Mallios, Peter. Our Conrad: Constituting American Modernity.
Conrad's influence on American writers is well known, as is the popular reception of Chance in the US followed by his much heralded trip there. But it might come as some surprise that the country so denigrated in Conrad's fiction and even referred to in one infamous instance as a last resort--"I viii an Amerigan citizen begome," protests the despicable Patna captain--supported a veritable Conrad industry in the early twentieth century. Former studies of transatlantic connections have been concerned with influence and consumption. The present study distinguishes itself by focusing on production--the ways "Conrad" was constructed in the US especially during the years of the Great War and its aftermath, his fictions serving as grist to disparate domestic social-political mills. While both Robert Weisbuch in The Atlantic Double-Cross (1986) and Mallios complain of the paucity of work in Anglo-American comparative study, Mallios's claim goes much further. In a more focused manner and for a more distinct purpose than "influence" and its anxieties, Mallios employs "a critical approach predicated on the minute investigation of the constitution and contestation of 'domestic' spaces by 'foreign' signs" (ix). This study of "the modern American invention of Joseph Conrad as a 'master' literary figure between 1914 and 1939" constitutes an effort, Mallios argues, to "transnationize the terms of global literary and cultural studies" (ix), and to better understand the arbitrariness of literary national borders.
That Conrad's fictions could be so variously construed (and misconstrued) in these various American "productions" was a function particularly, Mallios claims, of a certain heterotopic quality intrinsic to Conrad's writings. Here he recuperates Foucault's ideas about "other spaces," to focus on the heterotopic textual spaces in Conrad's fiction in order to help explain the multiplicity of their often contradictory receptions," those spaces "always unsettling and refusing confinement within any authorized, legalized, moralized, or ideological plane of discourse" (62). That Conrad's fictions were so commodious, so comprehensive, so capable of disparate readings, from diverse, even, contradictory points of view, was "a general property of Conrad's fiction," Mallios argues (31), that also served his various American "producers" well.
His study examines the ways in which Conrad's American reviewers and critics constructed "Conrad" so that readers were made to see the many points of congruence between his fictions and America's distinctive sense of itself in the early twentieth century. Those "many points of resonance" included "a slippery discourse of Englishness, capable of both suturing and subverting U.S. 'Anglo-Saxon' articulations of world relation and domestic boundary and hierarchy," "the idea of revolutionary/ Bolshevik Russia," "global practices of imperialism and the race ideologies subtending them," and "the idea of the nation itself" (34). The focus on these constructions is undertaken in this study within specific historical contexts and particular institutional constraints: the journals, newspapers, magazines of the day and the domestic narratives--often changing--each sought to advance.
The book is divided into three parts. The first, which comprises almost half of the book and is entitled "The Nation in the World, the World in the Nation," examines the work of three "contra Anglo-Saxon" constructions of Conrad, all, in their rather different ways, engaging his "foreignness," enlisting him heterotopically for their particular purposes. Here Mallios provides a detailed study of H.L. Mencken's creation of "Conrad" in his many reviews, books, and articles as a counter-argument to the then raging pressures against immigration and for isolationism and nativist Anglo-Saxonism. The German-American, whose writings were marked by his own sense of alienation and homelessness, was especially keen on celebrating Conrad as "an unmelted British immigrant" (54) and a cosmopolitan figure of a profoundly comprehensive point of view. If we might wonder, as Conrad did and vehemently protested, why Mencken insisted on Conrad as "Slav," Mallios provides an answer. As a Slav, Conrad figured for Mencken as foreign, not Anglo-Saxon and as "a template for the un-national, "anti-national," and "true cosmopolitan,"(79) and in this way contested what he perceived as the narrowness of US culture and its relationship to the rest of the world. (56)
Mallios juxtaposes two more important voices with that of Mencken, those of Van Wyck Brooks and Randolphe S. Bourne, (the originator of the term "transnational," Mallios claims 103), both anti-Puritan, antiestablishment, and significantly anti-"Anglo-Saxon" constructions of Conrad, although widely divergent in many ways. For Mencken Conrad was a Slav, for Van Wyck Brooks he was Russian, for Bourne he was a pacifist. Conrad's US publishers, Alfred Knopf and Frank Nelson Doubleday, and their particular investments in and elaborations of Conrad, are also scrutinized here as working in "dialogic relation" to Mencken through "marketing efforts that shrewdly capitalize on contemporary events" (118). Here Mallios treats Victory at some length as an especially revealing case of heterotopic readings. Among the plethora of disparate responses to this very popular novel in the US, Doubleday framed it as pro-war, positioning Conrad "to be 'prepared' (key word) to comprehend, accommodate, and be thoroughly implicated by war generally" (131), while Mencken had argued that Conrad "made war on nothing." For some the novel reinforced the idea that the greater world out there was sinister and dangerous and to be avoided while others saw Heyst, the would-be isolationist, as a warning "to enter the field of world action on the side of right before it is too
late." Mallios presents the various reviews of Victory, "framed by the politics of the magazine for which they wrote" (135), as a direct reflection of American concerns at the time.
Unlooked for, perhaps, in a study of Conrad, but in fact profoundly informing is the attention paid to other kinds of US literary engagements of the day. Here are rich, lengthy discussions of the ways in which their work read Conrad heterotopically, particularly Heart of Darkness. In the writing of Willa Cather, Vachel Lindsay, Langston Hughes, W. E. B. Dubois, Countee Cullen, and Richard Wright, Mallios finds points of congruence and of dissonance. Here he argues that contemporary African-American writers attended to the larger "Anglo-Saxon" contestations and convulsions propelling the rise of 'our Conrad'" and in their heterotopic engagements with Conrad, introduced "particular subtleties of interpretation, revelation, and political agency" (192).
In the much shorter Part II, "American Modernism Abroad," Mallios turns from domestic engagements with Conrad to the expatriate field of Conrad's production and how those readings mediate issues of the nation in the years after the war. Many of these readers/writers were young men and women in the 1920s and came to Conrad through constructions contemporary with his initial work, Mencken's chief among them. Their reading of Conrad was also influenced by such recent avant-garde literary magazines as the Dial, and by the image of Conrad the expatriate par excellence; for Hemingway, Eliot, Fitzgerald, Dos Passos, O'Neil, and others, Conrad was the traveler, the rover, Ulysses himself. But here again, Mallios shows these readings to be disparate, even contradictory. For example, while Hemingway used Conrad to "privilege an art based on concrete experience" vis a vis Eliot, as a nationalizing ideology, Eliot's attraction to Conrad lay in Eliot's "renunciation of U.S. 'national' narratives and categories of identifcation" (227, 230). In the third and final part of this study, "Regions of Conflict," Mallios moves from the postwar expatriate scene back to the US in the '20s and '30s, particularly to the American South. Here he argues that Conrad figured for southerners "as a crisis space of national and sectional metanarratives" (267) during this time, especially for Faulkner, Robert Penn Warren, and the Vanderbilt Agrarians who are shown here to have constructed "Conrad" according to how each was engaged in the cultural-political battles of the day.
Whether we are Conradians, Americanists, transnationalists, or modernists, Our Conrad repays our close attention. While historically situating the US reception of Conrad's texts and thus demonstrating how the domestic is always saturated by the foreign, this rich and complex study makes us better readers of Conrad and, en route, teaches us a great deal. Throughout, Mallios immerses us in the often unfamiliar writing of familiar and unfamiliar writers and critics within the historical context of American culture and politics to argue that any consideration of a literary text, American or otherwise, must take in the larger international context.
ANDREA WHITE, California State University at Dominguez Hills
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|Publication:||Studies in the Novel|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2012|
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