The Dawn Watch

By Maya Jasanoff

The title of Maya Jasanoff’s book has to be unpacked. The significance of the dawn watch has to do, I think, with her theory about how time is experienced differently on board a ship, which in turn relates to Joseph Conrad’s shuffling of narrative time. It probably also has some connection to Conrad’s career both as a seaman and a writer, standing both at the end of something (the realist novel, the age of sail) and what was coming (modernism and steam). As for the global world, that’s certainly part of the texture of the book’s ground, but while Jasanoff expertly blends history, geography, literature, and biography, “globalization” isn’t a real theme. Conrad was interested in the sinews of trade, at least on the level of moral allegory, and painted on a broad canvas, but he didn’t have a very deep or original take on the sort of thing we talk about when we talk about globalization today.

That out of the way, this is a bracing read that covers a lot of ground with clarity and insight. Much of this can be attributed to the fact that Conrad led such an interesting life, at least before settling down to the life of a conservative literary gentleman and the writing of dreary melodramas. It also allows Jasanoff various entry points to discuss the history of economic colonialism during this period. Particularly impressive is the way she interweaves the story of Panamanian independence with the plot of Nostromo.

What depressed me, however, is the fact that Jasanoff is a historian and not an English professor. Of course the disciplines merge in a lot of ways, and in her Acknowledgments she mentions how a book on Conrad and his times is “a quintessential History and Literature topic,” but the fact that it’s academics from other fields who are doing so much of this work instead of literary scholars is something that has been bothering me for going on twenty years. Why is it that a book like this can only be written now by someone other than a literary critic? I’m sure it has something to do with the way English programs have drifted away from textual criticism and the study of sources in order to focus more on theory and political posturing, but it’s truly remarkable how completely the field has been abandoned. I think the academy just doesn’t value this kind of work anymore. Try and find a book like this today, directed at a general audience, written by an English professor. Yes, I know there are some, but very few, and even fewer that address contemporary writing. Truly this is a discipline that has lost its way.

Review first published online February 22, 2023.

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