Conrad First The Joseph Conrad Periodical Archive

The Dark Side and the Bright: Conrad in Ridgway’s and The Metropolitan Magazine

Laurence Davies, University of Glasgow.

© Laurence Davies. No part of this text may be reposted or republished without the permission of the author.


Aside from Conrad’s friend John Galsworthy, Conrad’s agent J. B. Pinker, and one or more professional typists, the first readers of The Secret Agent lived in the United States, where they came across the serial in the first eleven numbers of an unusual magazine, Ridgway’s: A Militant Weekly for God and Country. The cover of the first number outlines its agenda as if with bullet points, and the second presents that agenda in a dramatic image apparently linking the proprietor or senior editor with divinity. I shall have more to say about the significance of the magazine’s title and its ends and means, but the point to make here is that Conrad saw it and shuddered: “Ridgway’s are sending me their rag. It’s awful–and it doesn’t matter in the least. I see they are ‘editing’ the stuff pretty severely” (Letters 3: 369).
Conrad’s experience of reading The Metropolitan Magazine was spotty, and our knowledge of what he saw of it and when is limited. The advance publicity for “Freya of the Seven Isles” probably didn’t come his way, and, he told Alfred A. Knopf, he had never received a copy of the drastically pruned serial itself (Letters 3: 295; Davis 2009, 254, 262–3; Davies 2012, xxx). As for other appearances, we do not know whether he saw “The Inn of the Two Witches,” “The Planter of Malata,” or “Laughing Anne” (“Because of the Dollars”) nestled among items like John Reed’s enthusuastic reports of Pancho Villa’s revolutionary campaigns in Mexico, or his long, detailed, and outspoken account of the savagery inflicted by the National Guard on striking miners and their families at Ludlow, Colorado, or H. J. Whigham’s editorial backing Mother Jones against the Rockefellers. Though deeply suspicious of American capitalism at home and overseas, Conrad had scant sympathy for revolution and none for unions or socialism. What he did know about the Metropolitan was its editorial taste for stories simple in structure and moral outlook. In December 1913, Carl Hovey, the managing editor, wrote to Knopf, who was then with Doubleday’s, asking if Conrad could provide a good, plain, exciting story, rather than anything as difficult as “Falk,” “Heart of Darkness,” or Lord Jim: “If we could have from Mr. Conrad another short story like ‘The Brute’ we would reach our public with all the certainty in the world” (Letters 5: 322n). When Pinker forwarded the letter to Capel House, Conrad scribbled a response: “This is absurd. Those people crawl before Knopf and all the time they are getting my work from You! You may tell them since they are so anxious that Because of the Dollars will be something in the Brute style they are crying for but that Conrad wants special terms for prostituting his intellect to please the Metropolitan” (Letters 5: 322).
The problem with publication in The Metropolitan was not limited to its Philistine tendencies. The very look of a serial upon the page was another difficulty. Like many other American magazines and newsapers (Ridgway’s among them), The Metropolitan made a habit of fragmenting longer articles and stories within the individual number, putting a first section as far towards the front as possible and then requiring the interested reader to flip towards the back. The first instalment of “The Planter of Malata,” for example, is split between pp. 25–277 and 46–53 (June 1914). The result of this habit was a fragmentary reading experience, made all the more distracting by the abundance of advertisements1, many of them half or full-page. Such a layout did not exactly signal literary seriousness. For the Italian film director, poet, novelist, and essayist Pier Paolo Pasolini, the most significant evidence of literary quality lies not in the choice of individual words, or the composition of artful sentences or paragraphs, but across the entire page.

