Neither Red nor Blue (on hiatus)

Neither Red nor Blue in 2013

Neither Red Nor Blue is on hiatus. Essays and reviews will appear on jeffersonflanders.com (with some reposted to Neither Red Nor Blue).

The North Building

 


The North Building, sequel to the critically-acclaimed Herald Square, is now available

 

ABOUT THE NOVEL

New York, January 1951.

When columnist Dennis Collins returns to his hometown after covering the brutal Chosin Reservoir battle in Korea, he finds his newspaper closed down and New York on edge about a possible European war with the Russians. Collins is reluctantly drawn into an investigation of leaked American military secrets that focuses on the British diplomats Donald Maclean and Kim Philby (later exposed as members of the infamous Cambridge Five spy ring).

As his search for the truth takes him to Washington, Paris, and London, Collins enters a shadowy world of intrigue where moral boundaries blur and the line between justice and revenge is easily crossed. The North Building tells a story of love and personal redemption, seamlessly blending fact and fiction as it takes the reader from the foxholes of Korea to the corridors of power in the West, with the fate of nations, and individuals, hanging in the balance.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jefferson Flanders has been a sportswriter, columnist, editor, and publishing executive. He is the author of Café Carolina and Other Stories and of Herald Square, a novel of the Cold War described as “Jimmy Breslin meets John le Carré” in the Huffington Post and as “well-written, action packed and engrossing” in the Washington Times.

Read an interview with the author.


TO PURCHASE:

Amazon | KindleNookiTunes


Copyright © 2013 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved


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August 2012: Plagiarism and other literary crimes and misdemeanors

A tip of the hat to the legendary New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon for borrowing his signature phrase: nobody asked me, but…

No writer ever wants the word “plagiarism” in a sentence that includes his or her name. And if they write nonfiction, they also don’t want to see themselves linked to phrases like “fabricated quotes” or “fabricated facts.”

Some prominent authors and journalists have been in the news recently for some of these “literary crimes and misdemeanors.” Jonah Lehrer of the New Yorker admitted creating Bob Dylan quotes in his bestseller Imagine: How Creativity Works. He resigned from the New Yorker and his publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, recalled his book. (Somewhat surprisingly, Wired magazine decided to keep Lehrer as a contributor).

A clear case of plagiarism by commentator Fareed Zakaria in a Time magazine column caused that magazine (and CNN) to temporarily suspend him. To his credit, Zakaria made no excuses and apologized. After a brief investigation which found the plagiarism was an isolated incident, Zakaria was reinstated by Time and CNN.

There’s no question that Google has made it child’s play to surface instances of plagiarism—especially word-for-word copying—and fabrication. Just cut-and-paste a few passages from Article #1 into Google Search and see if there are multiple hits for the words and phrases.

(If you try this technique with the preceding paragraph, or with this blog post, you should find the words and phrases are attributed to Jefferson Flanders.)

You would think that anyone who writes for public consumption would recognize this new reality. If you copy or fabricate, you will likely be found out. The more famous or well-known you become, the more likely it is that someone will Google check you and expose your borrowing.

A persistent problem

So why do high profile writers still get caught plagiarizing and fabricating?

I think there are several plausible reasons for this persistent problem:

