The Conradian: Review

By Mark Conroy, The Ohio State University

Peter Mallios, Our Conrad: Constituting American Modernity. Stanford University Press, 2010. 468 pp. $65.00

When filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola was stuck on how to shape the movie he was working on, Apocalpyse Now, the story has it that he turned to Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" to give him inspiration. On the evidence of Peter Mallios's new book Our Conrad, he was probably just carrying on a long-standing American tradition.

This fascinating volume explores, for the first time at such length, the way this notoriously prickly prophet of alienation insinuated himself (or rather was insinuated) into the reading habits of the United States in the early twentieth century. American innocence and optimism, sitting so ill it seems with that dour eminence, proved remarkably adept at doing what America itself has done to generations of immigrants: construing his attitudes and intentions as if they mirrored the country's, just as the sea mirrors the human beings whose existence it also threatens.

Mallios attributes this uncanny American ability to reach out and co-opt Conrad, to make him "ours" (that is, America's), to the man's power as a literary "heterotopic site." This notion of the heterotopic comes out of Michel Foucault by way of Conrad scholar Robert Hampson, and, in line with Mallios's triadic tendencies, he defines it in three ways: as a "space absolutely outside the United States yet somehow comprehensively deconstructive and reconstructive of its sense of external and internal boundary; [as] a site of perpetual interference and recovery with respect to US macronarratives of isolationism and exceptionalism; [and as] a genetic source constantly expanding in its terms of application yet also ultimately unfixable and irresolvable in its ideological determinations." Well, who could disagree?

I would say, in any case, that readers seeking a condensed account of Mallios's theoretical armature skip the introduction and spend a session with Foucault's "Of Other Spaces" and Hampson's article "Conrad's Heterotopic Fiction," whence essentially it comes. What it amounts to, oversimplifying a touch, is that Conrad was surprisingly easy for his American readers to take to their hearts because his foreign world provided American conflicts and inner agonies with a place of recognition, and even a quasi-pastoral place of reconciliation. It turns out that when the New World discovers someone from the Old World, it also rediscovers itself. And now Mallios has rediscovered, and read, this decades-old moment of discovery in all its variety.

In this empirical richness of research lies this work's highest claim to our attention. Certainly the book's central accomplishment, in my view at any rate, is the new granularity it gives to the role of H. L. Mencken in bringing the Conradian gospel to the American heathen. The fact that Mencken was a great Conrad champion and an effective tastemaker for the educated public when he did so was already known, and noted, before now. What Mallios adds to this is a sensitivity to the way Mencken bends his Conrad, not so much consciously as instinctively, to his own concerns. Mencken's on-going war on the Anglo-Saxon hegemony over American letters is, and has ever been, understood as an impetus for his interest in not just Conrad but Theodore Dreiser and just about any other American novelist he promoted.

In Mallios's rendering there are further subtle reasons for his affinity. For Mencken, Conrad manages to be both an "anti-colonial" writer and an epitome of "the idea of 'aristocracy,'" which, of course, does not for Mencken connote the WASP gatekeepers but, instead, "a figure of American impossibility"; that is, a means of deploring the populist majoritarianism which is the American democratic ethos. Mallios may be a bit cagey in accounting for Mencken's authoritarian streak, preferring to see this aristocratism as libertarian or perhaps merely snobbish. (It is far more deeply rooted than this.) But he is remarkably agile in showing how Mencken's multifarious and sometimes contradictory allegiances work to fashion a Conrad that would encompass and further them.

It also startles one to see how anti-war Mencken's Conrad ends up sounding, as opposed to the pro-war partner of Kipling that his other American promoters conjure. The study cites, for instance, a New York Times article on The Shadow-Line that "highlights the important degree to which Conrad's works became militarized in the United States." A similar irony attends a Doubleday campaign for The Arrow of Gold whose author ends up a happy helpmeet for American self-esteem, boosting exactly the democratic "values" that Mencken sees him as holding up to elitist scorn.

Such violent discrepancies in reception and reading raise, inevitably, the possibility that Conrad's wonderful "capacity for heterotopic provocation" is really nothing more than the effect of a complicated exotic author whose hermeneutic distance allows him to be read almost any way a given reader finds convenient. Although in a funny way this possibility supplies some of the most piquant juxtapositions in Mallios's book, he refrains from any sustained or overarching story as to how so many American readers could plausibly gloss Conrad in such opposing ways.

This can be seen, of course, as a strength (of the study and indeed of the author's subject); and it surely allows this book to bring in a vast array of readers and influences. (That a prominent reader of Conrad be a part of his early-century introduction to the US is, to this eye, the only principle of exclusion the study has.) But this reader occasionally found himself wishing that Conrad's many readers — from Randolph Bourne and Van Wyck Brooks through F. Scott Fitzgerald and W. E. B. DuBois to Willa Cather and William Faulkner, with nods to supernumeraries such as Frances Newman and even the "Monday Study Club of Sabetha, Kansas" — had added up to something more than, well, Conrad's many American readers. In truth, Mallios gives earnest, at times and for a short while, of some other possible, more concentrated narrative. Actually, one sees several such possibilities.

Perhaps the vexed relation of the South to Conrad's fiction might be one. Mencken, after all, was a Southerner, although the fractious author of "The Sahara of the Bozart" was hardly a loyal son; and John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren, and (a particular character) Donald Davidson were all obsessed with how Conrad's fiction presented to them the image of their own region's historical and cultural struggles. (Here as always, the gap between Mencken's construal and those of other Southerners is what most obtrudes: no "figure of postnational cosmopolitanism," the Conrad read by Davidson "confirms a kind of nationalism that is transnationally applicable," especially to Southern pride.)

