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Reviewed by:
  • Joseph Conrad Among the Anarchists: Nineteenth-Century Terrorism and The Secret Agent by David Mulry
  • Michael John Disanto (bio)
David Mulry. Joseph Conrad Among the Anarchists: Nineteenth-Century Terrorism and The Secret Agent. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016. 194 pp. ISBN: 1137502889.

Writing a review of Joseph Conrad Among the Anarchists is somewhat difficult. The aim of the study is worthwhile: thinking about the facts regarding the 1894 Greenwich bombing and how the event was reported, and knowing something of the contemporary fascination for and construction of “dynamite novels”—sensational stories about revolutionary activities and anarchist conspiracies—can help twenty-first century readers understand the historical moment and the categories, genres, and stereotypes which Conrad is playing with and remaking in the narrative of The Secret Agent. Studying Conrad’s process of writing the novel and understanding the substance, extent, and methods of revision can lead to a deeper insight into his practice as an artist. The book contains some passages of commentary on The Secret Agent worth reading and contemplating. And yet, when considered as a whole, the book is [End Page 83] unsatisfactory in the unevenness of the chapters and the very poor quality of the copy editing.

The study proceeds by first establishing cultural and historical contexts, and then turns to the origins and revisions of The Secret Agent. After chapter 1, which is the introduction, chapter 2 is spent in an extended argument with Norman Sherry in which Mulry objects to his predecessor’s “assumption that Conrad’s writing process drew heavily on experience, and failing that, on Conrad steeping himself in the details of the event he is writing about” (15). A key objection Mulry makes is that Sherry’s “suggestion, depending on its application, involves a potentially reductive argument, which at the least asks the reader to become a sort of historical sleuth to get much of anything out of the reading” (15). In Mulry’s view, Sherry places too much emphasis on source materials and, deliberately or not, diminishes “Conrad’s psychological veracity, his creativity, and his imaginative autonomy” (33). He concludes, “There is little evidence that Conrad” sought sources, “and certainly not to the extent that Sherry claims in his treatment of source material” (34). Whether or not the chapter-long argument is well-considered is somewhat doubtful. As Mulry acknowledges more than once (e.g., page 62), what Conrad read and how far his knowledge extended are not currently knowable with certainty. And yet Mulry pursues his historical sleuthing and produces possible sources. If Sherry “underestimates the complexities, indeed the sheer span, of Conrad sympathies” (21), he is not alone: every reader of Conrad runs the same danger, including Mulry. Examples of this include Mulry’s questionable judgments: Vladimir is “the villain” of The Secret Agent (18) and Winnie is “the most anarchistic of characters” who, “from a certain perspective,” commits “the true act of terror and protest in the novel” (25). According to Mulry, Winnie “embraces nihilism fully” by killing her husband (26). These simplifications are no more reductive than any that might be found in Sherry or others. The relative thinness of the bibliography, which indicates a familiarity with and (over-)reliance on a somewhat narrow range of Conrad scholarship—e.g. Epstein (1992), Mallios (2005), Moser (1930), Nadjer (1983), Sherry (1971–3), Watt (1980), Watts (1969)—suggests that Mulry has not read and considered a sizable number of articles on The Secret Agent and books on Conrad that might have relevance for his investigation. Surely some of the recent scholarship on Conrad’s Polishness might be at least as useful as Morf ’s early observations. A sound knowledge of previous criticism, with a better balance between past and present scholarship, is a reasonable expectation for a new monograph.

The third to fifth chapters investigate popular accounts of the Greenwich bombing, the relationship between The Secret Agent and the dynamite novel, [End Page 84] and Conrad’s depiction of anarchists. The most valuable are the third chapter, which recounts contemporary reports of the Greenwich bombing and provides some insight into the historical moment, and the fourth chapter, which presents an overview of the genre of the dynamite novel...


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pp. 83-87
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