Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Books: "Bartleby & Me" By Gay Talese


Bartleby And Me: Reflections of an Old Scrivener

By Gay Talese

Mariner Books; hardcover, 320 pages; $28.99; available today, Tuesday, September 19th

Gay Talese is a treasured writer who created, according to Tom Wolfe, an inventive form of nonfiction writing called "The New Journalism." He began his career at the New York Times in 1953 and worked at "the paper of record" for twelve years before moving on to Esquire, where he wrote some of the most celebrated magazine pieces ever written. Talese was born in Ocean City, New Jersey, in 1932, and he currently lives in New York City with his wife, Nan. His celebrated books include The Kingdom and the Power, on the inner workings of the Times; Honor Thy Father, Thy Neighbor's Wife, Upon the Sons, and The Voyeur's Motel

In the new book, Bartleby And Me: Reflections of an Old Scrivener, Talese, now 91, revisits his career, which was marked by his fascination with the world's hidden characters, and delivers one final, unforgettable story. 

Talese wrote sixty years ago as a young reporter, that, "New York City is a city of things unnoticed." This statement defined the rest of his legendary career, as he celebrated the people most overlooked, understanding that it was through these minor characters that the epic story of New York, and of America, unfolded.

It is in that spirit that he adds a brilliant and, possibly, last chapter to his legacy, as this book begins with a memoir and evolves into original reporting, as if Talese takes us from theory to practice. That is because he explains the magic behind his greatest tricks, then reveals his new masterpiece, executed using those skills and instincts.

Talese takes inspiration for this from Herman Melville's short story, "Bartleby the Scrivener," and he begins by revisiting the unforgettable "nobodies" he profiled in his early pioneering career as a young reporter at the New York Times. Some of them include the Times's anonymous obituary writer, the man who rang the bell between rounds of boxing matches at Madison Square Garden, and a now-forgotten reclusive Hollywood silent star.

In the second part of this incisive work, Talese writes about his career at Esquire, where he wrote the pieces that Tom Wolfe would name as pioneering works of the "New Journalism," an inventive form of nonfiction writing whose other practitioners included Wolfe himself, Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, and Joan Didion. 

It was at Esquire that Talese wrote some of the most celebrated magazine pieces ever written, including "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold," which was called "the greatest literary-nonfiction story of the twentieth century" by Vanity Fair magazine. He takes readers behind the scenes of the creation of this groundbreaking profile of Sinatra, in which he spent weeks in California chasing down the elusive singer and his entourage without ever getting an actual sit-down interview. 

Bartleby And Me concludes with an original piece by Talese, in which he reveals the strange and riveting tale of Dr. Nicholas Bartha, who blew up his Manhattan brownstone, and himself, in 2006, rather than relinquish his claim of the American Dream, a beloved patch of New York real estate.

The brownstone was at 34 East 62nd Street, between Madison and Park Avenues, a cherished 19th-century high-stoop Neo-Grecian residence. After an acrimonious marriage ended in divorce, Dr. Bartha was ordered by the court to pay his ex-wife four million dollars, which meant he would have to sell the apartment.

Dr. Bartha responded on July 10, 2006, by filling his building with gas that he had diverted from a pipe in the basement, and then he set off an explosion that reduced the four-story brownstone into a fiery heap. 

Talese was obsessed with this story for over fifteen years, and he meticulously unpacks Bartha's past, as well as the building's, and overall, New York's, and reveals what led one man to an act of self-destruction.

In this excerpt, Talese writes of the kind of writer he wanted to be starting out, "Growing up in a small town on the Jersey Shore in the late 1940s, I dreamed of someday working for a great newspaper. But I did not necessarily want to write news. News was ephemeral and it accentuated the negative. It was largely concerned with what went wrong yesterday rather than what went right. Much of it was, in Bob Dylan's words, 'good-for-nothing news.' Or it was Gotcha Journalism, in which reporters with tape recorders often got public figures to make fools of themselves trying to answer tricky questions.