  • Some writers employ a work process—employing interns to do research or create drafts or copying directly from digital sources—that invites trouble. If you look at the details of the Fareed Zakaria plagiarism, it looks like the author (Zakaria? an intern?) line-edited material on gun control from the Harvard historian Jill Lepore’s New Yorker article on the topic. The structure of Lepore’s paragraph on the historical adoption of gun control by state governments was retained with some only slight rearranging of words and rephrasing. Was this a case of someone rushing to complete a column on deadline? It certainly looks that way. Worse, all Zakaria needed to do was openly credit Lepore or quote her.
  • Some writers can’t resist the temptation to strengthen their work by tweaking quotes or, in the worst case, the facts. Whenever there’s a quotation that fits seamlessly into an article, or an anonymous source says something that elegantly validates an author’s thesis, I become suspicious.
    My guess is that this sort of fabrication begins when a writer decides to make slight “improvements” to the quotes he or she has elicited. This “shaping of quotes” can dramatically improve the narrative quality of a piece of writing and over time, it seems, some writers find themselves taking greater and greater liberties (or even inventing interviewees). Lehrer only got caught because he didn’t actually have access to Dylan—had he interviewed the reclusive singer he might very well have been able to pass off as genuine any made-up quote that he wanted to (as long as the fabrication put Dylan in a favorable light and didn’t cause the singer to challenge it publicly).
  • Some writers are prepared to beg, borrow, and steal to advance their careers. This was the case with Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair, who both fashioned journalism that—upon closer scrutiny—turned out to be too good to be true. In the short run both Glass and Blair became “stars.” In the long run they were exposed and questions were raised about their emotional health—since it was just a matter of time before they were caught and they had to know that.
  • The pace of today’s literary and journalistic world encourages short cuts. The Internet has placed a premium on the quantity and frequency of what writers can blog, tweet, post, and aggregate. Publishing houses are, it is reported, pressuring authors to produce books on an accelerated schedule. Some percentage of those “content-creators” will succumb to the temptation of rehashing existing content—and depending on how careful they are in giving credit or in avoiding word-by-word lifting they will get away with it. For a while. Then, inevitably, they will borrow a little too much and get caught.

I’ve always thought that having a distinctive voice or style makes it less likely that a writer will plagiarize, either consciously or unconsciously. I try to read aloud whatever I have written during the writing process and if it doesn’t sound natural—something I would say—then I take the red pencil to it. Writers who revise extensively are also more likely to avoid missteps. Finally, writers who cut-and-paste digital material from the Web and are careless about citing sources are playing literary Russian Roulette.

And that’s a game that usually ends badly.


Copyright © 2012 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

Purchase the new Cold War thriller by Jefferson Flanders, Herald Square, at Amazon.com.

Read an interview with the author.

Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”: icebergs, raisin bread, and the short story

What makes Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” so intriguing even some eight decades after its publication is how this brief story illustrates some of Hemingway’s literary rules of thumb in practice. It features Hemingway’s clean, plain-style prose (“My aim is to put down on paper what I see and what I feel in the best and simplest way”); his “iceberg principle” of omitting detail and forcing the reader to decode the story; and his belief that symbols should be naturally baked into a narrative (like, he once wrote, plain bread) and should not stick out “like raisins in raisin bread.”

Continue reading “Ernest Hemingway’s ‘Hills Like White Elephants’…

Copyright © 2009 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved


Jefferson Flanders is author of the Cold War thriller Herald Square.

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” and the dark temptations of paranoia

There’s something to be said for paranoia, at least from an evolutionary perspective. Our prehistoric ancestors faced a brutal, unforgiving world where misjudging a threat could prove fatal. Suspicion of strangers was a natural instinct, and a well-developed sense of “friend or foe” might mean you were more likely to survive and pass on your genes.

Long after the survival threat to homo sapiens became less pressing, the paranoid proclivity remained. When it is triggered by environmental or genetic factors, and causes abnormal suspiciousness and delusions of persecution or danger, clinicians call it “paranoid personality disorder.” As Robert Wright, author of The Moral Animal, has observed, “…it’s interesting to note how many psychopathologies, including paranoia, may simply be evolutionary ingrained tendencies turned up a notch too high.”

Many authors, artists and film-makers have been fascinated by the alienation present in paranoia, and while it seems to be a modernist concern (consider: Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” or Franz Kafka’s “The Trial”) the theme surfaced in literature well before the advent of Freudian psychiatry. While Nathaniel Hawthorne did not set out to directly address the impact of paranoia in “Young Goodman Brown,” his haunting short story has retained its appeal long after its 1835 publication, I would argue, precisely because it taps into the feelings of isolation, fear of the Other, and, yes, the dark temptations of paranoia that are part of the human condition.