But what about the quality of the page, that which precisely determines the hierarchy of values and places and places the novels of Delly and Sue in a lower category than those of Dostoevsky or Kafka. . . . What I am accustomed to feeling immediately in a text is not, on the whole, the novelistic adventures of a hero but the quality of the page which narrates it. (Pasolini 2005, 122)

Pasolini has in mind both the visual texture of the page and the treatment of its contents. Delly was the joint nom de plume of a French sister and brother who wrote over 100 romantic novels in the first half of the twentieth century, popular in every sense and nostalgic for old ways. Eugène Sue, another French author, wrote vast serial novels packed with intrigue, sensation, sympathy for the poor and hostility to the mighty such as Les Mystères de Paris (1842–43) and Le Juif errant (1844–45). The texture of their work is slapdash, offering lots of events but few analyses. That is not the case in Conrad’s serial publications, even when, as with The Secret Agent, the serial version seems in many places hastier and less considered than the book, it is far, far more considered than the competition in this or other magazines. Strikingly, the authors Pasolini chooses as exemplars for the richness and density of their pages also appeared in serial form. Kafka, famously reluctant to publish at all, allowed an German literary monthly to print The Metamorphosis (Die Verwandlung). Although Conrad probably did not know this, and anyway despised his work, Dostoevsky’s literary practice was not so very different from his own. It differed in that Dostoevsky usually dictated his first draft to a stenographer, but, like Conrad, he was always bedevilled with serial deadlines and, like Conrad, was a compulsive reviser.
Conrad almost never missed a deadline, for his reputation as a punctual writer was at stake, and so were the often considerable amounts of money to be earned prior to publication between hard covers. Sid Reid calls the practice of selling both serial and book “double-dipping” (Reid 2003, 61), though it would be wrong (and sanctimonious) to judge Conrad’s strategy furtive or unethical. Editors needed to find good serials, and he needed to support his family; because of all the extra stress, the real harm was to his health. There were artistic considerations too, enabling him to benefit from work in progress, making roughness pay. More often than not he treated the serial forms of novels and stories as drafts, interim stages on the journey from manuscript to book. Typescripts replaced the clutter of the holograph, with its scratchings out, its second and third thoughts and doodles, but the typescripts were soon cluttered up with afterthoughts. Out of this flux emerged a stable version of a fiction, but stable just for now. He might have favoured close friends with a glimpse of manuscript or early typescript, but in general he preferred them to wait for the book form. In letters to Pinker about the publication of Nostromo, Conrad made himself quite clear. The serial would be published in T. P’s Weekly, conducted by the Irish M.P. Thomas Power O’Connor, a genial man of comprehensive tastes. (The serial preceding Nostromo was H. Rider Haggard’s Stella Fregelius, an intoxicating blend of science fiction, spiritualism and neo-Norse saga; the number carrying the last instalment of Conrad’s novel of material interests opened with a five-column appreciation of War and Peace. The text could be trimmed if O’Connor so wished, but Conrad wanted no part in the trimming and no obligation to read proofs: “On those conditions I am ready to let Mr O’Connor have an absolutely free hand in making the story acceptable to his large public” (Letters 3: 91). The book form was another matter: “Whatever happens I must have proofs of the book. . . . I can’t let a book of mine go into the world without a careful personal revision” (Letters 3: 92). Yet his willingness to let drafts go does not mean that he spared his energies while writing them. In this regard, we may sometimes make too firm a distinction between serial and book. Conrad, after all, left several memorable descriptions of his heroic efforts to round off a serial, for example the twenty-one-hour stint required for the final stages of Lord Jim (Letters 2: 284).
At any event, the pattern sometimes varied. In 1910, Conrad berated the editor of the London Magazine for proposing changes in “A Smile of Fortune”: “For, pray consider: my work counts in the present-day literature. I am not a casual scribbler” (Letters 9: 148). In 1918, Conrad expressed his utter scorn for Dudley Hardy, who did the early illustrations for The Rescue in Land and Water. Among other outrages, Hardy had drawn Lingard in a fur hat: “What is it—a joke? Or is it to display a fine independence in a story whose action takes place in the tropics?” (Letters 6: 328). In cases like these, Conrad worried about journals that might fall into the hands of somebody who knew him, thus frustrating his reluctance to be read in serial by friends, other authors, publishers, or makers of literary taste. In this regard, there was little need to worry about Ridgway’s or the Metropolitan. Besides, the Metropolitan paid very well indeed, even without the “special terms for prostituting [Conrad’s] intellect.”
If Conrad was so casual, some might even say cynical about serial publication, especially in American popular magazines, why should we care about how, and when, and where they appeared? One reason for caring is the fascination of exploring an unfamiliar stage of a narrative’s growth and watching its physical migration from one form and context to another. Another is the spectacle of an author serious about his art who must be wily and inventive to negotiate the snares and volatility of the marketplace. Another is the nature of that marketplace, with its editorial schemes and visions, its potentially fickle readership, and its advertisers.
There’s a pleasing irony in Hovey’s choice of “The Brute” as an example of what he wanted from Conrad. Conrad’s story was and still is usually taken as the story of a feminised (even misogynised) hoodoo ship that brings disaster wherever it sails. Yet a more sceptical reader might notice that the story is a frame narrative whose inner narrator is given to invective and tall stories; every anecdote the narrator attributes to the curse upon the ship can be understood instead as a case of maritime incompetence (Davies 2009, 107–8). Sometimes writing for magazines was akin to playing chess, the only game that Conrad liked. Moreover, being published in magazines and newspapers meant that his work was repeatedly interwoven in a web of other stories, articles, editorials, and advertisements over which he had no choice and no control. Finally, not least in Ridgway’s and the Metropolitan, his publishers, editors, and readers were party to specifically American readings which led to the invention of what Peter Mallios calls “Our Conrad” (see Mallios 2010, 1–37).

