By Peter Lancelot Mallios, University of Maryland
Joseph Conrad: Contemporary Reviews, Vols. I-IV. General editiors, Allan H. Simmons, John G. Peters, and J. H. Stape. Cambnridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. 2501 pp. £320/$495.
Conrad students are well served by these remarkable volumes of reviews. To read them is to re-experience something like the excitement of the Cambridge Collected Letters. These four volumes are a treasure trove of context and insight, gathering Conrad’s contemporary reviews together with more extensiveness, historical authenticity, and editorial care than ever before. They provide us with a rich archive, emphatically transnational in commitment, from which to probe and understand various horizons of national and cultural reader-expectation in Conrad’s own time, and a solid, renewed, generative foundation from which to build outward toward the reconstruction of further horizons of Conrad’s interpretive reception in his own time and on into our own.
The latitude of these volumes, to invoke a geographical figure well suited to them, is perhaps their most conspicuous feature. The effect is one of blank spaces on the map (again, speaking figuratively as well as literally) that suddenly become dashed with colours and contemplative possibilities – hues and horizons of meaning that one may have expected existed before, but not with this kind of startling or vivid clarity, or sense of interrelation. Some of our received understandings of Conrad – say, concerning genre, aesthetics, canonical recognition, imperialism, Englishness, race, multi-national legibility, and journalism – become strengthened, corroborated, refined, enhanced. Other frames of inquiry also become mobilized. Examples include actually all of the above, but also and especially extend to current concerns with the complex transnationalisms of Conrad’s readership, the importance of feminism and Conrad’s women readers, the significance of the specific historical politics of the twentieth century (as opposed to the more familiar sense of “Conrad in the nineteenth century”), the anticipation of future modes of Conrad’s reception in the past, the sheer and staggering range of reception venues, formats, and voices for Conrad’s works, and the different national temporalities of Conrad’s publications generally.
These volumes are especially timely given renewed concern in Conrad and modern literary studies with questions of textual production, distribution, and reception generally. The ground of literary meaning seems seismically to have shifted through aggressive digitally fortified and transnationally accountable modes of reception inquiry – all accountable to material reception histories in all their unruliness, and encompassing domains of interest including book, serial, and syndication histories, global networks of literary rewriting, and the kind of critical reception immediately foregrounded here. What’s special about these four volumes, in powerful facilitation of each of these domains, is the searching open-endedness of articulation with which they insist on orienting the question of whose voices and what forms matter in speaking about Conrad. The answer these volumes provide is that there is no province of articulation – ranging from the Athenæum to the Salt Lake Tribune to the Manitoba Free Press to the Times of India, and across any boundaries of generic, social, gendered, professional, aesthetic, political, and geographic demarcation generally – whose voices are unworthy of consideration toward an unusually plural excavation of what, where, and how Conrad’s texts have been able to mean, and how they can continue to do so.
But this is not to say, of course, that “everything” in the way of contemporary Conrad commentary finds inclusion in these volumes, nor even that they do or somehow could comprehensively inventory the possible range of contemporary issues and vantages that could lead us to rethink Conrad’s meaning. Indeed, the secret genius of these volumes, for all their remarkable achievements of scholarly compass, may actually lie in their implicit rejection of such fantasies of absolute and eternal comprehensive mastery – toward a much more sober, valuable, and thought- provoking recognition of “the review” as both a critical and a practical problem through whose genuine engagement a larger reorientation of scholarly practice and field vision comes into view.
For reviews are a tricky thing. On the one hand, they represent only part of the large ocean of contemporary commentary, literary and otherwise, on Conrad. Indeed, if one adopts the practical working-definition of “review” that in some sense seems to centre (though not exhaustively so) these volumes – that is, journalistic pieces that are self-consciously reviews of specifically targeted Conrad texts in their specific moments and places of original production (keeping in mind that there were many more general and synoptic treatments, sometimes not journalistic, of Conrad’s works, and in more extensive formats, and also that many of Conrad’s texts were re-published and re received during Conrad’s lifetime, as when The Nigger of the “Narcissus” was republished under that title in the US in 1914, to significant contemporary effect) – then the province of “the review” even within the confines of strictly literary considerations of Conrad is quite focused. Wilson Follett, for example, was one of the most important contemporary U.S. voices on Conrad, whom Follett wrote about extensively and in a number of different formats including the journalistic – though only one piece, on The Rescue, registers here as a review. This is not to say there should be more Follett here; it is to say, though, that “the review” is in important respects a limiting – and obviously necessary in some practical sense in the context of these volumes – construct.
Yet on the other hand, “review” is an inherently and inescapably escalating and elastic category – precisely not amenable to focus and compartmentalization, no matter how you try “practically” to constrain it – and this makes the task of compiling and editing “reviews” in important ways a new departure for the Cambridge Edition series, introducing a new line of problems, challenges, horizons (it seems to me) not quite at issue in the same fundamental and categorical ways in the earlier or parallel precedents of the Collected Letters or Scholarly Editions (these obviously beset by enormous editorial challenges of their own). For what is a “review”? As both the many smaller snippets and the inescapably major pieces (sometimes excerpted – introducing further problems of definition) of both specific and general dimension collected in these volumes reveal, the line between “review” and, at one extreme, mere announcement, advertisement, or evaluative mention, and, at the other extreme, more general and even extra-literary (say, biographical or cultural/political) portrait or article or essay, is extremely slippery and a recurrent emphasis to the point of substantial significance. The more you try to come up with an iron-clad definition that enforces some rigorous and abstract sense of systematicity, the more you must exclude material that is otherwise indispensable to the value of these volumes and Conrad scholarship as a whole.