What do I mean by the dark temptations of paranoia? It’s that natural, and gratifying, inclination to blame others for our misfortune. It includes our very human tendency to bear grudges, to question the loyalty or trustworthiness of friends, to fear being exploited or deceived, and to credulously accept conspiracy theories. And “It wasn’t my fault. They were out to get me” offers a tempting explanation for trouble, one that neatly shifts any blame for failure or disappointment onto malevolent others.

Paranoid reality or paranoid dream?

Many literary critics have seen “Young Goodman Brown” (along with The Scarlet Letter) as part of Hawthorne’s critique of Calvinist theology as practiced in New England, especially the Puritan fascination with predestination and the role of the Elect—those divinely-selected Christians assured of a place in heaven. Certainly the story is crammed with religious symbolism and imagery and touches on many of these themes. Yet the universal appeal of the story lies in its portrayal of a young man struggling with his growing sense that the world has turned against him, and the open question as to whether his new-found disillusionment with family and friends is grounded in reality or reflects a delusional dream-state.

As with many horror stories, “Young Goodman Brown” relies on a series of small revelations, dark imagery, and hints of the supernatural to build suspense. Goodman Brown of Salem sets off on a mysterious journey with, we are told, an “evil purpose”; his wife, Faith, (“aptly named”) tries to entice him to stay home, but he refuses.

Once in the dark forest, Goodman Brown encounters an older man, a “fellow-traveler” whose companionship is not “wholly unexpected” by Goodman. Hawthorne foreshadows events to come as Goodman Brown wonders: “What if the devil himself should be at my very elbow!”

Soon we learn that the devil, indeed, is at his elbow (disguised as his grandfather and carrying a staff “which bore the likeness of a great black snake, so curiously wrought that it might almost be seen to twist and wriggle itself like a living serpent”), that his religious mentor Goody Cloyse is a witch, and that Goodman Brown’s father and grandfather before him had embraced the occult.

When Goodman Brown reaches the clearing where the devil worshipers will hold their Satanic ceremony of initiation, he recognizes “a score of the church members of Salem village famous for their especial sanctity.” And these “grave, reputable, and pious people” are joined by “men of dissolute lives and women of spotted fame”—good and wicked, sinners and saints joined in their “homage to the prince of all.” He is staggered by the enormity of the deception, aghast at his discovery that the Elect of his community are part of this “impious assembly,” one he has come to join.

Even worse, however, is discovering that the young woman also awaiting “baptism” into this congregation, “trembling before that unhallowed altar,” is his own wife. Young Goodman Brown hesitates, and then calls on his wife to join in resisting “the evil one.” In a flash he finds himself alone, “amid calm night and solitude,” but whether Faith has also turned away from Satan, “he knew not.”

When he returns to Salem Goodman Brown is a changed man, shrinking from contact from the minister, snubbing his wife when he meets her. Then, in an intriguing twist, Hawthorne introduces doubt about the reality of Young Goodman Brown’s experience. Perhaps he hasn’t uncovered a coven of “fiend-worshippers” but instead imagined the scene:

Had Goodman Brown fallen asleep in the forest and only dreamed a wild dream of a witch-meeting?

Be it so if you will; but, alas! it was a dream of evil omen for young Goodman Brown. A stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate man did he become from the night of that fearful dream.

Is Goodman Brown’s nightmarish experience just that: a nightmare? Or has he discovered the reality behind the scrim of Puritan convention? The psychic damage has been done, in either case, for he can no longer encounter the townspeople, or his wife, without seeing them as secretly in league with the Devil.

A modern psychiatrist, rejecting prima facie the existence of Satan, might very well diagnose Goodman Brown as harboring paranoid fantasies. His belief that everyone around him had joined a sinister, and hidden, conspiracy would suggest paranoid personality disorder. (If the people of Salem were actually involved in witchcraft and secret devil worship, then the situation becomes much more complex.)