In the northern tier of the United States, deer season coincides with the first snowfalls. The cover of the 8 December 1906 issue of Ridgway’s: A Militant Weekly for God and Country shows two hunters and a young buck in the hour (indeed the very seconds) of its death, its blood spurting onto the whiteness. For everything there is a season. If we ignore the unfortunately worded advertisement for safety razors on the back, the following week’s cover strikes an altogether softer note with its happy girl in a toyshop. The contents of this issue, however, include the final pages of The Secret Agent in its inchoate serial form, substantially trimmed and hastily completed (see Reid 2003, 58–62). A crude but atmospheric picture of Mrs Verloc (known here as Minnie rather than Winnie) about to plunge the family carving knife into the stout body of her recumbent husband accompanies an earlier stage in their one-sided dialogue. This page carries no advertisements, but that is not the case with the page telling the story of the murder, thus bringing a narrative shot through with motifs of cookery and consumption to its climax.
What could this be if not an offence against literary decorum and an embarrassing show of slapdash editing?  Moreover, it wasn’t only US magazines that displayed such incongruities, packing in text and marketing higgledy-piggledy. As presented in the T. P.’s Weekly serial of Nostromo, nothing but a rule separates the last sentence of the last paragraph from a miniature advertisement for Irish linen goods at factory prices. O’Connor could not waste an inch of space. Cedric Watts likens the effect of looking at the illustrations of The Secret Agent to hearing “a derisory snigger at the end of a requiem mass” (Watts 1989, 102). Yet the surely accidental juxtaposition of carving knife and relish bottle is not quite inappropriate. One foreign import illustrates another. The source of both imports is more foreignness: not only does Conrad draw on his Continental knowledge of subterfuge and betrayal; Messrs Lea and Perrins’ Worcestershire Sauce, that quintessentially English pepper-up of food, gets its savour from such tropical products as tamarinds and cloves. Whatever other conclusions might be drawn from this hidden imperial geography, the condiment adds another coat of irony. The Secret Agent pits banality against horror, domesticity against the will to power. Who, at first, could seem more domestic than Mrs Verloc or less domestic than the Professor? She becomes an avenger, possessed by the words of Chief Inspector Heat: “they had to use a shovel to pick him up”, and the Professor, ensconced in his bed-sitter, will go on yearning for the lever that can move the world. According to Conrad, his novel was “a new departure in genre . . . and a sustained effort in ironical treatment of a melodramatic subject” (Letters 3: 490). The picture of the bottled sauce, though not Conradian, is Conradesque.
The president and the managing editor of the Metropolitan boasted of its vivid look. At the beginning of 1912, they adopted the three-colour process for its artwork together with a larger format. (Laura L. Davis’s article gives a much fuller account of the magazine’s development and management than is possible here [see Davis 2009].) In the February issue Hovey wrote: “Already we have produced a magazine which is at least more interesting from a pictorial point of view than any other color publication” (6). Everything was brighter and more spacious than Ridgway’s ever was, even the advertisements. Thus there is no exact equivalent of the cheek-by-jowl sauce bottle. Even so, reading through the issues featuring Conrad’s work, one often finds advertisements that, inadvertently of course, echo, or refract, or reinforce moments in his stories. “Laughing Anne” appeared in September 1914. Better known as “Because of the Dollars”, its climactic scene is the invasion of a house on a remote creek in the Malay Archipelago by a trio of brutal ruffians. Here is part of an advertisement from near the back of the issue. The space had been bought by the Savage Arms Co. of Utica, NY.

