On May 1, students and activists are planning to revive the Occupy Wall Street movement with a general strike. One poster making the rounds on Facebook and other social media features a hamster nervously eyeing a treadmill, and above it the famous words, “I WOULD PREFER NOT TO.” The hamster’s wheel of course represents the drudgery of our modern routines; the phrase, many will recall, comes from Herman Melville’s 1853 story “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” Subtitled “A Tale of Wall Street,” this cryptic narrative traces the sad fate of a passive-aggressive writer who refuses to vacate the offices of a corporate lawyer. Bartleby was the first laid-off worker to occupy Wall Street.
It may seem odd to understand Occupy Wall Street through a story written 150 years before the tents went up in Zuccotti Park, when no one had heard of a human microphone and when Trinity Church was the tallest building in New York. But Bartleby literally does occupy Wall Street — specifically the offices of Melville’s narrator, a lawyer for the 19th century one-percenters who does “a snug business among rich men’s bonds and mortgages and title-deeds.” And the way that Melville represents Bartleby’s occupation can help us understand the power of the endlessly intriguing movement that is promising to return with renewed fervor this spring. What’s more, this staple of the English Literature curriculum can speak to the ways that Wall Street itself is coming to occupy the classroom itself.