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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 47.2 (2001) 356-390

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Undiscovering the Country: Conrad, Fitzgerald, and Meta-National Form

Peter Mallios

In this ceaseless rush of shadows and shades, that, like the fantastic forms of clouds cast darkly upon the waters on a windy day, fly past us to fall headlong below the hard edge of an implacable horizon, we must turn to the national spirit, which, superior in its force and continuity to evil and good fortune, can alone give us the feeling of an enduring existence and of an invincible air of power against the fates.

--Joseph Conrad, The Mirror of the Sea

When we pulled out into the winter night and the real snow, our snow, began to stretch out beside us and twinkle against the windows, and the dim lights of small Wisconsin stations moved by, a sharp wild brace came suddenly into the air. We drew in deep breaths of it as we walked back from dinner through the cold vestibules, unutterably aware of our identity with this country for one strange hour before we melted indistinguishably into it again.

--F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby [End Page 356]

On 7 April 1923, Joseph Conrad appeared on the cover of Time magazine. The occasion was Conrad's first and only visit to America, which began a few weeks later and was widely anticipated throughout the country. Time matched America's romantic excitement with a romantic presentation of Conrad. On the cover, above a caption reading "Joseph Conrad: Toward New Adventure," a handsome portrait constructs Conrad in the image of a valiant ship's captain: stately, sage, fully bearded, and commanding. This imperial construction is meant both to replicate the sea topoi of Conrad's fiction and to anticipate the governing metaphor of the feature article that follows: Conrad as the modern Columbus. From its opening paragraph, the article makes clear exactly what New World stands to be discovered as Captain Conrad sets out on his latest expedition:

Joseph Conrad, rover of the seven seas, has never set foot in the United States. Now he is coming. At about the end of this month the man who holds probably the most exalted position in contemporary English letters is to arrive here [. . .]. He looks forward to it in a spirit of adventure. Despite all the countries and seas of the world which he has made his own and presented to his readers, he has never come closer to this coast [until now]. ("Joseph Conrad" 15)

The suggestions that Conrad may "make" the United States "his own," and that America itself stands to be discovered as a site of worthiness by Conrad's visit, must be understood in the wider cultural context in which these words were written: one in which, for several years preceding, H. L. Mencken, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Gibbons Huneker, Willa Cather, Mary Hunter Austin, Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, Eugene O'Neill, a young poet named William Faulkner, and many others had already assigned Conrad a premier place in American attempts to discover a national identity through a hitherto undiscovered national literature. 1 It was Fitzgerald, moreover, who stressed this point with perhaps the greatest consistency and emphasis. Fitzgerald's expository prose of the 1920s abounds in cross-correlations between Conrad and the modern American novel, and the very month before the Conrad feature in Time, Fitzgerald contended that America's "utterly national" vision would become written with the literary advent of "our Conrad" ("Minnesota's Capital" 36) [End Page 357]

This essay considers the ways in which Fitzgerald fulfills and undermines his own prophecy. My overarching claim is that there is a historicity to Fitzgerald's career-long fascination with Conrad, and that this historicity consists significantly in the two authors' shared preoccupation with modern cultural problematics of nationality and nationhood. 2 My principal argument, however, is that the example of Conrad's innovations in form enable Fitzgerald to resist precisely the ambitions of authoritative national "discovery" with which he began. What was once, for Fitzgerald, the allure of discovering and declaring the...


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