All posts by South 85 Journal

A Dead Letter in Reverse: Melville’s Bartleby

Jeffrey R. Schrecongost

I was assembling my ENGL 112 course syllabus the other day, and, in reviewing Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener,” I was reminded that an argument for Bartleby as antiestablishment hero is not indefensible. The harmless, if not initially loveable, chap is curiously comedic in his hell-bent defiance and awkward introversion and can ultimately be viewed as a martyr for individuality. Conversely, an interpretation of Bartleby as individual-to-a-fault can be successfully supported as well.

Bartleby’s refusal to exist productively within society is neither admirably rebellious nor practical. By ‘preferring’ to do nothing, Bartleby makes no statement of consequence, advances no cause, and effects no societal change. Indeed, Bartleby’s lone achievement is dying a disconsolate, friendless death on his own terms. Honor in that particular venture is elusive at best.

After close consideration of both possible interpretations, one must conclude that Bartleby’s efforts to live his life based on personal preference alone results not in hedonistic bliss and spiritual enlightenment, but, rather, aborted dreams and retarded potential.

The “pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn” Bartleby is the quintessential social outcast by choice. Aloof, with nothing “ordinarily human about him,” Bartleby charms the reader with his idiosyncrasies. His famously repeated response, “‘I would prefer not to,’” is an expression of personal freedom many readers wish they had the fortitude to express themselves.

This is why we cheer Bartleby on as he continues to refuse to work. He acts according to his choices. This is appealing, for most of us possess a deep psychological desire to be completely free and to live strictly by our personally defined norms and laws. By ignoring the norms of his society, by challenging the authority of ‘the man,’ Bartleby is an underdog, a radical, a martyr. But is his cause worth his sacrifice?

An opposing interpretation suggests Bartleby’s is a misguided conception of individual freedom that, when acted upon with zeal, results in “miserable friendlessness and loneliness […] [and] solitude” and a senselessly squandered capacity for personal growth. Bartleby’s image as proto-hippie hero tarnishes as his lack of self-discipline becomes more apparent. Initially pitiful, he becomes repulsive. His insistence upon alienating himself from would-be comrades leads both the narrator and the reader to accept Bartleby’s soul as one that cannot be reached.

Why is Bartleby’s soul unreachable? Because he has subscribed to the notion that being “a man of preferences [rather] than assumptions” is somehow desirable. He has, at some debatable point in his life, determined that egomania and self-imposed exile from society are ‘preferred’ conditions. His ‘conscientious’ decision to remain in the office building is absurd in its futility. When his death finally comes, it means nothing to anyone save for the narrator (though the narrator’s reliability can be challenged – itself a topic worthy of future exploration). Bartleby is not a champion of individuality. He is merely an “intolerable incubus” wallowing in a cesspool of effete self-pity. Bartleby says, “‘I know where I am.’” Indeed. I suppose one must at least acknowledge his honesty.

Thoreauvian philosophy holds that enlightenment and personal fulfillment can be achieved via the marriage of individual freedom and moral responsibility. Melville’s Bartleby, by denouncing sociocultural integration, by being an individual stubbornly defiant and self-destructive to the end, and, thus, ignoring his own moral responsibilities, is guilty of perhaps the greatest crime of all: a wasted life. Indeed, his is the fate of a dead letter in reverse: the flame of promise extinguished.


Jeffrey SchrecongostJeffrey R. Schrecongost received his M.F.A. from Converse College and currently teaches English at Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana and Spartanburg Community College. His fiction has appeared in Blood Lotus, BlazeVOX, and Gadfly. He lives in Muncie, IN, with his loyal Golden Retriever, Molly.

The Fall / Winter 2014 Issue Is Here!

Our Fall / Winter 2014 issue is up and ready for viewing!

Creative Work

We are pleased to present work by the following contributors:

• Artwork – Eleanor Leonne Bennett
• Fiction – Jonathan Danielson, Rachel Moore, Frank Scozzari
• Non-Fiction – Matt Muilenburg, Sam Slaughter, Richard Tillinghast
• Poetry – Trish Falin, Ann Herlong-Bodman, Amaris Feland Ketcham, Daniel James Sundahl, Pia Taavila-Borsheim, Allison Thorpe, Donald C. Welch III


Wondering what to read over the holiday?  Check out our reviews of these books:

•  Where You Can Find Me by Sheri Joseph (Fiction)
•  Margaret Fuller by Megan Marshall (Non-Fiction)
•  Postage Due by Julie Marie Wade (Poetry)
•  We Come Elemental by Tamiko Beyer (Poetry)

Special Thanks

South85 Journal is published by the Converse College Low-Residency MFA program.  Thank you to our staff of volunteers who put countless hours into making this issue happen.  We hope you enjoy reading this issue as much as we enjoyed putting it together!

