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Cubed

A Secret History of the Workplace

Cubed by Nikil Saval
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Excerpted from the Hardcover Edition


1

The Clerking Class

The torn coat sleeve to the table. The steel pen to the ink. Write! Write! Be it truth or fable. Words! Words! Clerks never think.

—Benjamin Browne Foster, Down East Diary (1849)

They labored in poorly lit, smoky single rooms, attached to merchants and lawyers, to insurance concerns and banks. They had sharp penmanship and bad eyes, extravagant clothes but shrunken, unused bodies, backs cramped from poor posture, fingers callused by constant writing. When they were not thin, angular, and sallow, they were ruddy and soft; their paunches sagged onto their thighs.

Clerks were once a rare subject in literature. Their lives were considered unworthy of comment, their workplaces hemmed in and small, their work indescribably dull. And yet one of the greatest of short stories is about a clerk. In “Bartleby, the Scrivener” (1853), Herman Melville, who had become famous for writing memoirs and novels about spectacular sea voyages to exotic islands—gaining a readership he eventually lost with that strange, long book about a whaling voyage—decided to turn inward, to the snug, suffocating world of the office. The titanic hunt for the white whale was exchanged for the hunt for the right-sized pen. And for finding the right position to sit at a desk: “If, for the sake of easing his back, he brought the table lid at a sharp angle well up towards his chin, and wrote there like a man using the steep roof of a Dutch house for his desk, then he declared that it stopped the circulation in his arms. If now he lowered the table to his waistbands, and stooped over it in writing, then there was a sore aching in his back.”

Melville himself had worked as a clerk for a merchant in Hawaii before he—as Ishmael put it—took to the ship. He knew from the inside the peculiar emptiness that office work could often have, its atmosphere of purposeless labor and dead-endedness. Even in Moby-Dick he speaks of the thousands in Manhattan who idle along the Battery, lost in “sea-reverie,” avoiding returning to their work lives “pent up in lath and plaster—tied to counters, nailed to benches, clinched to desks.” Appropriately, the few windows in the Bartleby office look out onto nothing but more walls. “On one end,” the unnamed narrator writes, the window faced “the white wall of the interior of a spacious sky-light shaft, penetrating the building from top to bottom.” And on the other side, “an unobstructed view of a lofty brick wall, black by age and everlasting shade.” This wall, the narrator adds, wryly, “required no spy-glass to bring out its lurking beauties, but, for the benefit of all near-sighted spectators, was pushed to within ten feet of my window panes.” On two sides, then, two walls: one, the white wall of the light shaft; the other, a soot-black brick wall hemming in vision and light. A walled-in window: a room with no view.

But the office of “Bartleby,” like the Pequod of Ishmael and Ahab, is also a place of male bonding, cheery with camaraderie and bonhomie. The narrator, a lawyer, initially employs three clerks with absurd nicknames—Turkey, Nippers, and Ginger Nut—that he uses affectionately. Each of them behaves with exact predictability the same way every day; for example, Turkey, an old man, always ceases to get work done after his noontime dinner, which he takes with an inordinate quantity of wine, causing his face to “blaze like a grate full of Christmas coals.” But the boss is too kind to do anything Trump-like, and the distempered workers never challenge their boss.

The entire order dissolves, however, when a sudden increase in the volume of business pushes the narrator into hiring a new scrivener—the eponymous Bartleby. He arrives looking “pallidly neat, pitiably respectable,” and, mysteriously enough, “incurably forlorn.” The narrator gives him a desk next to a window, but like the other windows it offers little to look at, “having originally afforded a lateral view of certain grimy backyards and bricks, but which, owing to subsequent erections, commanded at present no view at all, though,” the narrator concedes, “it gave some light.”

At first Bartleby works diligently, his thinness inversely proportional to his ravenousness for writing: “As if long famishing for something to copy, he seemed to gorge himself on my documents. There was no pause for digestion. He ran a day and night line, copying by sun-light and by candle-light. I should have been quite delighted with his application, had he been cheerfully industrious. But he wrote on, silently, palely, mechanically.” The trouble comes when this routine is interrupted. The lawyer-narrator calls Bartleby in for assistance in comparing two copies of a document. After outlining the duty, the narrator is stunned by Bartleby’s infamous reply—“I would prefer not to.” Repeating the maddening phrase at the narrator’s every spluttering attempt to get him to work, Bartleby plunges the calm predictability of the office into thunderous irregularity. In the end, the lawyer, baffled by Bartleby’s intransigence, his passive resistance, is forced to leave his office altogether; Bartleby himself is taken off to prison, where, bereft of his sustenance of documents, he starves to death.