Contemporary demons

We may no longer believe in witches or the presence of Satan, but we still confront our own contemporary demons. Paranoia continues to have its artistic fascination. The Puritans of the Bay Colony had theological underpinnings for their fears, ours stem more often from half-baked ideologies (for example, 9/11 conspiracy theories) or junk science.

There has been a brisk demand for horror films trading on the thrill of group paranoia. It’s why Hollywood has fashioned four film versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a science-fiction story of alien invaders who secretly transform humans into “pod-people.”

The first film version came in 1956 (reflecting concerns about Communist subversion), the best-known remake followed in 1978 (trading off post-Watergate paranoia), the third in 1993 (with fears of toxic waste and a compromised environment as a backdrop), and the most recent in 2007, retitled The Invasion, (starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig and featuring a plot revolving around an alien virus).

Since the AIDs epidemic, paranoia about infection has been a continuing theme in popular culture, whether in the form of science fiction thrillers about pandemics (Twelve Monkeys, 28 Days Later, 28 Weeks Later, Children of Men) or in the current fascination with vampires (the Twilight series, HBO’s “True Blood,” 30 Days of Night). Then there is 2007’s very popular I Am Legend, the most recent cinematic version of Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel (following The Last Man on Earth in 1964 and The Omega Man in 1971), which offers moviegoers both infectious disease and vampirism.

Fearing a global epidemic is not irrational, as the spread of AIDs and the outbreaks of bird flu in China and foot and mouth disease in Britain have highlighted the danger, but the probability of an unchecked pandemic is much less than Hollywood screenwriters would have you think, and the probability of vampire and zombie attacks approaches nil. But in troubled times, cathartic fear and loathing (the stuff of group paranoia) always plays well at the box office.


Copyright © 2009 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

Jefferson Flanders is author of the Cold War thriller Herald Square.

November 2008: Nobody asked me, but…

Campaign 2008: five observations, “small wind” power, Cold War espionage redux, and other commentary

With a tip of the cap (for borrowing his catch-phrase) to New York columnist Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

HERE ARE FIVE “MONDAY MORNING QUARTERBACK” OBSERVATIONS ABOUT THE 2008 CAMPAIGN:

1. In the end, consider the key to the 2008 presidential election not President-elect Barack Obama’s lofty inspirational rhetoric, nor the inadequacies of the message-challenged McCain campaign, nor the drag of the GOP’s unprepared vice presidential nominee, but something much more elemental: money. The old journalistic imperative of “follow the money” helps explain why Obama will sit behind the Oval Office desk in January. USA Today reports that Obama raised $750 million for his presidential run, shattering records, and his huge advantage in campaign fund-raising translated into a huge advantage in television advertising. In the general election Obama spent $240 million on TV ads versus McCain’s $126 million, according to the Campaign Media Analysis Group. Obama dominated local television advertising (as the Nielsen Media Research numbers show) and his massive war-chest allowed him to underwrite Get Out the Vote efforts in the key swing states of Florida and Ohio and compete (and win) in the historically red states of North Carolina and Virginia.

2. The failure of the American mainstream media in covering campaign 2008 was not, as some on the Right would argue, the open cheerleading for Obama, nor negative reporting about McCain and his running mate Gov. Sarah Palin, but rather what was ignored or received relatively light coverage—in the general election it was Obama’s decision to forgo public campaign financing, breaking the joint pledge he and McCain had made during the primary season. There was very little sustained criticism of Obama’s flip-flop on campaign finance reform, formerly a favorite cause for liberal newspaper editorialists.

The coverage of Obama’s final week 30-minute infomercial—which, it can be argued, happened only because of his unfettered Internet fund-raising—was largely positive. If a conservative candidate had purchased a late-campaign infomercial at great cost after renouncing a pledge to observe federal funding limits, would the media have focused on the message or on the perceived betrayal of good government? To ask the question is to answer it.