Just a Numbers Game

Jim Ross

I was recently in the audience of three successful authors from my alma mater. The first went to grad school in architecture, ended up becoming editor in chief responsible for selling the brand for of a major national publication, and recently became Chancellor at a University. The second dabbled in short stories, planned to author his first novel, but then won a fellowship in screenplay writing, so instead he wrote his first screenplay. He turned that into a successful film, and he now teaches screenplay writing at a major university and is in demand in Hollywood. The third was a failed stockbroker who was never able to figure out Wall Street’s formula. So, he decided instead to analyze his favorite thriller novels to figure out the formula underpinning them, began writing his own thriller novels, and has published ten, including a few best sellers.

When it was time for the Q&A, I ran to the microphone to be the first of several to ask, “How do I get published?” I explained I’d had a successful career based on the ability to get research projects funded and professional articles published, but I needed an alternative plan to submitting articles scattershot to many of the hundreds of literary journals across the country run largely by MFA students. Isn’t there a better way?

The Chancellor said to convene focus groups of my target audience.

The short story writer who morphed into a screenplay writer said he thought I should stick with my plan. “That’s what I did, and so did my idol, George Stephens. You need to pay your dues. But you also should go to conferences and join a writer’s group so you can meet people who are trying to do things like what you’re trying to do so you can get ideas from each other.”

Looking bored, the thriller writer said, “Talk to my agent.”

At the reception afterwards, I cornered the Chancellor, and told him his answer made no sense for my situation.  I’m sure focus groups helped him better understand his audience as editor of a major magazine; for me to accomplish the same result, I’d have to conduct focus groups of journal reviewers.

He agreed and said, “What I should have said was, you learned in your career that you rarely got anything funded when the client didn’t already want to fund you before you wrote your proposal. That’s where you want to end up with your writing. Focus on making connections. Network. Get to know people so they want you and you don’t have to run after them.”

The publisher of a major university press was listening to our conversation. “I can tell you want you need to do. Everything you did your entire career. This is no different. You’re wasting your time with the hundreds of little lit magazines. It’s okay to send things to them, and to publish in them, but that can’t be your main focus. If you really want to get published in major journals, you need to show up in places where you can see and be seen and get to know how to get access.” Then he handed me his business card.

Nearly everyone else in the audience asked pretty much the same question, but they were all in the third decade of life, and I’m in my seventh. They got answers like, “Go home, move back in with your parents, and write screenplays in your bedroom.”

My takeaway was, I need to get out from behind the computer and go to more events, across town or across the country. I need to find a writer’s group focused on creative non-fiction. At the right moments, I need to be bold and walk up to the editor of a major magazine and say, “Can you read this?” as I did a couple years back, with a positive outcome. I need to create moments of connection and access.

In the meantime, I will continue following a systematic approach in submitting articles to the hundreds of literary journals out there just waiting to reject my stuff. Until people know me and are asking me to write a piece for them, trying to get published is just going to be a numbers game.


Writer Jim RossJim Ross is on quest to resuscitate his long-neglected right brain. He spent his career of successfully overusing his left brain to publish in professional research and practitioner journals related to health. His hope is that, by doing things he loved in his 20s, like writing creatively, his right brain will start functioning again. As a result, he’s gotten several articles published in a variety of journals in the past three years.

An Introvert’s Guide to Self-Promotion: A 20-Step Program

Kathleen Nalley

You wrote. You edited. You rewrote. You submitted your manuscript. Finally, the acceptance letter arrived. You celebrated. You high-fived. You fist-bumped. Then, reality hit. You now must promote your work. Before you retreat under your bed in terror, before you have an anxiety attack over the awkwardness of writing and talking about yourself in third person, check out these 20 steps for easing your transition from introverted writer to marketing maniac.

1. Forget that fear is primal. Forget that even the wild, magnificent cheetah is vulnerable to fear. In fact, cheetahs face competition with other cheetahs every day, as well as predation from larger animals and persecution by mankind.
2. Compose a press release about your work. Include nice graphics. Be sure to include contact information.
3. Remember that you are as magnificent as the cheetah. You type fast. You write furiously.
4. Send the press release to local media. Be sure to look up specific names of contacts and address them personally.
5. Embrace your spots, although they may offend some and turn off others. Some folks like plain cats, and you can’t change that.
6. Send an email to every close contact announcing your new work.
7. Keep telling yourself that change can happen.
8. Post your news on Facebook and Twitter.
9. Do not equate your self-worth to the promotion process. Keep a healthy distance when you write about yourself in third person. Don’t let you get in the way of you. Or her.
10. Made a video interpretation of your work using animoto or some other free video creation service. People like pictures.
11. Tell yourself everything’s going to be okay.
12. Share photos of your cover design on Instagram. Remind yourself constantly that people like pictures.
13. Chant, “I can write solely for my own sake!” 20 times while looking in the mirror.
14. Create business cards and — big step alert! — actually list “writer” after your name.
15. If you’re feeling low, change something up. Leave the computer for a while. Get a haircut. Haircuts always make you feel better.
16. Chant, “I don’t need anyone’s approval. I’m a freaking cheetah! And I have great hair!”
17. Prepare your freezer with three tubs of Ben and Jerry’s ice-cream. Cherry Garcia™ and That’s My Jam™ soothe the savage beast.
18. Call local bookstores to book future readings.
19. Pat yourself on the back for putting yourself out there. It takes guts to do what you do. And it really takes guts to promote it.
20. Remember, like the cheetah, every facet of your anatomy has evolved: to ward off, to emerge, to fight. You got this.


