Review: Maya Jasanoff’s “The Dawn Watch” offers illuminating look at Joseph Conrad and his times

  • Maya Jasanoff’s “The Dawn Watch,” a study of Joseph Conrad and his times, won the prestigious 2018 Cundill History Prize, worth $75,000. 

  • The work of Joseph Conrad, pictured here in 1916 when he was 58, may seem somewhat dated today, but the author “still has something to say to today’s serious readers and thinkers,” Bruce Clayton writes. Image from Wikipedia/public domain

  • Maya Jasanoff is the Coolidge Professor of History at Harvard University, specializing in British and global history. Duncan McColl Chesney/courtesy Penguin Press

For the Gazette
Published: 1/16/2019 4:54:13 PM

One day in 1897, W. E. B. Du Bois, the Massachusetts-born, Harvard-educated black intellectual, walked down a street in Atlanta, Georgia. He carried a letter of introduction to Joel Chandler Harris, the editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and author of the wildly popular “Uncle Remus” tales. It was an age of bestial lynchings, but Harris, as the saying went, was one of the “better sort” of Southerners who had African-American well-being at heart.

But did it matter?  As Du Bois passed by a store, he spied in the front window “the drying fingers of a recently lynched Negro.” All this and more Du Bois would go on to record in his towering work, "The Souls of Black Folk." In Atlanta and the South, young Du Bois was in America’s  “heart of darkness.”

In 1899, Joseph Conrad, the English writer Du Bois doubtless read, published “Heart of Darkness,” a savage novel set in the Congo where Conrad had seen firsthand the bestiality of whites in what they complacently called the “Dark Continent.” There, Belgians routinely chopped off the hands of young Africans, many still alive; white colonizers also pillaged the land for ivory and gold and stole anything else not nailed down.  

Maya Jasanoff, a distinguished historian at Harvard, has given us a lively, timely portrayal of Conrad in her most recent book, “The Dawn Watch,” by Penguin Press. Born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, a Ukrainian-Pole, Conrad went to sea early in life, mastered English, became a writer and proclaimed himself an Englishman.

He would go on to write “Lord Jim,” a fictionalized account of a shocking scandal in which 800 Muslims en route to Mecca were abandoned by the ship’s cowardly captain and left to drown. Conrad later wrote “Nostromo,” a novel about a ruthless South American dictator, and “The Secret Agent,” a tale of an anarchist-terrorist plot in London, and scores of lesser works.

How does a writer do justice to this protean man, particularly one who was “human, all too human,” as Friedrich Nietzsche would say? For starters, Conrad’s novels are relentlessly masculine. “Where are the women?” one of my students once shouted. And today’s sensibilities recoil from his sexism, his class consciousness, his crafty, shifty Chinese “coolies” and other Asian stereotypes.

And for all his simmering rebuke of racist exploiters, eager to cloak their ruthlessness in pious pronouncements, Conrad never fully escaped the prevailing assumptions about skin color in a world, says Jasanoff, where “White, or light, marked right.”

But Jasanoff is no hanging judge, self-righteously handing down what historians call “presentist” verdicts. She herself, she says, is half-Jew and half-Asian, and she feels the sting of Conrad’s occasional anti-Semitic and ethnic slurs, even though they were at one with the times.

But for all that, she contends that Conrad’s four or five masterpieces deserve to be studied and placed in historical context if we’re to understand a highly creative writer whose books reveal so much about the man and his era.

From page one of “The Dawn Watch” — the 2018 winner of the $75,000 Cundill History Prize, the prestigious award for history writing in the English language — I read with a deep, growing admiration for her sophisticated mastery of how the man, his times and his major novels intertwine. Jasanoff is more than a biographer: She’s a literary craftswoman.

For starters, Jasanoff is an astute thinker with a deep understanding of “globalization,” the view that the world is intricately interconnected, from the food on our plates to the shirts on our backs. And at the heart of it all is economics, global capitalism.

Conrad wouldn’t have known the word “globalization,” writes Jasanoff, but “he embodied it” — from his 40 years at sea, sailing from “the provinces of imperial Russia across the high seas” of the British empire to the imaginary places and people he created.  

Conrad recoiled from Theodore Roosevelt’s bellicose jingoism and America’s new raw power and eagerness to flex its muscles as it chopped off a piece of Colombia, created Panama, and built the Panama Canal. Such was the background of “Nostromo” — and Conrad’s contention that America owned the new century.

No wonder British readers, accustomed to glorying in Her Majesty’s Navy as the jewel of the oceans, shuddered when they pondered Conrad’s words. And like them, Jasanoff notes crisply, Conrad didn’t like what he saw, “not one little bit,” the same way Americans today view China and yearn to “Make America Great Again.”

In the “The Dawn Watch,” catchy, snappy, almost breezy lines pop up regularly. Describing the era of the terrorist plot line of “The Secret Agent,” Jasanoff writes that “Paranoia befogged London” as “Detectives and anarchists tailed and dodged” each other. Yet truth be told, “Anarchism delivered more punchline than punch.”

Such lively asides adorn and illuminate her provocative, perceptive insights into “global studies” and lift her book above mere biography. She weaves in and around Conrad’s major novels to make them far more accessible than previous studies of the man. 

Consider 1914. As the guns of August began to boom, announcing the coming slaughter of the Great War, Conrad was in Poland for the first time since leaving 40 years earlier. But while he was sightseeing old haunts, “someone started a war,” Jasanoff writes. As he and his family struggled to return to England, “It was if Conrad and his family had suddenly become characters in one of his books.”

There’s much, much more in this splendid book. Conrad was a lifelong depressive who once attempted suicide. And like his contemporaries Nietzsche and Oswald Spengler, he was plagued with the realization that he had lived through a long, depressing period of history, what Spengler would declare, just two years after Conrad’s death in 1924, “The Decline of the West.”  

Conrad’s earliest books had won critical acclaim, yet sizable sales had eluded him. Then, after his great creativity deserted him and he wrote readable but lesser works, his novels started selling, making his declining years financially comfortable. And ironically, as British readers came to see that his days of literary genius were over, American readers and publishers took him up with gusto. 

Conrad is probably in danger of being forgotten today, except by professors and aficionados of “Apocalypse Now,” the 1979 Vietnam War film based on “Heart of Darkness.” Students assigned a Conrad book sometimes feel they need a literary machete to hack through the bleakness and dense prose. But Maya Jasanoff has illuminated a writer who still has something to say to today’s serious readers and thinkers.

Bruce Clayton is a biographer, memoirist and retired professor of history who lives in Southampton.


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