Isobel Baxter, Richmond American International University, London
Stephen Donovan, Joseph
Conrad and Popular Culture. London: Palgrave, 2005. xiii + 236
pp. £45/ $74.95
In the arena of Conrad scholarship work
has already been done in specialized areas of Conrad's interaction
with popular culture. Andrea White and Linda Dryden have explored
his relationship with imperial romance to great effect. Susan Jones's
seminal Conrad and Women (1999) investigated the implications for
Conrad's oeuvre of that device, so commonly dismissed as a lowering
of Conrad's literary standards through popular appeal, the presence
of the female. Richard Hand's recent book (2005) on Conrad's relationship
to the theatre provides another practical antidote to the equation
of popular forms with poor aesthetic judgement in Conrad's work.
Stephen Donovan's book is the first,
however, to devote itself wholeheartedly and unabashedly to the
field of popular culture. Popular culture is, by nature, temporary.
It encompasses the reusable, the recyclable, the disposable, the
dispersed, and the dispensable. It is oral, aural, ephemeral. Like
till spread on a field, popular culture is absorbed through the
power of environment and osmosis, transforming the landscape unseen.
Even the contemporary meta-literature
of popular culture is temporally and culturally bound. A discussion
of Larry the Lamb
based on popular experience of Larry
loses its resonance when that experience itself is lost. What is
left can only ever be a trace of an experience whose reconstruction
requires an effort disproportionate to that expended in the original
reception of Larry.
There is an irony in this, therefore, in that popular culture's
very transitory virtue makes its study an archaeological and, at
times, esoteric labour. Exploration of earlier popular cultural
artefacts and their semiotic structures becomes a task of scholarly
excavation, bringing to light the textual traces that the "common"
or "popular" reader misses.
Stephen Donovan is to be praised both
for the care and detail of his excavation of popular culture in
Conrad's œuvre and for the lucidity with which he presents
his results. The volume is divided into four sections – "Visual
Entertainment," "Tourism," "Advertising," and "Magazine Fiction"
– within the frames of introduction and conclusion. Each section
addresses itself to a form of popular culture, which Donovan identifies
as particularly significant for Conrad's work.
Of course these forms overlap both in
their appearances in Conrad's work and in their media. Indeed all,
to greater and lesser degrees, privilege the visual sense, the ability
"to see." In another's hands these overlaps might all too easily
lead to repetition between chapters; however, Donovan skilfully
avoids such pitfalls and manages to present Chance, for example,
with new insight at each appearance.
Donovan opens his chapter on visual entertainment
with Borys Conrad's story of when he and his father found themselves
in 1914 in a Viennese shooting range, where the moving targets were
cinematically projected Scottish infantrymen. Conrad hisses to Borys,
"We have to go through with it, Boy … but take care you don't hit
any of those fellows." The story reminds us of the multiplicity
of uses to which early cinema was put and therefore of the form'sinstability
as a cultural medium. More specifically, it indicates the complexity
of the world of visual entertainment with which Conrad's "artistic
intention" was engaged.
Donovan goes on to discuss that engagement
with reference to cinema, photography (including spirit photography),
theatre, waxwork tableaux, woodcuts, and puppets, among others,
to show how these forms of entertainment informed Conrad's aesthetics
and appeared as cultural signifiers within his work.
The chapter on tourism similarly explores
ways in which leisured travel informed Conrad's works and appears
within them. In addition it traces Conrad's distinction between
"serious" and "unserious" travel in life and letters. This distinction
lies at the crux of much writing on travel and tourism and can also
be proposed in terms of authenticity and inauthenticity. However,
these distinctions are unstable. Indeed, just as the study of past
popular culture requires scholastic excavation so too, ironically,
the privileging of authenticity in travel is almost inevitably accompanied
by a nostalgia, whose presence calls into question the origins of
the authentic notation.
Donovan unravels the intricacies of Conrad's
extensive literary and biographical relationship with travel along
these lines, although he does not discuss in full the destabilizing
implications of nostalgia for authenticity. Instead, he considers
at some length the cultural context for the Fynes's tramping in
and, more suggestively, the quiet presence of noisy tourists in
Donovan concludes that "Lord
Jim can be seen to record the impact
of tourism in two ways: firstly, as a deformation of the true nature
of sea travel … and, secondly, as a spatial closing-off of the high
seas to romance, a shift symbolized by the odious presence of globetrotters."
This conclusion is presented in the context of Cook's Tours and
of "the humiliating memory" of Conrad's last maritime employment
"as a glorified tourist guide on the ill-fated Adowa."
n his chapter on advertising Donovan
describes the extraordinary proliferation of visual advertising
during Conrad's lifetime. Focussing predominantly on Britain, he
explores not only the advertisements themselves but also the new
commodities they sold and the controversies that frequently raged
about the advertisements and their commodities.
Donovan's scholarly energy is at its
best here, mining contemporary handbooks on effective advertising
as well as advertising archives and contemporary commentary. Not
that it is simply diligence or tenacity that calls for praise, but
the use to which the results of this research are put. Donovan applies
it compellingly in his discussion of "An Anarchist" to suggest that
the B.O.S. Company is a thinly veiled parody of Bovril, whose brand
name was ubiquitous at the time.
The final chapter takes on the most complex
topic – at least for the purposes of understanding Conrad's relationship
with popular culture – magazine fiction. This complexity is due
to the fact that magazine fictions of the time were extremely heterogeneous
as were the magazines that carried them. It is yet another irony
that the rapid development during Conrad's lifetime of global media
infrastructures, which facilitated trans-national syndication of
printed news and entertainment, whilst threatening/promising homogeneity
saturated the market with such a diversity of material that the
magazines were able to present an extraordinary variety of content.
Furthermore, the physical presentation of fiction did not necessarily
differ in any clear way from the presentation of reportage, memoir,
and history in magazine's like Blackwood's.
Magazine fiction could thus choose either
to distinguish itself from the non-fiction around it through linguistic
register and narrative genre or to ape non-fiction by borrowing
subject matter and stylistic tropes. Donovan focuses his attention
primarily on the relationship of Conrad's fiction to other magazine
fiction and advertising, rather than to non-fiction, and it would
have been interesting to see more discussion of this context here,
in what is the shortest chapter.
His extended discussion of Typhoon's
conglomeration of genres nevertheless demonstrates the multivalency
of contemporary magazine culture: "Far from merely offering a sop
to the Pall Mall's
popular readers or providing a cover for smuggling in a properly
Modernist narrative, the "low" elements of comedy and physical violence
in "Typhoon" ought … to be understood as part of a more ambitious
attempt to meet the conflicting demands now being placed upon fiction
Throughout his study Donovan does not
radically overturn our conception of Conrad's œuvre, nor does
he seek to do so, and the volume is all the more nuanced for this.
Neither does he deny that "Conrad energetically denounced the general
public as irredeemably undiscerning." What he does show is that,
"all his protestations to the contrary," Conrad "had direct and
substantial knowledge of popular cultural texts and practices, and
that these latter exerted a significant influence on his fiction
and prose writing."
Indeed, the volume successfully provokes
a desire to examine further the infinite matrix of relationships
between Conrad, his work, and the popular culture in which both
had no choice but to operate. Not only does this volume provoke
renewed interest in its subject matter, but it also stands as a
paradigm in its meticulous research, so that the combination provides
that novel and most welcome thing – a riveting new work of Conrad
© 2006 Katherine Isobel Baxter