Nevertheless, news continues to be made every day based on the statements and activities of newsworthy people - politicians, bankers, business leaders, artists, entertainers, and athletes. Other people are ignored unless involved in a crime, or a scandal, or had suffered an accidental or violent death. If they had lived lawfully and uneventfully, and had died of natural causes, obituary editors would not assign reporters to write about them. They were not newsworthy. They were essentially nobodies. When I joined the Times in the mid-1950s, I wanted to specialize in writing about nobodies.

As a reader I was always drawn to fiction writers who could make ordinary people seem extraordinary. Out of a nobody they could create a memorable somebody. Among the writers who achieved this was Herman Melville, whose great short story about a nobody is called 'Bartleby, the Scrivener.'

Appearing in Putnam's Magazine in 1853, two years after the publication of Melville's novel Moby-Dick, the story takes place within a small and dreary law office on the second floor of a building on Wall Street. The first-person narrator is an elderly lawyer who is not given a name but is described as a mild-mannered individual lacking vanity and unabashed professional ambition. Instead of arguing cases in court and seeking public recognition, he serenely conducts 'a snug business among rich men's bonds and mortgages and title-deeds.'

In this era when legal documents are copied by hand, with pen and ink, the lawyer delegates this tedious and exacting task to a newly hired scrivener named Bartleby. Whether this is his first or last name is the reader's guess, but in any case Bartleby - 'pallidly neat, pitiably respectful, incurably forlorn' - makes a fine early impression as he sits quietly throughout the day, head bent, pen in hand, scribbling prodigiously at a corner desk hidden behind a high green folding screen that the lawyer placed there to provide some privacy for both the new man and himself.

The lawyer's desk is on the same side of the room as Bartleby's, while two veteran scriveners and an office boy (the latter a barely pubescent but purposeful youth who earns a dollar a week running errands and sweeping the uncarpeted floor) sit on the opposite side of the room. Bartleby never initiates conversation with his fellow scriveners or the lawyer, but he briefly exchanges a few words behind his screen once a day with the office boy - who then, jingling coins, leaves the office and goes out to purchase a handful of ginger-nut biscuits for Bartleby, retaining a couple for himself. Bartleby seems to eat little more than ginger nuts. He never goes out to lunch. When the lawyer and the others depart from the premises in the evening, they always leave Bartleby behind, working at his desk by candlelight...

During my writing assignments and my longtime residency in New York City, I have met many people who, in one way or another, remind me of Bartleby. These are people whom I might see regularly but whose private lives remain private. I might know them by one name, or no name, or by little more than a nod, and yet I continually cross paths with them as they perform their duties as doormen, bank tellers, receptionists, waiters, mail carriers, handymen, cleaning women, and counter clerks at the hardware store, dry cleaner, pharmacy, or other places employing people who might meet an obituary editor's definition of a nobody.

When I was hired by the Times - I began as a twenty-one-year-old copyboy in the summer of 1953, earning $38 a week - the first thing I noticed as I entered the vast third-floor newsroom within the old Gothic-style office building on 43rd Street off Broadway were the horseshoe-shaped desks around which sat the bent-over bodies of dozens of copyreaders. Nearly all of them were men who wore green plastic eyeshades and, with pencils poised, were reading, correcting, and revisiing the typed pages of the articles that lay in front of them and were scheduled to be published in the next day's paper.

The copyreaders' names were unknown to the newspaper's general readership and also to most of the bylined reporters whose work they were editing. Like Bartleby, the copyreaders were physically close to their fellow employees while remaining socially and emotionally distant. Huddled for hours around the rims of the curved desks in the middle of the newsroom, with a minimum of movement and little conversation even among themselves, they were private, pensive, and pondering individuals who were entirely focused on reading and evaluating what might be fit to print in the next edition and what might eventually be preserved eternally in the paper of record."

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