Nervous Wrecks and Ginger-nuts: Bartleby at a Standstill

From Leviathan: A Journal of Melville Studies (October 2003; Volume 5, No. 2)

Recall the moment in Moby-Dick when Stubb proclaims, after Queequeg has been pulled from the shark-infested waters,

Ginger? ginger? and will you have the goodness to tell me, Mr. Dough-Boy, where lies the virtue of ginger? . . . Is ginger the sort of fuel you use . . . to kindle a fire in this shivering cannibal? . . . The steward, Mr. Starbuck, had the face to offer that calomel and jalap to Queequeg, there, this instant off the whale. Is the steward and apothecary, sir? . . . We’ll teach you how to drug a harpooner, none of your apothecary’s medicine here.

Now recall the moment in “Bartleby, the Scrivener” when the lawyer meditates on Bartleby’s peculiar eating habits:

He lives, then, on ginger-nuts, thought I: never eats a dinner, properly speaking . . . My mind ran on in reveries concerning the probably effects upon the human constitution of living entirely on ginger-nuts . . . Now, what was ginger”

Despite the nearly seven hundred essays on Mellville’s famous story, this striking parallel has remained untreated. Such an omission would seem more understandable if Melville hadn’t engaged the topic of patent medicine in other works from the 1850x. In The Confidence Man, for example, Melville devotes several chapters to the dealings of an herb doctor who prescribes “Omni-Balsamic Reinvigorator” and “Samaritan Pain Dissuader” to passengers on a steamboat ironically name Fidele. There, Stubb’s skepticism in the face of such medicine finds expression in the voice of a Missouri bachelor who derides one of the herb doctor’s patients: “Yarbs, yarbs; natur, natur; you foolish old file you! He diddles you with that hocus-pocus, did he? Yarbs and nature will cure your incurlable cough, you think” (NN CM 106). Directly connecting the phenomenon of herbal medicine to the novel’s central conceit of the confidence game, Mellville even has the Missourian remark, “I have confidence in distrust; more particularly as applied to you and your herbs” (108). Finally, in “Cock-A-Doodle-Doo!” a story with references to steamboat and railroad disasters, a less skeptical but much more desperate narrator speaks of money as “a drug in the market,” lamenting, “But blame me if I can get any of the drug, though there never was a sick man more in need of that particular sort of medicine” (NN Plazza Tales Tales 270). Checking his pockets, the narrator then declares, “Ha! here’s a powder I was going to send the sick baby in yonder hovel, where the Irish ditcher lives.”

Clearly, Melville is playing games with patent medicines in his fiction from the 1850s. This essay seeks to answer the lawyer’s question in “Bartleby, the Scrivener” — “Now, what was ginger?” — as a way of trying to elucidate the scrivener’s mysterious rebellion, and it assumes from the outset that the lawyer cannot possibly answer his own question. Instead, it leans on the witty “distrust” of these other works in order to flesh out the story’s implicit critique, to see where indeed lies the virtue of ginger.

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