Hayden's Ferry Review


Bartleby, The Flight Attendant by B.J. Hollars

Hayden's Ferry Review continues its series of best (most interesting, most unusual, most helpful!) practices of creative writing teachers - after a very long break - below. Maybe some of you remember the article in The New Yorker titled "Show or Tell: Should Creative Writing Be Taught?" There is still the idea among some that creative writing is an ephemeral thing that cannot be explained. Or worse, that great writers are simply born, not improved through study and practice. Literally, it's time to get the word out about what we do and how well we do it. Good for writers, good for teachers. Our second piece is below. We hope you enjoy it.

When teaching "Bartleby, The Scrivener," I usually open with the prototypical, "So, did you enjoy reading it?" to which the smart aleck of the room boldly proclaims, "Well, I would have preferred not to."

This response is greeted with guffaws, a high-five, maybe a couple of eye rolls. I've found this droll humor to be a near constant in the Bartleby classroom, at least since I was that smart aleck student—the original architect of the snotty response.

But having slipped to the other side now—making the successful transition from smart aleck student to smart aleck instructor—I'm now forced to explain to students why they should actually prefer the story, instead. How "preferring not to" read "Bartley" is more than simply an aesthetic choice, but is, perhaps, a misreading of the work itself.

"Well, if you hated it so much, then why did you read it?" I ask my class, to which I receive a resounding, "Because you made us!"

"I did?" I inquire, quite impressed with my super powers. "Well, how exactly did I manage that?"
"Because that's what the syllabus says!"

Now it's my turn to roll eyes.

"Surely there were other readings you've passed up," I remind, "and those were on the syllabus, too."

"Well, we just kept waiting for something to happen," one student rebuts. "But nothing ever did."

We turn then to other writers who many students believe share Melville's "nothing ever happened" approach. We look first to Thoreau ("Our life is frittered away by detail,") and then on to Emerson ("imitation is suicide").

Then I ask: "But is the scrivener not the most detail-oriented imitator of them all? An entire job devoted solely to copying documents letter for letter?"

This, of course, spurs philosophical discussion related to imitation (as well as the return of the smart aleck: "But aren't copy machines even better for that?"). Yet when we move beyond the creation v. imitation debate, we're left wondering if Bartleby's heroics are made clearer when read with Thoreau and Emerson in mind.

"Bartleby preferred not to do something and then he backed that up with action," I explain. "How many of you bothered to back up your preference not to read with action?"

My students begrudgingly admit that they hadn't; that instead, they just read the thing cover to cover.

Each class, I ask my students to write brief 250-word responses to the reading—my way of getting students writing, but also, ensuring that they've understood basic concepts. The students aren't terribly fond at what they view as "busy work," and as I read over the responses, I was disappointed to find that not a single student took advantage of the story's theme, wrote simply, "I prefer not to" in place of their response. Instead, they all followed directions with Boy Scout precision—struggling through interpretive possibilities, noting symbolism, grappling with questions related to Bartleby's sanity. Yet not one of the seventy students took Bartleby to heart, testing his theory of passive refusal by refusing to take part in my mind-numbing exercise.

"You know, maybe there's some slight heroism in bucking etiquette," I suggest, skimming the responses.

This is met with blank stares, so I give an example— the now infamous flight attendant who, after pouring one too many ginger ales to one too many high-strung travelers, went on a tirade, shrieking expletives throughout the cabin, helping himself to the mini bar, along with his grand finale—a slide down the emergency chute to safety.

"But more important than the flight attendant's action was our reaction to it," I continue, noting how Steven Slate's break in protocol caused the world to stand still. How, for 48-hours every media outlet in the country went bonkers over his brazen behavior. And how this absurd media coverage was proof that we, as a society, demand that protocol be strictly enforced every second of every day; that we have no tolerance for improvisation, no patience for a break in the routine. Eventually, the students come around to this interpretation, beginning to understand—as one student put it—just "what a badass Bartleby is."

I conclude by trying to explain how Bartleby's "bad-assedness" can serve as a reflection of our own submission in the modern world.

"How many of you ever had to endure a seemingly worthless assignment for class?" I ask.
A thousand hands shoot up, most of them pointing at me.

"Okay, and how many of you ever had to endure a job that you felt wasn't worth your while?"
Another flurry of hands reach for the ceiling.

We indulge ourselves in a few moment of group therapy, recounting all the hot dogs we've served, all the papers we've shredded, all the dead fish we've scooped from the tanks. Then, we make a pact never to reduce ourselves like that again, agreeing that no mind deserves that kind of numbing.

Here's a simple test to prove if Bartleby's message is understood.

The next time you assign a "boring" piece of literature, just wait for the students' reactions. If Bartleby's message sticks, then you'll be faced with an entire classroom of indignant students with their books closed, all of whom will proudly inform you that they simply "preferred not to" read, and this time, as Bartleby had, they were willing to back it up.