Perhaps Conrad is rather best seen as the godfather of American modernist sensibility and experimentation. The lines of influence Mallios traces to Cather, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway, and finally (again) to Faulkner, would seem to suggest this. He is particularly eloquent on the character whose very enigmatic identity provides the tantalizing prospect of a symbolic gathering-place for a larger social world. Hence, Fitzgerald's title-character Jay Gatsby resonates with Conrad title character Nostromo because both are "projective phantasms of what other characters and both novels desperately wish to see."

A reading of Faulkner's early Soldiers' Pay makes a similar relay. In this case, the Conrad text whose title-character furnishes the heterotopic site for other characters' projective readings is The Nigger of the "Narcissus," his Faulkner equivalent the "absent character center Donald Mahon." (This reading also affords a preview of how Faulkner more famously constructs that enigmatic mirror Joe Christmas in Light in August.) These intriguing homologies could be made to imply a larger story about the way the modernists' thematic and symbolic structurings are informed by Conradian techniques, and through them his insights into social dynamics.

Perhaps the riven method by which Conrad inscribes the relation of subaltern or marginal identities to nationhood would have been another way to go. In this story Mallios's Conrad can be made to support or oppose the white race's imperial designs, help or retard the aspirations of downtrodden social classes, and so on. Most generally, Conrad proves disturbingly susceptible to being enlisted either to buttress the identification of nation and race or to undermine it; and following Walter Benn Michaels, Mallios sees the America of the 1920s as above all concerned with how to define itself culturally. "Our Conrad" certainly — but who is "we?"

In this respect, Richard Wright is just as inspired by the novelist as Davidson is, but in the radically other direction of "diagnosing and politically challenging world systems of race oppression." It could be, in other words, that the Conrad of this study, both a patriot and the member of an oppressed culture, lends himself equally to discourses fortifying nationalism and to gestures towards subverting the complacencies of national-patriotic consensus.

Perhaps an even narrower but also more pointed history could have been fashioned from H. L. Mencken and the later writers, whether Southern white, black, or "lost generation," whose Conrad was supplied via Mencken's criticism. That possibility can also be seen in crepuscular outline.

Each of the above four story-lines finds representation in this book, which does indeed contain multitudes. Rather than regret the summative argument that might have better shaped the book's baggy looseness, perhaps one should be grateful for the profusion of smaller readings and miniature histories one is given. These will give future scholars much to do. After all, Mallios's material is so freshly unearthed that his desire to account for his subject's influence on almost any American writer of the 'twenties is easy to understand.

What may be less easy for some readers to understand (or at all events excuse) are the syntactical excesses. One has many occasions, as sentences pass ponderously in review, to reflect that a terser mode of expression could have saved a few unnecessary pages here and there. Take, for instance, a passage from the introduction, one of several places where the author defines his project: "'Our Conrad,' simply put, is a matter of the most ideologically hyperboundaried, aggressively self-distinguishing of nations meeting the most comprehensive site of heterotopic evocation and interference with it." ("Simply put," indeed!)

Some of this clausular distension is no doubt required to convey the complexities of a commentary working several seams of analytical meaning at once; but some of it, quite honestly, really isn't. One impressive example of overkill, too long to be reproduced here, occurs in the chapter on Faulkner. Moved possibly to emulate its subject, this chapter has one sentence that goes on for fourteen lines. (Yes, a count was made.) After awhile this sort of thing becomes almost charming, just not charming enough to justify itself.

Thankfully, however, style isn't identical to substance; and academic texts are seldom read as belles lettres. Mallios's new departure in scholarship here is the main point, and what compels admiration; the implications he draws from his topic are deep and trenchant to the point where one wonders why nobody has "gone there" much before. He also manages, in the process, to correct previous readings by Fredric Jameson among others. In sum, the study displays a supple way with interpretive frameworks that permits him not just to reveal his influences but also to place them within American neuroses and preoccupations.

So thoroughly placed is Conrad, in fact, that, in the end, this evocative and variegated book is rather more about the United States in the 'twenties - and inevitably in the early twenty-first century as well - than it is about Conrad. While relying on the reader's prior sense of Conrad's major works, and not a few of his minor ones, the study has for its chief vector the exploration of how a distant country takes in and alters an alien text to its satisfaction.

That the country does so in such divergent ways attests even more to the problematic nature of the people(s) doing the interpreting than to the density of the œuvre itself (the typical modernist explanation for interpretive variability, I suppose). Conrad must be presumed important enough to be interpreted, of course; and after Mencken's ministrations - and those of Knopf, Doubleday, and 'twenties cinema - he is. But Mallios is finally more taken with what these many and varied versions of Conrad say about the "we" than he is with the light they shed (or fail to) on "Conrad."

More focused on the sometimes stark differences in American reactions to this "heterotopic provocation," the book enacts in its own turn the fracturing of response, the frustrating partiality, of readers and cultures with competing and even mutually baffling agendas. Perhaps the most salient discovery Mallios makes is that when his New World discovers the Old World, it reveals just how many disparate worlds it already has to contend with. Without quite saying it, the book leaves us with the realization that out of this many, to hope for a one would be folly.

© 2011 Mark Conroy






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