What “Bartleby” means has been a subject of endless debate. Office workers have always taken it to be a mirror of their condition, with Bartleby’s “I would prefer not to” an encapsulation of how the office reduces all titanic conflicts to petty grievances and simmering resentments. But in 1853, when the story was written, the term “office”—and the sort of labor that was performed there—had nowhere near the universal significance it has now. In those tense years before the Civil War, clerks were a small but unusual phenomenon, a subject of anxious scrutiny; their workplaces were at once significant centers of American business and breeding grounds for a kind of work that nobody recognized as work. Clerks were a kind of worker that seemed, like Bartleby, at once harmless and ominous. “Bartleby” was evidence that the office had just begun to blot its inky mark on the consciousness of the world.

When does the office begin? It’s a question without an easy answer. One can associate the origins with the beginning of paperwork itself—until recently, the most common mental association with office work (think of the derogatory phrase “paper pusher”). In other words, since the invention of writing and the corresponding ability to keep records in a systematic manner, there have always been places that resemble offices: monasteries, libraries, scholars’ studies. Banking furnished an especially large amount of paperwork; the Uffizi, an incomparable gallery of Renaissance art in Florence, was also one of the first office buildings—the bookkeeping offices of the Medici family’s groundbreaking financial operations. Clerks, too, have existed for ages, many of them unclinching themselves from their desks to become quite famous: from Samuel Pepys, the British government diarist who reported on the gossipy world of seventeenth-century England, to Alexander Hamilton, who had cut his teeth as a merchants’ clerk before he became the first secretary of the Treasury of the United States; Benjamin Franklin, paragon of pecuniary restraint and bourgeois self-abnegation, started out as a dry goods clerk in 1727. Perhaps some of the tediousness of Franklin’s own writing was honed in the conditions of his first job: since clerks have had the opportunity to keep diaries, they have bemoaned the sheer boredom of their tasks—the endless copying, the awkward postures, the meaninglessness of their work. When not doing writing for the job, clerks have cultivated the habit of writing about the job—or literally around it, as in the case of some infamous marginalia from medieval scribes. “Writing is excessive drudgery,” one such jotting reads. “It crooks your back, it dims your sight, it twists your stomach and your sides.” “Oh, my hand,” goes another—even though writing out that sentence would have only magnified the problem it described.

The notion of the office as the quintessential location of alienated work, or simple drudgery, is far from the etymological root of the word. “Office” itself comes from the Latin for “duty.” One of the more famous philosophical works of Cicero, long-winded scold of the latter days of the Roman Republic, is a treatise called De officiis, usually translated as “Of Duty” or “On Duty,” though it might just as well be “Of Office.” For Cicero’s understanding of duty isn’t far from our contemporary sense of “holding office” or the “office of the president”: “office” as connoting a specific set of responsibilities. For Cicero, “office” was what was proper to you, what fitted you as your natural duty. This, too, seems far from any understanding of the office as workplace: few people have ever considered office work to be natural, proper, or fitting.

To find the emergence of the office in history—the workplace that prefigures the offices of today—one has to look at a peculiar confluence of new sorts of buildings, deep economic changes, as well as (most slippery of all) new kinds of feelings and mass awareness of one another among particular strata of the workforce. Industrialization in Britain and America was producing more and more administrative work, and alongside it a need for a rational approach to managing accounts, bills, ledgers: in short, paperwork. Rising to take these positions were clerks, who, looking around, began to see themselves growing in number, and to feel themselves as belonging vaguely to a special group. One finds the evolution of the office coinciding, then, with a change in the position of the clerks themselves—a new restiveness on their part, a new sense of power. They were not quite sure of themselves, but they were no longer isolated. By the middle of the nineteenth century, clerks and their workplaces begin to appear with a new regularity in the literature and journalism. “Bartleby,” with its simultaneously assertive and retiring protagonist, nicely captures this ambivalence in the early world of the office.

