Jan/Feb 2005  •   Reviews & Interviews

Conrad in the Twenty-First Century: Contemporary Approaches and Perspectives

Review by Kevin McGowin

Conrad in the Twenty-First Century: Contemporary Approaches and Perspectives.
Carola M. Kaplan, editor.
Routledge. 2004. 326 pp.

No serious Conrad scholar can do without this book—if only to be contrary to its seventeen essays. The purpose of the editors seems to be to redefine the Conrad canon, and it's a resounding failure, at least for me: I agree that Heart of Darkness and The Secret Agent are the "Big two," but to essentially evaluate Conrad on the basis of two works is, for me, ridiculous.

Under Western Eyes is represented, but what of Victory or The Shadow-Line? Or Chance, as even J. Hillis Miller's Foreward wonders at. This book is essentialy an attempt to center Conrad in a "contemporary" sense, and to redefine the Conrad "canon."

And be this as it is, I see nothing new being written about either Heart of Darkness or The Secret Agent. I do not see Mike Michael in this book—he, the world's foremost living expert on Conrad. For that matter, I was not consulted, either, and I'm up there somewhere.

I dedicated five years of my life to working on Joseph Conrad. And, with exceptions, this compendium is nothing but a sequence of long-winded academic bullshit. Miller knows it, too, and writes his Foreward with a sense of apology.

Heart of Darkness has got to be one of, if not the, most over-analized works in English Literature. Is it a great work? Yes—yet Conrad's aesthetic demands we look at more.

The Nigger of the Narcissus is not much treated, as we don't wish to deal with that word in terms of JamesWait in 2004. Well, 1903 was different—Joseph Conrad is not your Bitch, guys. As you seem to think. Nor is the Chirst-figure "nigger" of the title to be overlooked. Academics seem to care more about propriety than irony.

Heart is still Conrad's masterpiece, although no one has yet genuinely tackled the difficult late 80s idea that Kurtz was in fact dying of AIDS dementia, as The Lancet posited in 1989. The Secret Agent is surely number two, but the next three, if you MUST choose five, are Victory, The Shadow-Line, and Chance.

The general omission here gives away the editorial bias. Why this is, I haven't the slightest. But Conrad in ANY century is more than you bargained for. Maybe that's why essays on his novels often seem so spurious and silly.


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