The Tombs of Melville and Bartleby
By A. C. |
Inside the Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx lies American novelist Herman Melville. He is remembered for his great literary works such as Moby Dick and Bartleby. His tomb is located on Plot Catalpa, Section 23, and his tombstone is engraved with the traditional name, birth, and date of decease as well as a blank scroll and flowers. Next to his grave lies his wife, Elizabeth Shaw Melville, with whom he had four children. Her tombstone is decorated with a cross and the same flowers carved into her husband’s tombstone. Melville’s tomb is appreciated by aspiring writers and poets, judging from the offerings of many pens left there in tribute. It is a form of a promise to attempt to be as great as he was in the literary world.
Melville’s best-known novel, Moby Dick (1851), did not bring him any fame or fortune while he was alive, however—just disappointment, as did most of his other works. Moby Dick is about a captain seeking revenge on a sperm whale that has robbed him of his leg. The novel was based on Melville’s recollection of a real-life story about the wrecked whaling ship, Essex, and his own experiences out on the sea. The Essex was attacked by a whale, and the survivors were forced to face vicious weather, starvation, and cannibalism; they would later go on to tell their tale.
Melville wrote his novella Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street in 1853. The story is about a lawyer who hires a copyist, Bartleby, who politely refuses the tasks given to him by saying “I would prefer not to.” Bartleby and the other characters within the story are defined by their behavior at work. Bartleby is the first one to arrive and the last to leave, and at first “did an extraordinary quantity of writing” (1098). Then, at a certain point Bartleby stops working and writing altogether because, as he says, he “would prefer not to.” The lawyer, after realizing that Bartleby is living in his office, decides to move his place of business because Bartleby won’t leave and he doesn’t have the heart to throw him out. After the lawyer moves, Bartleby begins to haunt his previous work place; the lawyer returns, but cannot convince him to leave. The new owner calls the police and has Bartleby arrested and sent to The Tombs, a nineteenth-century prison in lower Manhattan. When the lawyer goes to visit Bartleby at the prison, he is unaware At Melville’s tomb, I thought of Bartleby, dying in The Tombs because he prefers not to live.
The Woodlawn Cemetery, where Melville is buried, is located at 517 East 233rd Street and first opened in 1863. It is home to over 300,000 of the deceased and there are 1,300 mausoleums within its 400 acres. There are many notable people buried at this cemetery, including Celia Cruz, Duke Ellington, Irving Berlin, and Fiorello LaGuardia. The cemetery holds tours, has free bus service, and events. In 2011, the National Parks Service named Woodlawn Cemetery a National Historic Landmark.
The most fascinating aspect of Melville’s tomb is the blank scroll etched into it. Symbolizing his status as a well-respected American novelist, the scroll represents a blank canvas, something to capture creativity, starting off with something empty which will then become a collage of thoughts. Melville said, “We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow man.” The scroll is unfolded, as if to let aspiring writers into his life and into his mind, to feel what he felt when creating something of his own design. At one point in his life, Melville put his writing on hiatus for many years, just as Bartleby also refused to continue writing.
It does not matter if a book is a huge hit or a complete failure—all novelists are to be treasured. Melville was not recognized as a great writer in his time with his novels Moby Dick, Pierre: or, The Ambiguities, and Israel Potter all considered disappointing pieces of literature by the critics. They sold poorly and were critiqued harshly. Melville died of a heart attack in 1891, and did not live to see the amazing success and respect he has gained since. Today he is considered one of the greatest American novelists, and his works are used within schools to inspire and educate. Melville once said, “He who has never failed somewhere, that man cannot be great.” Melville is a perfect example of a different sort of rags-to-riches story but instead of money, he acquired literary fame.
David SheelyNovember 6, 2021
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