In the Democratic primaries it was the free pass the mainstream media gave to Obama in the crucial months of December 2007 and January 2008. Most mainstream newspaper and network reporters repeated the David Axelrod-fashioned narrative that Obama was a bipartisan agent of change and hope without validating any of those claims, or examining Obama’s Chicago past in any detail. That helped Obama to victory in the Iowa caucus and the early primaries.

3. The 2008 election should have, once and for all, demonstrated the unreliability of exit polls. Before being adjusted to match the actual vote totals, these polls  produced flawed results in the Democratic primaries, overstating support for Obama (by some seven percentage points).  Prior to the general election, Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg (in an interview with Huffington Post) acknowledged the shakiness of the measuring stick: “The biggest problem with exit polls is… we do know that young voters are much more likely to do an exit survey and seniors are much less likely to do an exit poll. So exit polls are heavily waited to young people, which normal bias favors Democrats especially this year.”

And a  Rasmussen Reports survey found evidence of the Shy Tory Factor (or Shy Conservative Factor), where Republicans are more reluctant and Democrats more willing and eager to participate in exit polls.

Not surprisingly, then, in the general election exit poll numbers overstated Obama’s support, a fact noted by former Bush strategist Karl Rove in a Wall Street Journal column:

… for the third election in a row the exit polls were trash. The raw numbers forecast an 18-point Obama win, news organizations who underwrote the poll arbitrarily dialed it down to a 10-point Obama edge, and the actual margin was six.

The early exit polls in California also wrongly suggested that Proposition 8, which sought to bar gay marriage, would lose. Again, it’s clear that pro-Prop 8 voters didn’t cooperate with exit pollsters in proportion to their numbers.

The clear flaws in exit polls—in 2000, 2004, 2006, and 2008—should silence the conspiracy theorists of the Angry Left who have argued that any discrepancies between the polls and actual votes in the Bush-Gore and Bush-Kerry elections represented vote fraud by the Republicans.

But don’t hold your breath for Seven Stories Press to recall “Was the 2004 Presidential Election Stolen?: Exit Polls, Election Fraud, and the Official Count” by Steve Freeman and Joel Bleifuss, which stridently made the vote fraud case, or for the authors to acknowledge that they were wrong.

4. The prolonged recount of the Franken-Coleman Senate race in Minnesota has highlighted another truth: voting is an imperfect process. Americans should recognize that human error and mechanical failures mean that all election results have a margin of error. By all accounts Minnesota has a solid election system, with an auditable paper trail, and yet anyone looking at the contested ballots (including a vote for the Lizard People) and the dispute over absentee ballots can see that any recount will involve some subjective judgment.

5. Will the last Republican in New England please turn out the lights? When Connecticut’s Chris Shays lost his Congressional seat, it meant that the GOP cannot point to a single member of the House of Representatives from Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Maine or Connecticut. And how long will Republicans hold onto the U.S. Senate seats in Maine if the national party doesn’t welcome libertarian views on social issues?

WILL THE FUTURE OF WIND POWER BE SMALL, NOT LARGE? There’s a growing trend towards “small wind” —wind turbines for residences, small cities, organizations and businesses, according to an article in the Boston Globe. The Globe reports:  “The future of wind power may be a lot smaller than you think, and the nearest windmill may be right around the corner. The landscape, many believe, is going to be dotted with them.” This grass-roots wind power may indeed prove more effective than the “large wind” vision of massive wind farms on- or off-shore.

COLD WAR ESPIONAGE IS BACK IN THE NEWS. From Europe comes word that an Estonian defense ministry official, recruited by the Russians at the close of the Cold War, may have passed NATO and European Union secrets to his Kremlin handlers. Der Speigel reports that “the case is a disaster for Brussels.”