Then there is the further problem of trying to amass a comprehensive set of reviews, however you define it, in a digital age of not only informational explosion but also uneven and ongoing development of tools, processes, and digitally archived opportunities. How do you plough that sea? Do we really know all that’s out there in the way of British and North American review textuality? What happens when the world colonial archive, in particular, which these volumes so tantalizingly open up, becomes more recoverable? What happens when non-English language and cultural reception becomes factored into the equation?
The general editors are perfectly aware of these complexities, and have built them subtly into the horizons, foundations, and purposiveness of their project. They are simply too dedicated to the assiduous scholarly recovery of contemporary Conrad commentary to let false abstractions and necessary working definitions of “review” get in the way of, or erase the messy contingencies of the relevant fields of textual materiality, and what they allow instead is for this material scholarly problem to become a theoretical opportunity – implicitly, at least, a necessary moment for rethinking strategies of Conradian scholarly recovery for the 21st century.
This is not at all to say that these volumes simply reject the rich editorial traditions of the past. Indeed, the general editors begin by announcing that in some sense their purpose is the continuous one of updating and “replac[ing]” Norman Sherry’s landmark collection of Conrad’s contemporary reviews, Conrad: The Critical Heritage (1973), which has “served scholars for four decades” even as it has become outdated in certain respects (1.1.). In particular, there is in these volumes a comprehensive rather than selective aspiration (based rigorously and methodically on all bibliographic and meta-bibliographic information presently available – though one might like to hear just a bit more about specific research strategies); a priority on historical authenticity and reasonably full contextual presentation/excerption; an aspirational commitment to representing (non-hierarchically and as fully as possible) Conrad’s transnational audiences; and an overarching commitment to meticulous editorial care, all of which ensure that these volumes will serve the next forty years as productively as Sherry’s volumes served the past forty years.
But what stands to make these volumes have a lasting impact even beyond the next four decades is the way they have taken this scholarly rigour and current set of sensibilities and self-consciously situated and formulated their project in light of its present impossible conditions of “mastery.” When the concerns of recovering the full and plural authenticity and complication of Conrad’s contemporary horizons and planetary fields of meaning, reception, and intelligibility are what’s ultimately at stake; and when you know that “review” is not only a porous concept but one situated in overlapping contiguity with enormous domains of reception material still freshly being recovered and dramatically helping us both to reinforce and revise our sense of what, where, and how Conrad means – then the only way to proceed is to define your terms, strategies, and priorities as clearly and transparently as possible, while positioning your project itself in terms of the opening of a field of inquiry rather than its masterfully closed consolidation. The purpose here is not masterfully to have the last word, or to have gathered every last word, of or on Conrad’s contemporary reception – even as the editors and compilers have obviously done the most assiduous job one can presently do, under the constraints of “contemporary review” they both carefully define and implicitly resist, in this respect. Rather, it is the way that these volumes turn “the review” into a question, and use both the idea of “review” and a vast substantive archive of reviews as a critical means to frame and prompt more general inquiry into matters of reception, in terms of the priorities of transnationalism, historical authenticity and fullness, and democratic extensiveness and multiplicity of voicing rather than flattened, harmonized, or otherwise “virtual” strategies of representation, that makes for the truly generative quality of these volumes, at least for this reader.
Volume One, compiled and introduced by Allan H. Simmons, presents reviews of Conrad’s works from Almayer’s Folly (1895) through to Youth: A Narrative and Two Other Stories (1902). These reviews chart the period from Conrad’s arrival on the literary scene through his establishment as a major literary figure. They tell the story of both his swift access to critical attention and the lasting difficulties some reviewers have, even as they come to recognize his genius, in placing him. Here lies a story less of simple linear emergence than thresholds of acknowledgment, a counterpoint of alternatively exalting and puzzled, even shocked and startled commentary, as well as an overarching ineluctable sense that a modern world of change and unrest was meeting in Conrad the voice of its elemental uncertainty. In his excellent introduction, Simmons presents several framing issues and contexts that help clarify and historicize the significance of the reviews.
One is the dramatically changing scale of the publishing and journalism industries during this time, providing not only a large fund of reviewers and reviewing outlets for Conrad’s fiction but also a grounding context and concern of that fiction. These early reviews, this is to say, are not simply post hoc reflections on Conrad’s works; they are a constituent concern of them—what the fiction has been anticipating and negotiating all the way along in its processes of composition. Here in these reviews we find the specific sources of, say, Conrad’s complaints in his later Preface to Lord Jim about being unjustly charged with “morbidity” or presenting a tale longer than is realistically tellable in one sitting. But even more, this volume (like the other three) presents in rich detail the material texture of public commentary that from the beginning informs and prompts Conrad’s consistent narrative preoccupations with dramatizations of telling and audience, multi-layered mediations of understanding and misunderstanding, and dynamics of reception. What reception theorists would call the “horizons” of reader-expectation and interpretive capacity manifested in these reviews are part of the content of the forms of Conrad’s fiction: that is, the question How am I relating (or not) to my audiences? prompted by the specific terms (or anticipation of the terms) of the reception of Conrad’s fiction is built into the narrative play (not to mention the thematic concerns) of his fiction in itself. The material omnipresence of modern mass reviewing, and the modern publication conditions occasioning it, thus become a crucial register and prompt for Conrad’s fiction – the precise details of which become richly available here.
