restricted access Our Conrad: Constituting American Modernity (review)
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Reviewed by
Peter Lancelot Mallios. Our Conrad: Constituting American Modernity. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2010. xv + 468 pp.

Our Conrad is an ambitious project, which traces the impact of Joseph Conrad's work on American literature and literary taste in the first half of the twentieth century. As Peter Lancelot Mallios explains, well before his death in 1924, Conrad was widely known and discussed across the United States. This was in part thanks to the increased market for serialized fiction that developed around the beginning of the century, as well as ambitious marketing strategies and syndicated reviewing, which meant that reviews written in one newspaper were rapidly reprinted or excerpted in other newspapers across the country. Conrad's publishers were able to harness these developments to great effect in their promotion of his work, particularly during the second half of his career.

However, Mallios's focus is not on the practical mechanisms of Conrad's distribution and popularization. Instead, he examines the ways in which Conrad's work, and with it various (and often competing) characterizations of Conrad himself, was mobilized intellectually in multiple literary conversations to frequently disparate ends. Moreover, Mallios identifies in these conversations a common use of Conrad and his work to develop discourses of national, and national literary, identity. Investigating these, he provides what he calls, in Foucauldian terms, a capillary reading of this appropriation of Conrad as "our Conrad" in the discursive flux of modern American self-examination and self-construction. The result is a detailed account of the ways that various authors of the period read Conrad in the light of their own preoccupations and prejudices, and presented his work in ways that were intended to undergird their own positions.

Following an extended introduction, which outlines the aims of the book, Mallios opens with an exploration of the significance read into Conrad's works and transnational status by H. L. Mencken and other intellectuals, during and immediately following the Great War. The second chapter attends to the circulation of Conrad among "Jews, Anglo-Saxons, Women, [and] African-Americans" through shorter discussions of a range of more and less well-known writers (108). The third chapter turns its attention to "American Modernism Abroad" with an extensive discussion of Conrad's influence on F. Scott Fitzgerald (219). Following this, Mallios returns his focus to the US and in particular the South, first to consider Conrad's significance for the little magazines and literary circles of the region, and finally to examine Faulkner's activation of Conradian themes within his own fiction. [End Page 153]

This chiasmic structure is no accident. It is clear that for Mallios the examples of Mencken and Faulkner with which he opens and closes are the richest for his purposes. One apparent reason for this is that their engagement with Conrad is, in Mallios's reading at least, more ideologically complex than that of the other authors examined in the volume. In both Mencken and Faulkner, Conrad and his work become the means by which to expose racial convention and to undermine racial distinction. Mencken, for instance, lionizes Conrad as an aristocrat (a popular misconception of the time) and as a Pole, racially distinct from Anglo Saxon culture. This latter identification, for Mencken, was the very epitome of all that was fatal to intellectual progress in the United States. Indeed, Mencken understood the pervasiveness of American Anglo Saxon sympathy as the reason for America's engagement in the Great War, which he strongly opposed not as an isolationist but as a supporter of Germany. Thus Mencken figures Conrad as a bastion against Anglo Saxon homogenization, quite in contradiction to Conrad's own, albeit complicated, Anglo Saxon sympathy and his marked disdain for German culture.

Although Mallios does not discuss this contradiction, Mencken's self-determined reading of Conrad is exemplary of both the creativity and the willfulness inherent in the adoption of "our Conrad" as a catalyst in American literary modernity. Mencken could thus construct an idea of Conrad and his works that supported a radical critique of American Anglophilia, characterized by a valorization of Conrad as an alien externality; and, at the same time, John Crowe Ransom could write...