And from England, the Daily Mail alleges that a leading “peace” advocate and Labor Party member of Parliament, Cynthia Roberts, was a spy for Czech intelligence.

The Sunday Mail ran a surprisingly harsh editorial about the Roberts affair, drawing a broader lesson from her alleged treachery:

In some cases, the connections went far deeper. We may never know how many union officials, front-bench spokesmen, ordinary MPs and others were secret sympathisers of Soviet power, frightened victims of KGB bedroom blackmail, or actually in the pay of Warsaw Pact intelligence services.

The wretched saga of Cynthia Roberts reminds us of just how close the links were between Western socialists and the Communist world. Mrs Roberts sordidly provided her services to the doomed Czech Communist regime, one of the nastiest in all Eastern Europe.

IN REALITY, LINCOLN’S “TEAM OF RIVALS” WAS DYSFUNCTIONAL and President-elect Obama shouldn’t be looking to such an arrangement for success, or so Dickinson College history professor Matthew Pinsker would have us believe, according to his Los Angeles Times essay on the topic. Obama has praised Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” which claims Lincoln’s inclusion in his cabinet of three contemporary rivals for the presidency (William H. Seward, Salmon P. Chase, and Edward Bates) proved to be a masterful stroke. Pinsker begs to differ (“Lincoln’s Cabinet was no team. His rivals proved to be uneven as subordinates. Some were capable despite their personal disloyalty, yet others were simply disastrous.”) and his account should give Obama some pause as he brings his primary rivals (Hillary Clinton, Bill Richardson, and Joe Biden) into his administration.

THIS MONTH’S WORDS OF WISDOM FROM HERMAN MELVILLE’S NARRATOR IN “BILLY BUDD”: “Truth uncompromisingly told will always have its ragged edges.”

Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

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Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” and the world of work

Herman Melville knew not only how to tell a straightforward story, but also how to slyly include enough different elements, literary references, and symbols to add several layers of meaning to his tales; this ability to fuse narrative and symbolism is on full display in “Bartleby The Scrivener,” a longish short story first published in 1853.

Melville understood the value of ambiguity. By making the character of Bartleby, a legal scrivener (or copyist), so strange, so opaque, and so memorable, Melville insured the story’s lasting appeal. We never learn why Bartleby “prefers not” to tackle his office duties, and the underlying reasons for his stubborn resistance remain unexplained. As “Bartleby the Scrivener” begins, its narrator, the Wall Street lawyer who employs Bartleby, emphasizes the man’s mysteriousness:

Bartleby was one of those beings of whom nothing is ascertainable, except from the original sources, and in his case those are very small. What my own astonished eyes saw of Bartleby, that is all I know of him…

Brown University’s Arnold Weinstein has noted that this “blank Bartleby” has encouraged multiple readings of the character. Who is Bartleby? Who is he meant to represent? Some critics have viewed Bartleby as a stand-in for many of Melville’s sometimes difficult contemporaries (Edgar Allen Poe, Henry Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne) or for Melville himself. Was Bartleby a response to the negative reviews and flagging sales of Melville’s novels Moby-Dick (1851) and Pierre: or, The Ambiguities (1852), a suggestion that Melville “preferred not” to produce more accessible and less metaphorical fiction, even if readers preferred it? A different interpretation casts Bartleby as a Christ-like figure, misunderstood and persecuted by the world; those of a Marxist bent see him as the archetype of the office worker resisting the mind-numbing demands of exploitative capitalism.

Not every reader of Melville appreciates his fondness for the baroque and not all critics have delighted in his literary tricks. The English novelist D.H. Lawrence, in a critique of Moby-Dick, disapproved of what he called Melville’s attempt to “square himself with the intellectual world by dragging in deliberate transcendentalism, deliberate symbols and ‘deeper meanings.’ All this is insufferably clumsy and in clownish bad taste: self-conscious and amateurish to a degree, the worst side of American behavior.” In contrast, Lawrence writes, when Melville “renders us his sheer apprehension of the world…” then “he is wonderful” and his writing commands “a stillness in the soul, an awe.”