A second context Simmons then draws our attention to is “the historical fact of Empire” – a crucial framing context not only of the politics of imperialism explicitly engaged in many of the reviews, but also of the very genres of “Malay” romance and “sea” fiction with which reviewers struggle to classify and totalize Conrad, as well as the larger colonial and other transnational markets of Conrad’s contemporary readership that these review volumes work hard to restore. Interestingly, these reviews demonstrate, with a kind of clarity and range I think we have not seen before, that the imperial politics of Conrad’s fiction has always been a subject of enormous debate and volatility. At one extreme, one finds reviewers throughout this period reading the earlier fiction (1895-1902) as licensing recurrent fantasies of “annexation,” visions of Kipling, and other pro-imperial narratives of Darwinian conquest, naturalized racial hierarchy, and British and/or European supremacy. At the other, and notably among women reviewers, Conrad’s fiction is a devastating indictment and “revelation” of “the unspoken motives and unsuspected issues which have affected the prevailing world-delirium [that is, the ‘new imperialism’] – the adoption in two continents of a political programme conceived in sin and propagated in insanity” (1.373). These are strong words: clearly both the indeterminacy and the political controversiality of Conrad that have assumed centre-stage in Conrad studies since the 1960s have deep roots, the further investigation of which these reviews suggestively facilitate. Indeed, there remains an interesting essay to be written about how the first empire-derived essay to “write back” to Conrad – albeit with very much the reverse politics of Chinua Achebe’s generative essay of the 1970s – was written in 1898 by colonial administrator Hugh Clifford.
This leads to a third issue Simmons foregrounds: the comparative relationship between British and U.S. receptions of Conrad, these two domains being the principal ones reconstituted in the volume. While noting the important degree to which U.S. reviewers sometimes follow their British counterparts – indeed, to sufficient extent that it is not at all surprising that London-based W. L. Alden, writing a regular “London Letter” for the New York Times Saturday Review of Books and Art, takes the lead among early U.S. champions of Conrad – Simmons also observes that there are important discrepancies between the two reception patterns. Almayer’s Folly and Outcast of the Islands, for example, receive decidedly colder reception in the U.S. than in Britain. There is, indeed, a moral baseline to U.S. reviews at this time (that is, judging books by the morality of their subject matter) that is more pronounced, especially in its articulation to religion and suspicion of aesthetics, than in British counterparts. Equally worthy of contemplation is the degree to which U.S. anxieties of imperialism (which is to say, among other things, disavowals of U.S. imperialism through a rhetoric of U.S. exceptionalism) – this being, after all, as several reviews squarely note, the period of the highly controversial Spanish-American War – and also U.S. anxieties and violent assertions of racial segregation, directly inform the kind of uneven apprehension Americans in the 1890s bring to their reading of Conrad’s imperially and racially charged texts. To put this another way, when U.S. reviewers of this moment, not to mention the reverse moment in 1914, either decry or applaud the re-entitling of The Nigger of the “Narcissus” in the U.S. as The Children of the Sea, these are never purely “aesthetic” comments, and their social meaning turns on the specific national/cultural horizon interfacing with Conrad.
A final framing issue Simmons raises is aesthetic. It is the continual degree to which reviews of the period find themselves acknowledging the novelty, the unfamiliarity, the estranging originality of Conrad’s art – not only in the distant places and peoples it chooses to articulate, nor even simply in the dangerous, disturbing, and unrestful thematics smuggled into their expression, but in all these combined with an escalating arc of bewilderingly experimental forms (and negations of conventional form) as well. One regularly encounters a sense of stupefaction in these earlier reviews, and at every stage up through the 1902 re-publication of “Heart of Darkness” in the Youth volume – as if many reviewers don’t know quite how to place Conrad, unless the reviewer is someone truly brilliant like Edward Garnett, or following Edward Garnett, manages to come up with some boldly anti-conventional and inventive formulation of one’s own. Yet at the same time Simmons is most convincing in his closing claim that these earlier reviews, for all their apprehensions, confusions and limitations, uncannily and humblingly anticipate so much of what is to follow. Simmons sums up at the close of his introduction: “When considering these early reviews, ones that belong to an age when literary criticism was performed in a vigorously diverse press rather than the seminar room, one feels chastened by how the same preoccupations persist a century later….These are works haunted by peculiarly modern sentiments of alienation, expressed in terms of cultural estrangement and dislocation. Here one finds the incipient debates about style and method, political astuteness and psychological insight, colonialism and race, gender and patriarchy that animated the society in which Conrad lived and have been rehearsed across the century since these reviews attended the first publication of his fiction” (8).
Volume Two, compiled and introduced by John G. Peters, presents reviews of Conrad’s works from Typhoon and Other Stories (1903) through to Under Western Eyes (1911). These reviews chart what has traditionally been considered the long second half of the “major phase” of Conrad’s career – yet with striking recoveries of detail, and of the importance of under-noticed texts and differential publication histories of texts, that may lead us to re-evaluate our sense of what this “major phase” consists of. The period in question is one in which Conrad has already achieved general recognition as a major force in contemporary English letters – and yet the paradox of this period is that even as Conrad’s reputation becomes ever more foundationalized and enhanced, to the point of his beginning to be acknowledged by some as the major force in living English literature, there still remain instabilities in his terms of reception. Division (among different genders of readers, different classes of readers, different nations of readers) rather than smooth concord remains the rule in responses, even as everyone acknowledges Conrad’s genius. Lingering suspicions remain as to the limitations or specialized province of the kinds of narrative genius of which he is capable – such that his most daring efforts, what time would come to acknowledge as his most intrepid demonstrations of literary mastery, sometimes appear to contemporary reviewers as incapacity, incompetence, failure. Whereas Simmons’s introduction to Volume One is historical in principal note, Peters’ introduction is principally textual in its organizing emphases – and wisely so, because a sense of textual reorientation is what immediately, generatively leaps out as a frame for further contemplation in this sequence of reviews. And as with Volume One, because the overwhelming preponderance of the reviews come from the U.K. and the U.S., comparative treatment of the two, even as this gestures toward future and further transnational comparisons and displacements, becomes a major axis of interest.
