Poet Helen Pinkerton on the “gentle preference” of Bartleby


We wrote some time ago about Stanford’s upcoming “Another Look” event on Herman Melville‘s long short story Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street. It’s coming up fast on Monday, January 8 at 7 p.m. (PST) in the Stanford Humanities Center’s Levinthal Hall (This is a hybrid event, so you can come in person or via zoom, but we encourage you to register either way here).

Panelists will include Stanford Prof. Robert Pogue Harrison, author, director of Another Look, host of the radio talk show and podcast series Entitled Opinions, and a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books, and Stanford Prof. Tobias Wolff, one of America’s leading writers and the founding director of Another Look, as well as a recipient of the National Medal of Arts. Two special guests will round out the high-powered panel out to four: Robert’s brother Thomas Harrison, professor of European Languages and Transcultural Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Katie Peterson, an award-winning poet and Stanford alum. 

The upcoming events brought to mind the late Helen Pinkerton, Stanford’s Melville scholar and poet, who wrote Melville’s Confidence Men and American Politics in the 1850s. Los Angeles poet and friend Timothy Steele wrote an excellent and eloquent appreciation here.

Helen died on this day six years ago, December 28, at the age of 90, but her friend and longtime correspondent (I introduced them) was Patrick Kurp. Many of you will know him from his superb and indefatigable blogging over at Anecdotal Evidence. I wrote him to ask if she had written anything about Melville’s 1853 short wonder of a tale.

Poets Helen Pinkerton and Turner Cassity with me at a Stanford reading.

He responded by email:

“Thanks for reminding me of Helen. I don’t remember Bartleby coming up in conversation. Most of our Melville talk was devoted to his Civil War poetry and, of course, Moby-Dick.

“Perhaps you’ve already thought of this, but see her suite of five poems titled ‘Melvilleana’ (p. 38 in Taken in Faith; p. 55 in A Journey of the Mind). The second in the series is Bartleby the Scrivener, which comes with the obvious epigraph: ‘I prefer not to.’ Here it is:

His gentle preference endures,
In some of us as a bitter indignation,
In some as willfulness or whim,
Or new philosophy.

History’s strict demand ensures
Survival only of the strict creation:
Our anger’s cause exposed in him,
Our longing not to be.

Patrick added, “Naturally, Helen turns even Melville into a Thomistic thinker.” And so she does.

(Read more about Helen Pinkerton here. And please register for the Jan. 8 discussion of Bartleby here.)

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