“I am glad you’ve read the Heart of D. tho’ of course it’s an awful fudge,” Joseph Conrad wrote to Roger Casement in late 1903. Casement, an Irish diplomat working for the British Foreign Office, had just returned to London from Belgium’s African colony, the Congo Free State, and was about to submit a report to Parliament detailing the existence of a vast system of slavery used to extract ivory and rubber. Looking to draw public attention to the atrocities, Casement traveled to the author’s home outside London to attempt to recruit him into the Congo Reform Association. Conrad was sympathetic: Africa, he told Casement, shared with Europe “the consciousness of the universe in which we live,” and it had been difficult for him to learn that the horrors he witnessed on his 1890 trip up the Congo River had only gotten worse. But he resisted playing the part of an on-the-spot authority and begged off joining Casement’s association. “I would help him but it is not in me,” Conrad later explained to a friend. “I am only a wretched novelist inventing wretched stories and not even up to that miserable game.”
For more than a century, those “wretched stories” and their author have elicited strong opinions. H.L. Mencken described Conrad as a “cosmic artist” who captured “the overwhelming sweep and devastation of universal forces.” E.M. Forster judged Conrad’s writing “misty in the middle as well as at the edges,” more “vapour” than “jewel.” Edward Said thought there were two Conrads: the anti-imperialist who was the first to treat empire as a “system,” and the imperialist who taught that the system was inescapable. Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian author of Things Fall Apart, considered him a “thoroughgoing racist.”
In The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World, Maya Jasanoff takes up Conrad’s life and work not to add to this stockpile of opinion, but to explore how Conrad’s writing captured the early years of globalization, and how the questions he grappled with continue to resonate today. A professor of history at Harvard University, Jasanoff is the author of two previous books, Edge of Empire: Lives, Culture, and Conquest in the East, 1750–1850 (2005) and Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World (2011). Both were more traditional studies—the first of art collectors in British India and Egypt, the second of British loyalists fleeing the American Revolution to Canada and the Caribbean. The Dawn Watch is intended as something different, more experimental and speculative in its exploration of the line separating fiction from nonfiction. As Jasanoff writes, she used “the compass of a historian, the chart of a biographer, and the navigational sextant of a fiction reader” to compose this work. She consulted Conrad’s many biographers; studied his books and the multiple volumes of his published letters; and even retraced some of his voyages. She sailed on a container ship across the Indian Ocean, flew to Kisangani (formerly known as Stanleyville), and took a riverboat down the Congo. Floating to Kinshasa, she reread Heart of Darkness and “batted away tsetse flies.”
Conrad’s novels, writes Jasanoff, are “ethical injunctions,” meditations “on how to behave in a globalizing world.” The Dawn Watch is a reminder that, as Conrad understood, what passes for civilization is really often refined savagery. Jasanoff provides close, contextual readings of The Secret Agent, Lord Jim, Heart of Darkness, and Nostromo, novels that conjure the complacencies and self-delusions of the Western bourgeoisie as all-encompassing, holding everybody in their thrall regardless of status, class, or race. The problem, though, is that Jasanoff seems to have been caught as well.