The first textual matter to which Peters draws our attention is the enormous difference in this period that publication history makes. The Typhoon volume (including the title story, “Amy Foster,” “Falk,” and “To-Morrow”) was published in Britain after the highly successful and, indeed, majestically received Youth volume (including “Heart of Darkness” and “The End of the Tether”); in the U.S., however, the narrative “Typhoon” itself was published in book form independently of the rest of the stories in the British volume, and before the U.S. release of the Youth volume, itself then followed by a separate book issue of the remainder of the British Typhoon stories under the separate title Falk, Amy Foster, To-Morrow. As Peters notes, this had many curious results. On the one hand, British reviews of the Typhoon volume are much stronger than the U.S. reviews of its Typhoon (themselves nevertheless generally positive). This is not only because of the more substantial dimension of the former as opposed to the latter book, and the promotional momentum gathered by the success of the Youth volume, but also because the multiple-story format and “sea” frame of the Youth volume (this “sea” frame is how many reviewers tried to make sense of the Youth volume as a coherent whole, and how, even more intriguingly, they try to narrate the underlying coherence of the British Typhoon volume too) provides British reviewers with a legible frame for understanding and appreciating their Typhoon volume, whereas in the U.S. a more polished but slender approximation of The Nigger of the “Narcissus” becomes the more ready analogy. Yet on the other hand, the very splitting of the (British) Typhoon volume’s stories in the U.S. actually makes, as Peters keenly observes, for a much warmer and focalized reception of “Falk” (the lead-story in the U.S. volume) than criticism has yet to acknowledge and engage – and this in turn is matched in the U.S. with a new frame of understanding the Falk volume in terms of Conrad’s new emphasis on gender and love.
Such (fascinating) discordant paths of publication history recur again as an issue in the A Set of Six volume – published as a whole in Britain in 1908, but split in the U.S. into an independent book publication of “The Duel” as The Point of Honor in 1908, followed by full publication of A Set of Six in early 1915. Though both sets of reviews of A Set of Six are generally positive – a matter to which we’ll return in a moment – one crucial difference lies in the recognition that in the U.S. Conrad’s American publisher Doubleday is clearly using A Set of Six as a part of its post-1913 campaign to market Conrad’s works as a whole. This choice of A Set of Six, not a volume that critics have tended to consider “major,” is interesting in this regard; and what the reviews reveal, renewing our sense of the meaning and value of A Set of Six, is that this choice was part of Doubleday’s characteristically shrewd strategy of trying to provide a kind of “straightforward” (i.e., easier to read) sampler of the all the different “phase[s] of its author’s genius” (2.494, 504) – very close, indeed, to the kind of “tutelary” and introductory (to Conrad’s works as a whole) function that the reviews bear out Victory performing as well.
In this vein, a second textual matter to which Peters most compellingly attends is the surprising importance and warmth of reception of Conrad’s “minor” texts – that is, short stories, collections, prose compilations, collaborative work – during this “major” period. If we follow Berthoud’s influential formulation, the period at issue in this volume – its contributions to Conrad’s “major phase” – is that of Nostromo (1904), The Secret Agent (1907), and Under Western Eyes (1911), with “The Secret Sharer” (completed 1909) in the penumbra too. The contemporary reviews that Peters has assembled, however, tell a wider story – one pointing up the significance, so far as Conrad’s relationship to, and negotiation of, his audiences is concerned, of the “other” pieces. One example is the (British, in particular) Typhoon volume, which, as suggested above, as brilliant and genuinely innovative as posterity understands it in its own right to be, also is crucial in its own moment as a kind of reiteration and foundationalization of Conrad’s legibility in Britain (i.e., on something of the model of Youth, as a “sea” writer); it is a harmonization and clarification of Conrad’s own legibility for his British audiences – a sort of meeting of those audiences halfway to establish a common foothold of understanding, however provisional – that consequently enables the kind of radical experimentations and departures soon to come. The reviews of Romance (1903), Conrad’s second collaborative novel with Ford Madox Ford, which tend to be remarkably, even astonishingly warm, with, as Peters notes, almost all the credit arbitrarily being given to Conrad, witness a similar phenomenon. It is difficult to read these positively glowing reviews, rife with untapped historical and political presumption, without sensing that a major re-evaluation of Romance will soon be appearing – it simply, empirically, is not a “minor” incident for reviewers. But at the same time what is perhaps most striking in these reviews is a sense that through the copious conventionalisms of Romance, Conrad is securing a compact of legibility with the public and staking out ground (ill-fatedly, of course) toward that most experimental novel soon to come and set in close proximity to it, Nostromo (1904).
The Mirror of the Sea (1906) and A Set of Six too, among many fascinating terms of specific interpretation their reviews entail, seem to perform similar functions. What the reviews make you see, or at least consider, is how the “major” novels become licensed in the bold, often threatening, experimentations of substance and form they take, by the kind of solidification and audience harmonization performed by the intermittent and supposedly “minor” works, all as part of a larger and connected negotiation. We can elaborate this point here through a third consideration Peters introduces: the difference that specific cultures of textual interpretation make. There may be no Conrad text in this volume of reviews more unanimously and emphatically praised by British reviewers than The Mirror of the Sea – and this is crucially because, these reviews make very clear, of the kind of patriotic and galvanizing national functions licensed by its beautiful articulations of a very English sense of self-conscious framing and determination by the sea. One reviewer writes proudly of The Mirror: “It is a challenge to the heart of Englishmen”—“we feel we have been met on every page with the demand: ‘Have you forgotten your birthright?’” (2.290). Another declares: “We should even like to think that [The Mirror of the Sea’s] distribution among the Island People who rule the waves and are held secure by the waves was ordered by the state” (2.274). The Mirror of the Sea is praised, but not in this key or to this degree, in the U.S., and the difference is one of the specific harmonizing terms and effects it can introduce – but in both cases quite different than the shock effects (more on which in a moment) of Nostromo and The Secret Agent.