What “Bartleby” also captured, as other descriptions of office life at the time did, was the sense that office work was unnatural. In a world in which shipping and farming, building and assembling, were the order of work, the early clerical worker didn’t seem to fit. The office clerk in America at the high noon of the nineteenth century was a curious creature, an unfamiliar figure, an inexplicable phenomenon. Even by 1880, less than 5 percent of the total workforce, or 186,000 people, was in the clerical profession, but in cities, where the nation’s commentariat was concentrated (who themselves tended to work in office-like places), clerks had become the fastest-growing population. In some heavily mercantile cities, such as New York, they had already become ubiquitous: the 1855 census recorded clerks as the city’s third largest occupational group, just behind servants and laborers.

For many, this was a terrible development. Nothing about clerical labor was congenial to the way most Americans thought of work. Clerks didn’t work the land, lay railroad tracks, make ammunitions in factories, let alone hide away in a cabin by a small pond to raise beans and live deep. Unlike farming or factory work, office work didn’t produce anything. At best, it seemed to reproduce things. Clerks copied endlessly, bookkeepers added up numbers to create more numbers, and insurance men literally made more paper. For the tobacco farmer or miner, it barely constituted work at all. He (and at that point it was invariably a he) was a parasite on the work of others, who literally did the heavy lifting. Thus the bodies of real workers were sinewy, tanned by the relentless sun or blackened by smokestack soot; the bodies of clerks were slim, almost feminine in their untested delicacy.

The lively (and unscrupulous) American press occasionally took time to level invectives against the clerk. “We venture the assertion that there is not a more dependent or subservient set of men in this country than are the genteel, dry goods clerks in this and other large cities,” the editors of the American Whig Review held. Meanwhile, the American Phrenological Journal had stronger advice for young men facing the prospect of a clerical career. “Be men, therefore, and with true courage and manliness dash into the wilderness with your axe and make an opening for the sunlight and for an independent home.” Vanity Fair had the strongest language of all: clerks were “vain, mean, selfish, greedy, sensual and sly, talkative and cowardly” and spent all their minimal strength attempting to dress better than “real men who did real work.” Somehow it was never questioned that journalism, also conducted in offices and with pen and paper, constituted “real work.”

Clerks’ attire was a glaring target for the barbs of the press, since the very concept of business attire (not to speak of business casual) came into being with the mass appearance of clerks in American cities. “In the counting-room and the office,” wrote Samuel Wells, the author of a “manual of republican etiquette” from 1856, “gentlemen wear frock coats or sack coats. They need not be of very fine material, and should not be of any garish pattern.” Other fashion advisers pointed to a whole host of “business coats,” “business surtouts,” and “business paletots,” which you could find at new stores like Brooks Brothers. Working-class Americans would be seen in straw hats or green blouses; what distinguished the clerk was his collar: usually bleached an immaculate white and starched into an imposing stiffness. But collared business shirts were expensive, so stores catering to the business customer began to sell collars by themselves, half a dozen collars running to under half of what a cheap shirt would cost. The white collar, detachable and yet an essential status marker, was the perfect symbol of the pseudo-genteel, dual nature of office work.

The self-regarding clerk in his white collar became a stock subject of satire. Edgar Allan Poe, in his story “The Man of the Crowd,” saw the “tribe of clerks” as being composed entirely of overdressed dandies, imitating aristocratic styles already several years old:

There were the junior clerks of flash houses—young gentlemen with tight coats, bright boots, well-oiled hair, and supercilious lips. Setting aside a certain dapperness of carriage, which may be termed deskism for want of a better word, the manner of these persons seemed to me an exact fac-simile of what had been the perfection of bon ton about twelve or eighteen months before. They wore the cast-off graces of the gentry;—and this, I believe, involves the best definition of the class.

The division of the upper clerks of staunch firms, or of the “steady old fellows,” it was not possible to mistake. These were known by their coats and pantaloons of black or brown, made to sit comfortably, with cravats and waistcoats, broad solid-looking shoes, and thick hose or gaiters.—They all had slightly bald heads, from which the right ears, long used to pen-holding, had an odd habit of standing off on end. I observed that they always removed or settled their hats with both hands, and wore watches, with short gold chains of a substantial and ancient pattern. Theirs was the affectation of respectability;—if indeed there be an affectation so honorable.
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group; April 2014
288 pages; ISBN 9780385536585
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Title: Cubed
Author: Nikil Saval
 
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