Professor Maya Jasanoff embraced adventure to explore the mind behind ‘Heart of Darkness’ and other classics

Historians in the News
tags: Maya Jasanoff, The Dawn Watch, Joseph Conrad

Maya Jasanoff has traveled in 70 countries, the 70th being the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which she visited last year to do research for her new book, “The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World.” Along with re-tracing Conrad’s adventures along the Congo River, the Coolidge Professor of History spent four weeks aboard a French cargo ship, sailing between China and northern Europe in a time-travel-style effort to better appreciate the era in which her British-Polish subject lived and worked.

Jasanoff’s numerous honors include the 2017 Windham Campbell Prize for nonfiction and the 2011 National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction for “Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World.” She spoke to the Gazette about her journey into the life of Conrad.

GAZETTE: Why did you write this book?

JASANOFF: I wanted to solve a problem for myself. I had worked a lot on the rise of the British Empire and I was interested in what its global reach was during its pinnacle of power, about a century ago. This is the world readers know best through poems like Kipling’s “The White Man’s Burden.” But the greatest novel I had ever read, “Heart of Darkness,” offered a very different perspective on imperialism. As I thought of Conrad more, I wondered: How did the same guy who wrote about imperialism in Africa write about terrorism in London [“The Secret Agent”]? How did the same guy who wrote about seafaring in so many novels write about capitalism in Latin America in “Nostromo”? The puzzle was basically figuring out what Conrad’s world looked like. It was very much at odds with that Pax Britannica image.

GAZETTE: You re-traced the 1,000-mile journey Conrad made down the Congo River more than 100 years ago. Why was it important to take the trip?

JASANOFF: Conrad wrote his books based very much on his experiences of the world as a sailor and immigrant, so I thought there was something important in capturing that experience of these things, especially his being a sailor for so long. Writing was a second career for him. He was a sailor until his 30s. I felt like I couldn’t get insight into what made him tick without being on boats and at sea.

With respect to “Heart of Darkness,” there’s a lot of debate regarding the representation of Africa in that book, and discussion about whether he is generalizing grotesquely or capturing pretty specific historical realities. I felt one way to approach this question meant going to the place and putting the two theories in conversation with each other.

As historians we can never meet our sources. We can never talk to them, see the world they lived in. The best we can do is see the fragments left behind. What’s left behind is some of what’s there today. It is a valuable source — seeing places you write about. I felt, in this case, it was doubly important. ...

Read entire article at Harvard Gazette

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