Similarly, both Romance and A Set of Six are generally well-received by British audiences—less immediately, though, as a matter of patriotic license than as a matter of the generic conventionalities (this latter, of course, inscribing and inscribed with significant political and historical concerns) and expectations the two books work reassuringly to confirm. As review after review insists, the former book tells you in its title that it is a romance, and even as it inventively and indeed quite voraciously interpolates every convention of romance of which the authors are aware, it works with that highly legible and centralized frame. Similarly, A Set of Six, whose table of contents page goes out of its way to classify its contents in terms of a variety of “tales,” is reassuring to contemporary reviewers precisely because – the length of “The Duel” notwithstanding – it confirms its general place within the conventions of the “short story”: it shows Conrad working and achieving conspicuous, innovative success within established formats.
How different this is from Nostromo, whose contemporary reviews (the usual brilliant contribution from Garnett notwithstanding) Peters describes as “mixed,” and which I might press even further to describe as dismal, and in a way that for many years would permanently infect, like a virus, the reception of Nostromo. This volume reinforces to a degree I think we have not seen before how right, or at least how grounded, Conrad was in shuddering at the reception of Nostromo as a “black frost”: and this because most reviewers, even given the hemispheric “American” inoculation of Romance, even given the later reassuring placement of “Gaspar Ruiz,” simply do not know how to place it, either formally, characterologically, or sociologically/thematically, outside the machinery of the British novel and prior conventionalized articulations of Latin America with which they are familiar. There is a parallel here too with The Secret Agent in the U.S.: its reviews are much more ambivalent than their British counterparts, not only because its grisly substance (“offal on the dust heap of literature” [2.411], one reviewer calls it) simply does not compute with the moral template of many U.S. reviewers, but also because its elements of British setting, personage, stake, and subject matter are not available points of access for many American reviewers.
There is a rhythm, then, between the “major” works and the “others”: a sort of back-and-forthness by which the security of the one licenses, compensates, energizes the departures of the other, which is crucial to the “major phase” as a whole – and which this volume of reviews reveals with a kind of clarity and energizing potential (for, among other things, literary cross-considerations, both with Conrad’s writings and in relation to traditions outside) that we have not seen before. And this brings one to the final “major” novel and revelation, or at least confirmation, of this volume: the degree to which Under Western Eyes, a notably experimental and challenging novel, one that only in relatively recent years has come in academic discourse to assume central recognition by many Conrad scholars as one of Conrad’s very finest texts, was actually very nearly unanimously hailed, at least among British reviewers, as a “masterpiece” from the beginning. There would seem to be both political and aesthetic reasons for this, reasons of historical contingency – just as, intriguingly, there are contingent reasons why, to the contrary, an unusually formidable critical challenge to Conrad’s stigmatizing presentation of the Russian revolutionaries comes from a U.S. critic (George Cram Cook; see 2.597). But the fact remains that contemporary reviewers of Under Western Eyes begin where it has taken about a century of academic criticism to arrive.
Volume Three, compiled and introduced by Richard Niland, presents reviews of Conrad’s works from A Personal Record (1912) through to The Arrow of Gold (1919). Niland describes these reviews as representing “the pinnacle of contemporary criticism in terms of the expansive critical attention given to the author,” the “zenith of both [Conrad’s] critical and popular appeal” (3.1)—claims which, while they underestimate the importance of the postwar years, especially in the U.S., draw appropriately forceful attention to the consolidation of masterly stature, acknowledged by both critics and the public alike, that happens among various national and regional audiences for Conrad during this period. This is, indeed, a period of pronounced paradigm shift for Conrad, and in several respects Niland acutely notes: Conrad’s emergence not simply as a literary but more generally cultural and public figure, a figure of wide recognition and broad public power, attention, accountability; Conrad’s stylistic development toward modes that would distinctively define his “later” fiction” and yet which at the same time “return” to patterns and premises of his earlier fiction; and finally, Conrad’s scrutiny as a figure not only of iconic and incomparable achievement but also of declining or otherwise compromised powers, anticipating Thomas Moser’s crucial argument about arcs of achievement and decline in Conrad’s fiction. It would seem that one’s arrival at “classic” or “historical” literary recognition is also the moment at which commentators begin hierarchical rankings and chartings of one’s work, including watching for “chinks in [one’s] literary armour” (3.4) in works to come; and as such, Niland fruitfully presents the reviews of this period, neither with Simmons’ historical nor Peters’s textualist overarching emphases (though he is nonetheless significantly responsive to them), but rather in terms of contemporary debates about artistic achievement and decline, accomplishment or limitation, that have long since cast their invigorating and defining force upon discussions of texts like Chance (1913/14) and Victory (1915), and the works that more generally comprise Conrad’s “later” fiction.
Niland begins by noting how these reviews draw our attention to the important framing role played by Some Reminiscences/A Personal Record and ’Twixt Land and Sea in 1912. These “familiar” and “familiarizing” texts, each in its own way, notwithstanding notable experimental and estranging impulses, reassuring audiences with autobiographical and reminiscent tones of intimacy, “paved” “the way” (3.4) for the bold experimental departure and striking public success of Chance. The dynamic was not unlike the relation between “major” and “minor” texts revealed in Volume Two—with the crucial difference being the pronounced success and public acclamation of Chance as opposed to, say, Nostromo.
