Our readings for last night included the 1853 short story “Bartleby the Scrivener” by Herman Melville and analytical chapters from recent collections on autistic authors. We started class by reviewing our literature circle groups for the autism-themed young adult novels (must be completed by 11/21). They groups are as follows:
Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskin
Half-Life of Planets by Brendan Halpine
Colin Fischer by Ashley Edward Miller and Zack Stenz
Delightfully Different by D.S. Walker
Gone by Michael Grant
Eye Contact by Cammie McGovern
In the process of making these groups, we looked again at Autism in Young Adult Novels: An Annotated Bibliography, noting how the trend of autism-theme young adult novels has really emerged in the last five years. The recent increase in these novels matches the growth in the diagnosis rate, itself a result, at least in part, of the broader diagnostic criteria established by the DSM-5.
Next, we were onto the main event: “Bartleby the Scrivener.” A number of you noted in your posts that this was the second or even third time, though on these earlier reads, you did not think about Bartleby as a possibly autistic character. We did take this route eventually, but we started by establishing some contrasts between Bartleby and the narrator. We used a Google From (Writing Response 2) to draw out some of these distinctions. Here are the results:
In small groups, we distilled our reactions to either the narrator or the main character by listing one noun, one adjective, and one verb + object to describe him. Some examples for the narrator: boss (noun), conflicted (adjective) and craves control (verb + object). For Bartleby: employee, isolated, makes quadruplicate copies. From here, we launched into a fairly in-depth discussion of these two characters, with one verdict being that for his time and place, the narrator was actually quite compassionate. The goal here was to get a better understanding of each before applying an “autistic” perspective.
After the break, we began thinking about Bartleby as an autistic character. We reviewed the DSM-5 diagnostic criteria and applied them to Bartleby, noting his difficult in social communication (even lack of eye contact) and his limited interest (copying) especially. We also pointed to some of the problems with the diagnosis, picking apart the pieces by Fitzgerald and Brown. It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to apply a modern psychological diagnosis across history to a fictional character–and applying it to an author, as both Fitzgerald and Brown do with Melville, seems to involve a lot of guess work.
Still, there are some interesting connections. We closed the class by talking about a more sophisticated kind of reading of the story–one that addresses issues of ND without necessarily pegging Bartleby as autistic. To begin this richer reading, we watched a data-loaded video on the Occupy Wall Street Movement, for which Bartleby became an icon (hence the picture above). We also looked at fascinating historical documents pertaining to 19th century poorhouse in America–the sort of place that Bartleby would have ended up, had he been institutionalized. In examining the historical poorhouse, we noted how the “insane” and the indigent were often lumped together, living in custodial, publicly-funded institutions. This led to a larger exploration of the relationship between capitalism and neurotypicality, and I argued that capitalism defines neurotypicality, both today and in the past. In other words, people who cannot function in a capitalist system are typically regarded as deviant, and while our information economy is more accommodating than Melville’s industrial and agricultural economy, those who cannot contribute are still pushed to the margins.
Next week–Sherlock Holmes and A Study in Scarlet.