fascinating because before I knew about Melville’s believed association with Asperger’s I did not notice these subtle instances of Melville imparting a piece of his own personality and life into these characters. I decided to look for more articles about Melville representing characteristics of Asperger’s in his writing to try to better understand all of the details that I might have missed. Upon my inquiries I found an article by Ashley Kern Koegel in which Koegel states that “Bartleby demonstrates social deficits in all four distinct forms specified by the DSM-IV-TR to a greater or lesser degree”(1). Koegel goes into greater detail describing each trait/deficit and the precise actions in which Bartleby exhibits those traits in her article “Evidence Suggesting the Existence of Asperger Syndrome in the Mid-1800s” and after reading through those examples from the text I felt a further understanding of how the text related to Melville himself.
    When approaching the story with a basic knowledge of Melville’s background, the relationship between Bartleby and the Lawyer appears to mirror the relationship between Melville and his father. In the reading by Brown this idea is suggested because of the abandonment felt by both Bartleby and Melville when a prominent, stable figure in their lives leaves. Melville’s father died while Herman was twelve years old, leaving Melville feeling alone and vulnerable, but the Lawyer abandons Bartleby of his own volition. The Lawyer appears to be less understanding of Bartleby and easily frustrated by his behavior which might indicate the relationship Melville had with his father as being similar. Without a prior knowledge of Melville’s background, I would never have understood this dynamic or this story.
    I find it unfair that many teachers do not present information about authors which could indicate a different meaning or significance to a story. I would hope that like you and I the teachers were unaware of this information, but perhaps this brings forward a new need to have a basic understanding of an author’s life before assigning meaning to their work. After realizing the importance of background I find myself questioning why people no longer feel the need to understand the human aspect behind a work of fiction. Is there an underlying fact behind fictional representations of neurodivergent characters that has been overlooked by the majority of educators? Should people be striving to understand the motivation behind fiction before they form a judgement? After discovering how distorted my initial view of Bartleby as a character was, I am beginning to realize that the context of fiction can be crucial to our understanding and interpretation.
    Koegel, Ashley K. Evidence Suggesting the Existence of Asperger Syndrome in the Mid-1800s. N.p.: Hammill Institute on Disabilities, 2008. 1-3. Web. 19 Sept. 2016. .

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  2. danielbowengv

    Daniel Bowen, Analysis 2, Reply 1

    Though I would prefer not to, this also isn’t my first time reading Bartleby the Scrivner. My first encounter with the notorious clerk being in high school when we were told to read it independently and form our own opinions on the characters. Needless to say when we all came to class the next day everyone was in fast agreement that Bartleby was simply an unrepentantly lazy employee who had almost single-handedly ruined an entire law association. Having just read “The Hunger Artist” by Franz Kafka we began to ponder and question what the underlying message of the story was and what ways in which the characters functioned as symbolic representations of humanity. Analyses that, while not without merit, seemed slightly too disjointed in their composition.

    If anyone connected the dots that Bartleby was suffering from any sort of mental disability it was a mere footnote to the discussion. Only when my teacher brought it up as an underlying theme of the passage did the odd premise to the story begin to make sense. He maintained that Bartleby was suffering from a prolonged depression. A reading that I think is quite valid but not quite as persuasive as labeling Bartleby as someone with ASD

    The fact that it was so outlandish and inaccessible of an insight to conjecture that Bartleby suffered a mental affliction; however, speaks to me about how little we speak of (or consider) the neurodivergent in our society.

    This I think harkens back to your question about why it is taboo in our society for teachers to expose students to texts around the topic of mental health. While I certainly think that it is true that neurotypical analysis is underrepresented in English instruction that this is the result of a taboo more pervasive than in academia. Western societies, on the whole, are still very uncomfortable with discussions surrounding mental health. Deep rooted and powerful stigmas surround those affected by mental health problems so much so that having a dialogue about mental health still isn’t “conversationally kosher”. This inevitably bleeds into the instruction of our children and makes it so that the neurodivergent perspective typically isn’t available to them until they are instructed in it (as my high school English class so readily demonstrates).

    The remedy for this perspective restriction and hopefully further stigma surrounding mental health I believe does begin with education. The most fundamental and powerful of these being raising awareness. To solve a problem or right a wrong one must first recognize that there is even a problem to begin with, after all. Holding seminars are having educational programs for teachers would be the most beneficial for normalizing reading frameworks that involve ASD and other mental disorders. Additionally, better education surrounding the symptoms and effects that mental afflictions have upon individuals would be very beneficial to improving the status of the neurodivergent in our society

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