“Bartleby the Scrivener” does give us more “sheer apprehension of the world” and it can be read in simpler terms, as a story highlighting the tensions and contradictions in relationships at work. Melville caught some of the absurdity and alienation of office work at a time when most Americans made their living on farms. Bartleby’s eccentric office-mates—Nipper, Turkey, Ginger Boy—would fit right into the hijinks at the Dunder Mifflin Paper Company of the television sit-com “The Office.”

A prudent narrator

One entry point for the story is the narrator, Bartleby’s boss, whose dealings with his strange employee provide Melville’s narrative arc. The narrator/lawyer decribes himself as “rather elderly man,” one who is “eminently safe,” and he is sure to note that he has been praised by the famous financier John Jacob Aster as prudent and methodical. Yet the narrator has been living an “unexamined life” (to borrow a phrase from the transcendentalists). Proud of his commercial success and prudence, with a “natural expectancy of instant compliance” from his employees, he is totally unprepared for Bartleby’s resistance (“I would prefer not to”) and rejection of convention. Bartleby’s response puts the narrator strangely on the defensive. The lawyer regards himself as a decent, Christian man and we sense that he is not completely comfortable with wielding authority over his “pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn” employee. He cannot bring himself to confront Bartleby directly, and becomes profoundly linked to this strange employee:

Gradually I slid into the persuasion that these troubles of mine touching the scrivener, had been all predestinated from eternity, and Bartleby was billeted upon me for some mysterious purpose of an all-wise Providence, which it was not for a mere mortal like me to fathom.

The lawyer tries to cope with the situation rationally: he attempts to reason with Bartleby, to negotiate with him, and, finally, to pay him to go away. He finds that he cannot alter Bartleby’s insistence on withdrawing from work and from life. It is only the fear that “the strange creature I kept at my office” will damage his reputation, and hurt his law practice, that leads him to end their relationship, but even then he cannot do it directly, instead moving his office to escape Bartleby, this “intolerable incubus.”

Yet the narrator remains haunted by Bartleby. What does he owe him? Where does his responsibility end? All of his attempts to help Bartleby are rebuffed, but the lawyer still feels guilty when Bartleby’s stubborn rejection of the conventional costs him his life.

Some of the lasting appeal of the story is that it reflects, in exaggerated form, the natural workplace tension between boss and employee. How does the manager exercise his or her authority? By command and control or through gentle persuasion? And who ends up with the real power in the relationship? After all, the worker is not without leverage—sabotage or deliberately shoddy work is always an option, or (as with Bartleby) passive-aggressive resistance.

The puzzle of Bartleby

The close to “Bartleby the Scrivener” (what the narrator calls a sequel), fails to solve the puzzle of Bartleby. We learn that Bartleby served as a clerk in the Dead Letter Office in Washington and had lost his job with a change in administration. (Some critics have argued that the Dead Letters represent Melville’s failed novels, and that Bartleby’s despair reflects Melville’s despondency over what he thought was a dead-end for his writing.) The narrator draws a connection between Bartleby’s prior occupation and his eventual breakdown: “Conceive a man by nature and misfortune prone to a pallid hopelessness, can any business seem more fitted to heighten it than that of continually handling these dead letters and assorting them for the flames? For by the cart-load they are annually burned.”

But somehow Bartleby’s tacked-on past doesn’t seem enough to explain his bizarre behavior, his deadened affect, his anhedonia. His alienation and separation must have deeper and hidden psychic roots, but Melville deliberately leaves the mystery of this strange, ghostly scrivener unsolved.

Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved


Jefferson Flanders is author of the Cold War thriller Herald Square.

