- Secret Sharers: Melville, Conrad and Narratives of the Real ed. by Paweł Jędrzejko, Milton M. Reigelman, and Zuzanna Szatanik
In the October 2012 presidential debate on foreign policy, candidate Mitt Romney queried President Barack Obama's support for the US Navy, pointing out that the America had "fewer ships then we did in 1916." We also have "fewer horses and bayonets," the President responded, pointing out that military preparedness was "not a game of battleship." In light of the changed relationship between maritime power and geopolitics, we might accordingly ask not "why read Melville and Conrad today?" but rather how we might read them most productively. Both writers had been mariners, of course, and both were writers of the sea; more pointedly, both were ambivalent celebrants and critics—poets, I suppose—of marine imperialism. Both scrutinized the dominant and, in the nineteenth century, commonsensical model of an ascendant "civilization" that buttressed the ideologies of empire; both found civilization wanting, and both portrayed fictional subjects deeply out of sync with the worlds they labored to produce. For these and other reasons, the twentieth-century critical consensus viewed both writers as protomodernists. Critics as politically and temperamentally different as D. H. Lawrence and Edward Said, as Richard Chase and C. L. R. James, agree that Melville and Conrad anticipate a twentieth-century condition, call it alienated, existential, what you will. Even those who sympathize with the late Chinua Achebe's assessment of Conrad as a racist writer might concede that his work provides an important diagnosis of the racial imagination it seemingly endorses. Seafarers remain among us, as do people collectively and individually at odds with their own conditions of existence though epistemologically and linguistically and politically shriven of the tools to do anything about it. Empires, of a sort, persist, as, decidedly, does an imperial mindset based on fantasies of racial superiority. But conditions have changed; and as Obama reminds us, we have fewer ships.
How then, might our interests in the texts of Melville and Conrad be anything more than antiquarian? Secret Sharers provides some possibilities. The book is a lovingly edited, handsomely illustrated, and beautifully designed [End Page 73] collection of contrapuntal and mutually illuminating readings of both writers. Impressively scholarly contributions by an international body of critics and the collection's emphasis on cosmopolitanism and geopolitics, on the ethics of reading and writing, and, of course, on secrecy and sharing, offer new visions of Melville and Conrad for the twenty-first century. As the second volume of the Melville Studies series edited by Jędrzejko, Reigelman, and Szatanik, and drawing on papers delivered at the Sixth International Melville Society conference in Szczecin, Poland, in 2007, Secret Sharers is an important collection of essays, which admirably balances the various demands placed upon anthologies: it achieves a consistency of tone and scholarly rigor across a wide set of questions; it incorporates works by scholars of diverse approaches and methodological orientations; it brings younger critics into conversation with established names in the field; the essays are also consistently accessible, which ensures that the book will be useful to a wide body of readers, from undergraduates first wrestling with the works of these two canonical writers to the most advanced experts. It provides a wide array of new perspectives and highly original insights while returning with fresh attentiveness to the problems that have concerned earlier critics. The sheer number of contributions (twenty-one plus an introduction) will make this collection a necessary reference tool. It is effectively structured so that a reader can browse the volume in a single sitting or two and come away with the impression of having attended a rich, freewheeling conversation among committed critical minds who are exploring the mutual (if at times antagonistic) concerns of both writers and have considered how they resonate against the horizon of culture and theory. In that sense, the volume provides a satisfying, enriching, and theoretically invigorating read.
John Bryant's "Melville Cosmopolite" anchors the volume by demonstrating in a lively and brisk...