“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).