But Conrad has also been the beneficiary of much tactful and sympathetic reading, especially in America. “Who’s Mencken?” he asked Knopf, in 1913. “He doesn’t seem to be afraid of lashing out right and left in the field of literature.” The literary critic of The Smart Set had been “a good friend” to his prose, as Conrad wrote in a letter to Mencken himself, expressing “the pleasure of a writer who sees himself understood.” Mencken was one of the earliest in a line of American readers to recognize how Conrad conjured up “the general out of the particular.” Among those who caught his Conrad bug was F. Scott Fitzgerald, who, after some resistance, conceded in 1920 that “this fellow” was “pretty good after all.” Writing to Mencken five years later, as the author of “The Great Gatsby,” he complained that he had been omitted from a list of Conrad imitators: “God! I’ve learned a lot from him.” What Fitzgerald learned, principally, was a mode of narration—the damaged overreacher, as recalled by his wonder-prone, meaning-seeking sometime sidekick, a seasoned listener.
Since Fitzgerald, dozens of American writers have confessed to similar debts, among them William Faulkner, William Burroughs, Joan Didion—and Philip Roth, whose alter ego Nathan Zuckerman, having provided a Marlow-like window on Swede Levov, Ira Ringold, and Coleman Silk, in the “American trilogy,” wanders through its coda, “Exit Ghost,” carrying a copy of “The Shadow-Line” (1917). The nested structures of novels as different as “My Life as a Man” and “The Counterlife” reveal a debt to Conrad’s form; and Roth’s final novel, “Nemesis,” about a teacher who abandons a polio-ridden schoolyard—an episode reconstructed decades later by one of his former students—is undoubtedly a “Lord Jim” tale.
The most Conradian novelist in recent American literature, however, was Saul Bellow. In his Nobel Prize lecture, in 1976, Bellow recalled that as a “contrary” undergraduate, at the University of Chicago, he enrolled in a class on Money and Banking and then spent his time reading the novels of Joseph Conrad. (Thomas Pynchon, studying at Cornell in the fifties, was contrary in his own way: he skipped a class on some of Conrad’s stories in order to read the whole of Conrad.) Bellow said he had “never had reason to regret this”—and why would he? All those decades later, he was quoting Conrad in a Nobel speech, teaching Conrad as a Chicago professor, borrowing from Conrad in his novels.
It’s only a little reductive to say that Bellow spent the first half of his career describing himself and the second half describing his friends. Starting in 1975, with “Humboldt’s Gift,” he wrote a series of Conrad-like novels and stories about people he had known, as he had known them. In “The Bellarosa Connection,” he went all the way, employing a frame narrator (“I got it in episodes, like a Hollywood serial”). But Bellow borrowed more than a narrative method. No reader of his late work can fail to hear a similar abrupt oracular tone in the opening of “The Shadow-Line.” (“Only the young have such moments. I don’t mean the very young. No.”) Admirers of the description of Humboldt with a pretzel (“His lunch”) must accept its origin, in “The Secret Agent,” as the Professor’s half-eaten raw carrot (“His breakfast”). The narrator of “Humboldt’s Gift” shares Marlow’s first name and sounds like him, too, when he describes himself “groping, thrillingly and desperately, for sense.”
American academic criticism has always been open to Conrad’s questing side, with the contributions of J. Hillis Miller probably being the most potent and agile. Now John G. Peters, the leading American Conradian—who plugged a glaring gap with his essential study, “Conrad and Impressionism” (2001)—has co-edited a collection of Miller’s essays, published in a series of books between 1965 and 2015. Roughly halfway through that time span, Miller served a stint as president of the Modern Language Association. In his address to the 1986 convention, in New York, Miller bemoaned the shift away from literary interpretation toward “history, culture, society, politics,” among other things. So the collection’s title, “Reading Conrad” (Ohio State), is a pointed one.
It would be hard to imagine two Conrad fans less alike than J. Hillis Miller and Maya Jasanoff. Perhaps to minimize thematic repetition, Peters and his fellow-editor Jakob Lothe have omitted Miller’s most fiery challenge to the mainstream of Conrad studies—the preface that he wrote “in counterpoint” to a collection of essays emphasizing topical resonances. In one piece collected in “Reading Conrad,” Miller notes that the temptation to compare a work of literature with its “background ‘facts’ ” is “almost irresistible,” but he insists that the details uncovered by Norman Sherry—about the Jeddah inquiry, for instance—cannot serve as a “point of origin” from which to judge “Lord Jim.” For Miller, no point of origin exists even within the novel: “ ‘Lord Jim’ is like a dictionary in which the entry under one word refers the reader to another word which refers him to another and then back to the first word again, in an endless circling.” It might be observed that this description suspiciously coincides with the tenets of Miller’s favored critical mode, but then, even more than globalization, Conrad anticipates the modern phenomenon known as deconstruction.
Still, “The Dawn Watch” and “Reading Conrad” have one area of overlap—an almost complete indifference to everything that Conrad published after 1910. It’s surprising that neither gives more space to “Under Western Eyes,” a novel crowded with enigmas and transmuted personal history. But to ignore “Chance” (1914) is to miss a crucial clue about Conrad’s sensibility—and his aversion to what he saw as the sea stigma.