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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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