The reviews then show, in remarkable ways that criticism has yet fully to come to terms with, the unusual level not only of praise but also of patience generally visited by critics on Chance, and this notwithstanding the novel’s extreme “burdens” of narrative “method” (as one critic put it: 3.219) and even James’s reservations in the same direction (3.237-41). The reviews also show how with Within the Tides (1915) and Victory (1915), a new element of debate is introduced: a “new Conrad” – as so many reviews will recycle this phrase throughout the period – dangerously flirting with popularization through turns to the grotesque and melodrama, yet in a fashion that, in the case of Victory, achieves not only more popular success for Conrad than he had ever known but also a good deal of critical praise as well. Indeed, there is a very interesting textual dynamic that emerges between Within the Tides, usually considered one of Conrad’s least significant productions, and Victory, easily Conrad’s most controversial as a matter of “literary” validation. In Britain, Tides is published first, and its decidedly lacklustre reception sets a precedent for “popularized” critique of Victory; but in the U.S., Victory is published first, and its enormous success (for reasons that are complicated, as I’ve written about elsewhere) sets the stage for an almost unanimous and overflowing praise of Tides, more or less the exact reverse of the British experience. Finally, the reviews round out with a similar sense of alternation, of hesitation, between the war-inflected general praise of The Shadow-Line (1917), and the tongue-tied, if not outright disappointed and critical (and, of course, alternatively celebratory), quality of the reviews of The Arrow of Gold.
Yet for all this attention to the “success” or “failure” of Conrad’s artistry, and toward a sort of crescendo of debates concerning what is to be celebrated in Conrad and what isn’t, I must confess that what is for me most energizing and most exciting about these reviews lies outside the province of evaluative literary hierarchy per se: the excitement lies rather in all the concerns of context, of contingency, or lived meaning that deeply inform all of the ostensibly “literary” debates and which are available here in teeming rich multiplicity and detail like never before. For example, one of the most fascinating issues that runs recurrently throughout these reviews concerns Conrad’s women readers and reviewers: specifically, the relationship between their responses to Conrad and prominent social issues of feminism and gender that all reviewers of Conrad (female and male) seem to understand Conrad’s fiction of this period centrally to engage. We have known before, of course, thanks to scholars like Susan Jones and several others following in her path, the importance of women readers and women’s publication venues to Conrad’s fiction (especially) of this period. But what these reviews avail – and this has only very recently begun to receive attention – is an extraordinary lattice of conversation concerning Conrad among women reviewers (and writers/readers) including Mary Austin, Helen Bullis, Grace Isabel Colbron, Edith Borie, Katharine Fullerton Gerould, Katherine Mansfield, Elia Peattie, Marguerite Campion, Fanny Butcher (this latter, I must insist, is neither helpfully nor accurately described as “the doyenne of American literary criticism [3.5]), and the striking role of these voices in a general line of conversation in reviews of texts beginning with Chance (but also including others of this period) explicitly parsing these works in relation to contemporary developments in political feminism. There is no one simple articulation of the relation of, say, Chance to contemporary feminism – but the question of how all these (very) different women writers are engaging a text concerning which at least one critic (presumably male) exuberantly exclaimed, “What an anti-feminist tract lies here for extracting!” (3.237), is an interesting one, and one definitely animating the puzzling popularity of Chance.
Other historical/political issues, especially concerning the War, but also encompassing those of corporate corruption and capitalism, race and Darwinian theory, democracy, aristocracy, and socialism, and the relation between literary art and State propaganda, meaningful action, and all of the concerns above, are embedded in these reviews. As to the War in particular, Niland observes incisively of The Shadow-Line that “the work captured the sense of trial that had engulfed Europe, and critics were quick to identify Conrad as a necessary voice in the midst of a violent maelstrom” (3.6). But what Niland’s comment and compilation of reviews also prompts us to do is to consider the differences between how the War affects the reception of The Shadow-Line in the U.S. as opposed to Britain as opposed to the British colonies; to consider the many Conrad texts (in fact, every text except Chance) whose reviews persist in variously raising the War in their contemplation; and to consider how many specific aspects of the War and its aftermath, aspects domestic and international, are at issue in reviews and debates (even if articulated in the register of the “literary”) concerning various Conrad texts.
There’s one final note by Niland whose value I want to underscore as provocation for further reflection. Niland closes his introduction with what might seem a nostalgic appeal to “a manner of literary criticism that has since come to be regarded as a relic of its era”; this is a concern with “glimpses of ‘the truth of human nature,’” of “the record of a conflict of spirit,” of engagements with an elusively understood world through an essentially humanist focus that Niland distinguishes from “the concept of the clinically dehumanized ‘text’ [which] is nowhere in sight” (3.9). This is Niland’s appraisal of the overall mode of these reviews, and ostensibly his recommendations for current criticism as well. And though the idea of a “clinically dehumanized ‘text’” here is perhaps a bit of a caricature – I’m not sure anyone would willingly associate themselves with this description; I’m also not sure that “text” isn’t the best way to go about the strangely depersonalized and fictive constructions of character in texts like A Personal Record and Victory, as some of the reviews themselves insist – I take Niland’s fundamental point to be the searching urgency about self, life, world, others, and otherness that one finds in these reviews. Though I would not want to recommend that we lose ourselves in the method of these reviews as a whole, there are at least two of them – one which Niland points to, by James Douglas in The Star (3.522-23), which meditates on Conrad’s command of “the otherness of things”; the other, by an anonymous reviewer of The Arrow of Gold in The Saturday Review, which reads Conrad’s fiction as if composed “at the bottom of [the]…sea” and circumscribed by a “borderland either of madness or of God” (3.609-12) – in which horizons of worlds and worldliness are indeed being touched and breached through humanist introspection. The moment we lose complete touch with this is the moment we may, indeed, have lost the power of Conrad; and in any event, it is a valuable and provocative element, very faithful to the terrain of these reviews in themselves, that Niland foregrounds for discussion.