Kathleen-NalleyKathleen Nalley has been hustling to pre-sell her latest collection of poems, American Sycamore, from Finishing Line Press, before the November 28 deadline. #20 above features a line from the title poem of the collection (subtle, huh?). She is the author of Nesting Doll, winner of the S.C. Poetry Initiative Prize, has published in various journals, and was recently featured in The Bitter Southerner. She has an MFA from Converse College. No surprise: she wants you to reserve your copy of American Sycamore by visiting, clicking on the “Preorder Forthcoming Titles” tab on the right, and scrolling down until you see American Sycamore.

Journal Bashing for Fun (but No Profit)

Richard LeBlond

Now 73, I am a late-comer to the thrills and chills of literary submissions. In November 2013, I sent out my first manuscript, by Amish wagon, printed and mailed with a self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE to historians). The journal is one of the few left that doesn’t use the internet for submissions. I’m glad I did it, for old school’s sake. That’s how it was done when I first thought I might be a writer. But now it is a waste of postage and part of a pulp tree. A terse e-note of rejection, apologetic and uncritical, is enough. I don’t need to pay to have the work thrown back in my face (which it was).

It surprised me that payment for accepted submissions from the great majority of journals is either barter or ego-petting, not cash. (I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that “barter” comes from a French word meaning “to cheat.”) Instead of cash, I am offered one-to-few copies of the issue in which my love child appears, and/or a subscription. Online journals and blogs like this one think I’ll be satisfied with a note of acceptance. Pathetically, they’re right. I may not even have heard of the publication before, but now it is a god in my literary pantheon for recognizing and validating my work.

Many journals, maybe even a majority, require the purchase of an issue or an annual subscription to get a sense of what they are looking for. That’s nonsense. We’re talking – what? – maybe hundreds of publications. Who can afford that? And there goes a whole forest of pulp trees (or at least multitudes of megabytes on the harddrive). A journal should offer free online at least three examples in each genre it publishes, giving a sense of the range of its interests. It will reduce wasted time – for editor and writer – by improving the ratio of appropriate to inappropriate submissions. It might even boost subscriptions.

I was astounded that many journals charge reading fees, typically $30. It is as if creative writing not only has lost its value, but has become a nuisance, something we have to pay to have hauled off. Some journals have submission contests that require a raffle-like entry fee for the prospect of winning enough money – likely from the other submitters – to buy two months of beer. The field at least is narrowed by exclusion of starving artists, and principled tightwads like me.

Then there are the journals that charge an online submission fee of $3. These may be run by publishers and editors who spent decades mailing their own SASE manuscripts. They think it unfair that our internet servers don’t charge us for online submissions on top of our monthly fees (though lord knows they could). Some journals call the $3 a reading fee, which makes no sense – unless our submissions are being sent to a sweatshop in Cambodia. “Mealea! You only read 37 manuscripts today, and you know your quota is 50. I’m beginning to think we wasted our money and your time on that speed-reading course.”

Okay, okay, enough journal-bashing. They must rely on us for their validation, as we do on them. The majority are on institutional welfare, ducking the budget scythe. Journals out in the ‘hood are at even greater risk. My very first acceptance was rejected when the new journal went belly-up. “Sales for the first issue have been slow,” the editor told me in the rather depressing acceptance email, “and there is a lack of usable submissions for issue #2.”

For a while I believed the writing went better without readers and editors. I imagined Salinger in his Appalachian retreat writing for no one but himself. Sometimes I thought my writing so good that a Pulitzer nomination was inevitable. Then after I had set it aside for a while, I wondered how I could have been so vain and foolish over such an imperfect thing.

I realized I needed feedback. So I began sending essays to indentured readers – friends and relatives. But ultimately I thought they might hold back criticism for fear of hurting my feelings. It is a reasonable fear.

I now accept that editors can be useful. They are professional readers who combine a fresh perspective with a warrior’s willingness to draw blood. I now know that validation comes from the reader. My observations are meaningful only if they are meaningful to you.

I believe it was Tom Cruise who said: “The reader completes me.”


Richard LeBlondRichard LeBlond is a retired botanist living in North Carolina. He has been writing about life experiences, travels to Europe and North Africa in the early 1970s, and more recent adventures in eastern Canada and western U.S. First attempting to publish in winter-spring 2014, he has had essays published or accepted by Montreal Review, Appalachia, and Weber—The Contemporary West.