"Dead letters! does it not sound like dead men?"
Oil Painting by Joseph Oriel Eaton
Perhaps all of my readers have read Herman Melville's most poignant story, Bartleby, The Scrivener: A Story of Wall-street. If not, the story can be read online here - ironically, at "bartleby-dot-com - but what interests me is the story's penultimate paragraph, reproduced below, a sort of afterword, written in the aftermath of Bartleby's peculiar demise:
There would seem little need for proceeding further in this history. Imagination will readily supply the meagre recital of poor Bartleby's interment. But ere parting with the reader, let me say, that if this little narrative has sufficiently interested him, to awaken curiosity as to who Bartleby was, and what manner of life he led prior to the present narrator's making his acquaintance, I can only reply, that in such curiosity I fully share, but am wholly unable to gratify it. Yet here I hardly know whether I should divulge one little item of rumor, which came to my ear a few months after the scrivener's decease. Upon what basis it rested, I could never ascertain; and hence, how true it is I cannot now tell. But inasmuch as this vague report has not been without a certain strange suggestive interest to me, however sad, it may prove the same with some others; and so I will briefly mention it. The report was this: that Bartleby had been a subordinate clerk in the Dead Letter Office at Washington, from which he had been suddenly removed by a change in the administration. When I think over this rumor, I cannot adequately express the emotions which seize me. Dead letters! does it not sound like dead men? Conceive a man by nature and misfortune prone to a pallid hopelessness, can any business seem more fitted to heighten it than that of continually handling these dead letters and assorting them for the flames? For by the cart-load they are annually burned. Sometimes from out the folded paper the pale clerk takes a ring: - the finger it was meant for, perhaps, moulders in the grave; a bank-note sent in swiftest charity: - he whom it would relieve, nor eats nor hungers any more; pardon for those who died despairing; hope for those who died unhoping; good tidings for those who died stifled by unrelieved calamities. On errands of life, these letters speed to death.I wish to speculate on a puzzling sentence that Melville has his narrator offer:
"Dead letters! does it not sound like dead men?"I call this one sentence since Melville uses a small "d" in the word "does." At any rate, consider how one might answer Melville's question. I suspect that even with the utmost good will in all the world - indeed, in all the universe - no reader would imagine that "letters" sounds like "men"! For myself, I can scarcely conceive two words less alike! One's answer would thus have to be, "No, Mr. Melville, they sound nothing alike." What, then, is Melville up to? Possibly this:
"Dead 'mail'! does it not sound like dead 'male'?"But perhaps "mail" was not used in the sense of "letters" in Melville's time? Oh, but it was! According to the OED, this sense goes back to at least 1654, and Melville's good friend Nathaniel Hawthorne used the word in this crucial sense in 1852, one year prior to Bartleby's publication in 1853, so Melville surely knew this usage. And just in case any ultra-skeptics would express doubt about the word "male" - its use with reference to "men" traces back to at least 1631.
I therefore humbly suggest that Melville had this unspoken pun "mail-male" in mind when he wrote, "Dead letters! does it not sound like dead men?" But why leave unspoken the pun in "Dead 'mail'! does it not sound like dead 'male'?" The query answers itself, for expressed, the pun is intolerable; unexpressed, it's brilliant!