November 2007: Nobody asked me, but…

The missing GOP candidates, farewell to Cold War warriors, and other observations…

With a tip of the hat to New York’s man-about-town columnist Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER AND JEB BUSH WOULD BE LIKELY REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATES TODAY, and probable frontrunners, but for two factors: the U.S. Constitution, which legally bars the California Governator from running because of his foreign birth; and Bush clan fatigue, which effectively bars the President’s younger brother and former Florida governor from pursuing the Oval Office. It would have been a different primary season with either of these “missing candidates” on the ballot.

On paper, at least, Schwarzenegger would have been formidable, especially in a general election. Consider: Schwarzenegger offers a rags-to-riches life story; he has instant national name recognition as a famous movie star; he married into America’s most prominent Democratic political family; and he is chief executive of our largest state, and, from all accounts, a leader who is mastering the art of political compromise. Not only that, Schwarzenegger’s eclectic political beliefs track fairly closely to those of many Americans: the action-hero governor espouses free market economics, environmentalism, moderate immigration policies, and libertarian views on social issues.

Sure, Schwarzenegger has his political liabilities and personal flaws—sordid behavior towards women during his Hollywood days; some ethical questions about his business ventures; possibly some lingering health issues from his heart bypass; and, reportedly, a fascination with political power for power’s sake—but none more damaging than those of, say, Rudy Giuliani.

California’s 55 Electoral College votes, which haven’t been in play for a long, long time, would have made Arnie’s bid irresistable for conservative Republicans (who might otherwise have looked askance at the former bodybuilder’s candidacy).

Speaking of Golden State electoral votes, some California Republicans are pushing a June 2008 ballot initiative that would allocate them by congressional district, rather than the current winner-take-all system. If the initiative passes (which is very unlikely), it would mean any GOP candidate could count on an additional 15-20 electoral votes, enough to guarantee a national victory.

SOME KEY FIGURES IN COLD WAR HISTORY DEPARTED THE SCENE in the last month or so. Among them: Soviet spy Alexander Feklisov, who claimed to have overseen the espionage of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg; Kremlin hawk Vladimir Kryuchkov, one of the last heads of the KGB; Victor Rabinowitz, American lawyer (and Communist Party member) whose clients included Paul Robeson and Alger Hiss; John Noble, an American who survived some nine years in Russia’s gulag; and Milo Radulovich, a casualty of McCarthyism, unfairly fired from the Air Force Reserve as a security risk, whose cause was championed by Edward R. Murrow.

WASN’T NEIL DIAMOND’S REVELATION THAT HE WAS INSPIRED by JFK’s daughter Caroline Kennedy in writing the hit song “Sweet Caroline” touching? Or am I going soft?

WILL THAT WIND FARM IN NANTUCKET SOUND EVER BE BUILT? The Cape Cod Commission recently denied a permit for local transmission lines for the project; it seeks to generate clean power through some 130 wind turbines sited six miles off the Massachusetts coast. The wind farm developer, Cape Wind Associates, began the regulatory process in 2001 and has faced stiff opposition from local NIMBY (“Not in My Backyard”) activists. Cape Wind now seeks regulatory relief from the state’s energy facilities siting board, but it looks like timely approval for this much-needed alternative to fossil fuel generation will remain a long shot.

REALCLEAR POLITICS’ BLAKE DVORAK’S TOUGH CRITIQUE OF THE CNN/YouTube debates includes this memorable line: “With the fare presented ranging from the inventive to the ridiculous, the experiment was certainly a nice reminder for why the Founders cherished individual freedom but dreaded direct democracy.”

ROSIE O’DONNELL MAY HAVE LOST A SHOT AT A TALK-SHOW ON MSNBC, but, based on her blog entry announcing that news, she may have a future as a haiku poet. Think any MSNBC executive would cop to the “Rosie Show” as his or her idea today?

KNUTE ROCKNE, Notre Dame’s legendary football coach, provides this month’s quotation (one that might resonate with the embattled current Fighting Irish coach Charlie Weis): “I’ve found that prayers work best when you have big players.”



Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders
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