- Reading Documents:Embedded Texts in The Professor's House and The Shadow-Line
Both Joseph Conrad's 1917 novella The Shadow-Line and Willa Cather's 1926 novel The Professor's House feature numerous inset documents: notes, diaries, lists, professional contracts, scholarly texts, patents, and scientific formulae abound.1 Despite the frequency with which each novel makes allusion to documents—often reproducing them in the pages of the narrative—they have not been considered critically as texts-within-texts. Thus the foregrounding of documents in my readings of Conrad's and Cather's fiction forms an attempt to recode documents with significance so as to decode their various uses. Phrased another way, a systematic approach to the documents of The Shadow-Line and The Professor's House might discover the narrative work they accomplish that, as I will illustrate, bears considerable influence on how we read and understand each fiction. Documents alter the shape of each narrative and concomitantly generate meaning.
As The Professor's House was published nearly a decade after The Shadow-Line, there is a temptation to read Cather's strategic citation of text as influenced by Conrad's documentary imaginary: his invocation of documents to structural and thematic effect across his oeuvre. Some notable examples include Marlow's letters, addressed to the unnamed listener, that complete both the story of Jim's life and Lord Jim (1900); Jukes's letter that describes the outcome of the Nan-Shan's perilous journey and that also forms the conclusion of Typhoon (1903); the newspaper's description of Winnie's suicide that haunts the final pages of The Secret Agent (1907); the Russian record of Razumov's life, translated by the English narrator of Under Western Eyes that, in fact, constitutes the novel (1911); and, perhaps, the most memorable of these: Kurtz's [End Page 186] report for the "International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs" in "Heart of Darkness" (1902). Cather praised Conrad's literary innovation and invoked his example as a model for herself and her American contemporaries.2 Peter Mallios's recent book Our Conrad argues for Conrad's formative effect on Cather's craft. Cather was "much more engaged with Conrad than criticism acknowledges" (177). For Mallios, Cather's great incisiveness as a reader of Conrad manifests specifically in her short stories "Behind the Singer Tower" and "The Sculptor's Funeral" as they recast Conrad's themes of economic exploitation, violence, and alienation in "Heart of Darkness" and Lord Jim to the American context. However, I am less interested in the question of influence and more fascinated by the ways in which this mutual exploration of the documents of The Shadow-Line and The Professor's House might reveal the structural innovativeness of each fiction. I bring these two works together on the basis of the similar thematic contexts in which their particular documents emerge; meanwhile, ultimately, my aim is to realize the full complexity of these works by acknowledging their citation of documents as a strategy. The Shadow-Line and The Professor's House form exemplary cases of fictions in which an inability to recognize the use of inset text as more than a feature of plot forms an obstacle to interpretation, recalling, as one example, the experience of reading a text without detecting a significant allusion or quotation that has the potential to transform, even reinvent, the nature of a literary encounter. Reading Conrad's and Cather's document-laced novels together sharpens our grasp of the narrative techniques in both. Moreover, this focus on documents presents an opportunity to enlarge our sense of the narrative possibilities of interpolated texts more generally.
The Shadow-Line is a story of a man recollecting his first command at sea and simultaneously, a man confessing to his youth. The Professor's House is an elegy for youth. The novel equates the death of Tom Outland, the absent protagonist of the story, with the loss of that robust and inspired period of early life. Just two years out of university, Tom drops his scientific experiments and joins the War. The narrative begins five years after Tom's death in Flanders, long enough for the...