A History of Bartleby

by: Nicole A. Mooney

Shortly after the founding of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) in the 1960s, a group of students dreamed of producing a literary magazine that would feature poetry, fiction, and artwork by UMBC faculty and students. Their dream became a reality in the form of The Red Brick, UMBC’s first literary magazine. Unfortunately, in March 1969, the editors published a photograph that would forever sink their publication. It was a blurry photo of a man and woman, both nude, posing in graceful dance positions behind a thin veil. The photo caused an outrage both on campus and in the surrounding community. So much so, that local press covered the story and the Board of Regents came to UMBC to determine the motives of the publication: “Judgments on the publication from artistic, moral, financial and social points of view were also applied to UMBC itself, and the school’s responsibility to the electorate became a matter of public debate” (Skipjack 1969).

As a result of the meeting, The Red Brick was ordered to cease publication; all remaining copies of the issue were taken by university officials and disposed of. No other issue of The Red Brick was ever printed, and UMBC’s literary magazine ceased to exist.

Despite its sad end, creating The Red Brick had been a good idea and one that would not be forever squelched by a racy photograph and a stuffy committee. In the early 1970s, another group of UMBC students once again had a great idea. They wanted to start a literary magazine that featured the work of local writers and UMBC faculty and students. While mostly a poetry publication, they also wanted the magazine to feature creative fiction and artwork. The result of their group effort was Bartleby, a literary journal that featured poems, short fiction, and photography from local artists and members of the UMBC community.

Bartleby derives its name from Herman Melville’s short story, “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” the tale of an eccentric copyist who replies to all his boss’s demands with a simple, “I would prefer not to.” Eventually, Bartleby declines to do any task which his boss asks him to complete. So frustrated by his scrivener’s behavior is he, that the boss moves his office up town, leaving Bartleby behind. However, he is forever intrigued by his peculiar employee who, in the end, is arrested for loitering in his former place of employment. Eventually, the copyist wastes away in a jail cell, refusing to eat and refusing to accept that change is a part of life. Choosing this name was the decision of Bartleby’s founders. In the 1970s, Melville’s character was viewed by literary scholars as a symbol of non-conformity. According to former Bartleby editor Bernard Daskal, in the early years of UMBC–when the school was a haven for activist, radical, non-conforming students–Bartleby was an important, even heroic, figure (Daskal 2001). Melville’s Bartleby is a truly unique character, unlike any other in classical fiction. Like its namesake, Bartleby is a unique publication. Its purpose is to provide the university with work by the students for the students. It features “a variety of levels of accomplishment–from the ideas of young writers and artists just beginning to create to the refined expressions of more experienced students…By giving recognition to these artists, we motivate them–and other aspiring creators–to improve the quality of their work and thereby improve the quality of life for us all” (Bartleby 1995). The poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, and artwork found within its pages serve as a lasting tribute to UMBC students who were unafraid to share their creations. The magazine also serves as a tribute to its staff of students who, each year, spend months advertising to solicit submissions, host special events to raise money, and choose winning pieces from hundreds of submissions. Without their hard work and dedication, Bartleby would cease to exist, as it sometimes has in the past.

Works Cited

Daskal, Bernard. Personal Email. Aug. 6, 2001.

Skipjack, UMBC, 1969, 191-3.