Volume Four, compiled and introduced by Mary Burgoyne and Katherine Isobel Baxter, presents reviews of Conrad’s work from The Rescue (1920) to Last Essays (1926). This final period encompasses the few years before and a couple of years after Conrad’s death in August 1924. As Burgoyne and Baxter observe, there is a valedictory, reflective, and retrospective general quality to these reviews (4.1). Attention is drawn to “tidying up” and matters “coming full circle”—with The Rescue, for instance, finally coming to its completion after its genesis over 20 years before. Or The Rover (1923), Conrad’s last completed novel, being published by Conrad’s first publisher, T. Fisher Unwin. Or Notes on Life and Letters (1921), Tales of Hearsay (1925), and Last Essays (1926) gathering up the remaining fugitive pieces of Conrad’s work, or The Nature of a Crime (1924) being published in a gesture of final public acknowledgement to Ford, or even the unfinished Suspense (1925) itself somehow perfectly incarnating the monumental design (like Napoleon’s) and unknowing incompleteness typical of Conrad’s work as a whole (4.1-4). As Burgoyne and Baxter observe, there is indeed a challenge to the very notion of “review,” one that has variously and implicitly been at stake in these volumes all along, foregrounded in this final period of contemporary commentary. For here no single Conrad text is ever really exclusively under review; rather its consideration is intermingled with the whole arc of Conrad’s writings, his biography and persona, estimations of his impact on contemporary writing and his place in literary history, and his formulation as the public author function “Conrad” generally. “These late reviews speak with an awareness of the fact they are reviewing not simply a book but also a renowned writer” (3.8).
And yet there is no peace. For all the tension and conflict, for all the difficulty and instability and perils of illegibility that define and haunt the uneven dynamics of Conrad’s reception from the beginning, the cold paradox of this final period is that its very heights of effusive acknowledgment, even enshrinement and iconic canonicity, are accompanied by the most devastating suggestions that that Conrad may have accomplished little of lasting or relevant accomplishment at all. There are grounds for volcanic insurrection here. Indeed, of all four review volumes, this one may be the most exciting in terms of its revisionist and generative potential; it is clearly the volume whose reviews (edited with fine judiciousness), focal Conrad texts, and surrounding issues are the most unexplored and undervalued. But the excitement and challenge here, at least in this reader’s view, carries with it an element of defiant provocation at its core that is different than the other three volumes. Whereas as the debates of the earlier volumes make one want to participate in them – which is why Simmons can so convincingly attest to the anticipatory critical qualities of the earlier reviews, and why Peters and Niland can so suggestively frame their accounts on the models of textual history and literary value foregrounded in the reviews themselves – Burgoyne and Baxter have assembled a volume that provokes by turning one into a rebel. One does not want to cross over into the looking glass of these debates; one wants to jump out of this mirror, one wants to shatter this mirror and use the infinitely rich shards that fall to the floor to re-envision, reflect, refract, the lost worlds of historical contingency and fresh vitalities of literary power that have remained hidden from view.
At central issue here is the remarkable number of celebrated names, of literary writers and critics, who write about Conrad at some length during the “final” period. Virginia Woolf, Leonard Woolf, E. M. Forster, Katharine Mansfield, Sinclair Lewis, Van Wyck Brooks, Basil Bunting, H. L. Mencken, Gilbert Seldes, Frances Newman, Christopher Morley, William McFee, Edward Garnett – these are just some of the major writers and critics of the time who “review” Conrad, often more than once, during this period. Some of the treatments are highly positive; others are quite critical, even if couched in an elegance that is not imitated by critics following their lead; and all of these reviews are both interesting and strangely unpredictable: if you think you can guess in advance who reviews Conrad’s last writings (and Conrad generally) favorably and who doesn’t, I think you will find yourself surprised as often as not.
But having said this, there is also something disturbing, something distorting, something generatively revolting (in a kind of jolting electrical sense) about these reviews, which have important ripple effects on the surrounding critical community. Illustrative here are two reviews leaning toward the negative – though the negativity per se is not my point, and there is a structural parallel, one of frozen and ponderously foreclosing discourse, its abstractions becoming further sedimented over time, among the positive commentary as well. One is Forster, whose “review” of Notes on Life and Letters is hardly simply a review of that text, and which has since become famous for its structural diagnosis of a “central obscurity” at the core of Conrad’s novels; as Forster memorably puts it, “the secret casket of [Conrad’s] genius contains a vapour rather than a jewel” (4.199). What one is reminded of in reading the full text of Forster’s review, however, and reading it in the context of the generally favorable contemporary reception of Notes on Life and Letters (which welcomed what many say as the “personal” disclosures of its author, in a different and more revealing fashion that either of Conrad’s earlier two autobiographical texts), is that Forster’s celebrated “vapor” formulation is fundamentally critical in thrust. Though many of Conrad’s readers have found his “absent centres” and foundational structural erasures to be the beginning of what is interesting in Conrad, Forster’s point is that the “central obscurity” in Conrad is the product of Conrad’s “constant discrepancies” and fundamental incoherence: Forster is shutting the conversation on Conrad down – decoding Conrad in terms of incapacity and insufficiency – at precisely the juncture that, for many, Conrad’s generative interest begins.
A parallel and connected example may be found in two reviews by Virginia Woolf, one centering on The Rescue and the other on Notes on Life and Letters. These two reviews dovetail with Forster and Woolf’s other contemporary essays on Conrad, and especially on Nostromo, by drawing ultimate attention to the “artificial” and “static” and (falsely, factitiously) “composed” quality of life presented in Conrad. For Woolf, the artificial and conventionalized emptiness of Conrad’s characters – especially if we move away from the “simple” domain of the sea – makes it so they are never convincingly predicated on, or expressive of, the genuine “feelings of a living person” – any more than, in Woolf and Forster’s mutual view, one genuinely derives a sense of Conrad’s own “felt life” from Notes on Life and Letters (4.42, 175).
Woolf’s aesthetic critique, of course, is important to consider in its elements of force and value, as are the material concerns of imperialism, gender, and sexuality to which they are connected in her reservations concerning Conrad. One may equally consider, as Leonard Woolf, in what feels like a rejoinder, begins to do in his review of The Rover, whether the above line of critique really sufficiently engages in their own terms the particular “conventions,” narrative premises, and aesthetic operations at work in Conrad (4.284) – not to mention Virginia Woolf’s repeated tendency, hard to separate from nativist suspicions of Conrad that run throughout the contemporary reviews, to marginalize the complicating attention Conrad brings to matters of language, nation, class, genre, and metropole/periphery relations as insignificantly “foreign” (4.176). These competing strands of interpretation are both productive, because they are rife with implications of both art and worldly relation that it is extremely valuable to discuss.
What is not productive, however, is how the simple critique of conventionalized “emptiness” in itself, abstracted into a critical cliché and evacuated from context, becomes mimed and circulated as a reflexive gesture in negative commentary of this period. Ernest Hemingway writes, in the famous memorial piece he wrote on Conrad for the transatlantic review in 1924, that “It is fashionable among my friends to disparage [Conrad]”– that “It is agreed by most people I know that Conrad is a bad writer.” If you want to understand the contempt that lies behind these words, the defiance that prompts Hemingway in response to head out after T. S. Eliot (who liked Conrad too—but whom Hemingway is using as a figure of fashionable snobbery) with a retributive “sausage grinder,” there is no more robust presentation I know of the empty negative critical discourse triggering this than that made available in this volume of contemporary reviews. What’s vexing here is how Virginia Woolf’s critique – which is significantly a projection of what would become her own poetics of subjective interiority onto Conrad, with Conrad coming up lacking – becomes the absolute model, not for debating Conrad or pondering Conrad’s difference, but for perceiving and indeed dismissing him altogether. And the particular casualty here – as Hemingway knows by specifically expressing his appreciation of reading The Rover – is the “late” writings. For here more than anywhere else it is easiest not to notice Conrad (because these writings are less obviously and aggressively experimental), to reject without investigation those works’ own autonomous aesthetic terms and connections to, and value in the world: through an incipient model of high Modernism that to the present day has compromised our ability to appreciate these texts.
One could make a similar argument with respect to the equally force “reverential” wing of contemporary Conrad commentary – which is actually much more dominant than the negative wing, and in part what the latter is responding to – with the issue again being particular visions of literary history or particular models of literary practice which, rather than opening up the question of Conrad’s eccentricities and their meanings in, and for the world, foreclose the issue of his unruliness, ironically to the true detriment of the later fiction that is ostensibly being celebrated.
Amid this collision of competing machineries of abstraction, of institutional formations that have become organized in their relation to a now pronounceable and circumscribable (because the works are complete) Conrad, the bulk and ballast of the contemporary reviews in this volume have a wildly destabilizing effect. To read them in the unruliness of their full details and voices is to experience a welcome shattering of shiny surfaces. First and most strikingly, as Burgoyne and Baxter keenly observe, there are remarkable vistas of transnationalism and world politics, specifically concerning the late writings, opened up by these reviews. We have known, of course, that the prose collections Notes on Life and Letters and Last Essays present striking engagements with political questions concerning Britain, Poland, Russia, and Germany – engagements whose contemporary meanings these reviews illuminate, along with the curiously French, Russian, and American notes emphasized in these volumes’ literary engagement. But what, as Burgoyne and Baxter point out, we probably did not know is the degree and complexity with which Irish political resistance in this period is extensively read and debated in terms of Conrad’s own presentation of Poland; nor indeed the degree to which Conrad as an incipiently postcolonial figure of “oppressed nationality” (4.71) informs the complex and vigorous contemporary reception of The Rescue; nor the extent and texture with which urgent contemporary questions of Russian Bolshevism, international socialism, post-First World War international security, and global dynamics of race and imperialism are directly understood as issues in The Rescue, The Rover, Tales of Hearsay, and Suspense.
Part of what is at stake here is the fresh recovery and re-evaluation of the late writings as a matter of not only their rich thematics but also form – that is, asking why it is so important that The Rescue engages with romance, and what it means that this formal engagement could only be completed in the aftermath of the First World War; asking what practices of – and hybrid combinations with –the historical novel are at issue in The Rover and Suspense, and how these are strategies of world engagement; asking what exactly the form of the two prose collections is, and following the leads of the contemporary reviews in their suggestive intertwining of this very question with concerns of autobiography and nation-formation; asking what different forms of “tale” are at issue in Tales of Hearsay, and how the conspicuously political contents of “Prince Roman” (the only fiction Conrad ever wrote explicitly expressing Poland – and in a tone contemporary reviewers viewed as quite remarkable), “The Warrior’s Soul,” and “The Tale” are expressed in relation to those forms. These concerns are simultaneously literary and political; they underscore both the urgency and the vital variability with which Conrad’s late writings were connected to and understood in, the context of the contemporary world. And if there is one formidable vein of research to which all these volumes of reviews point, it is to future research concerning the specific literary, cultural, and political histories of Conrad’s reception in places including Scotland and Ireland, Australia and India, Canada and Malaysia – and the many other world spaces to which these volumes encourage us to turn.
© 2013 Peter Lancelot Mallios