Can Your Wife Trust You? . . . Just think what might happen—
what may be happening now, while you are miles away? Now, while you are powerless to do anything but rave over your neglect and pray that it may not already have exposed her to danger, to death—or worse? You swore to protect her. Be worthy of her trust. Give her a ten-shot Savage Automatic, the safest protection that science has devised or love can provide—the greatest protection for helpless women ever brought into the world. And don’t give her any other. If she needs protection at all she needs this 10-shot defender: not 8 shots or 6 shots. (66)

The circumstances are not quite the same as in the story. Anne’s husband is there but bullied by the gang and ineffectual; the gang is armed, but so is Captain Davidson, who kills the homicidal Frenchman with a shot in the dark. Beyond registering the alarmist rhetoric, we should notice two other salient points. Though guns for hunting feature widely, one would have to search quite hard in British magazines to find anything about short arms as a means of protecting one’s nearest and dearest; this difference suggests in turn that British readers would have found the violence in Conrad’s story more alien than their American counterparts. (For a comparatively gentle variation on the same theme, see the advertisement for a Colt Automatic accompanying two columns of “The Planter of Malata”.) To shift to other activities, the May 1913 number (where the “The Inn of the Two Witches” made its North American debut) carries an advertisement for “The Beautiful Ohio Electric . . . The Only Car for the Woman of Refinement Today”. Because it could be driven from either front or back seats, “Never again will the woman of fashion, driving alone in her electric, have to sit in the front seat like a chauffeur, uncomfortably conspicuous” (57).
This motif of the woman who is either helpless or would like to appear so makes a striking contrast with the magazine’s enthusiasm for women who fend for themselves. The October 1912 issue began a series on “The Modern Woman” with an essay by Helen Keller. Another series started in that issue under the heading “’Viv’: Stories of an Amateur Adventuress”. Viv is an artist of “independent temper,” importuned by her lover, whom she does not want to marry. In the November issue she joins a touring theatrical company; in December’s “Two Babes in St John’s Wood,” she goes the rounds of London studio parties; in January 1913, she finds a job as a model. The author was F. Tennyson Jesse. (The “F.” stood for Fryniwyd—not a cod Welsh name but a play on Winifred. After the war she corresponded with Conrad, and A Pin to See the Peepshow, a fictional retelling of a notorious murder and execution echoes The Secret Agent in the condemned woman’s fear of the hangman’s drop.) Another contributor to the cause of women’s liberation was George Bernard Shaw, who made “The Case for Equality” in December 1913. One of the magazine’s staffers, Sonya Levien, had previously worked on the Suffragist Women’s Journal and was in London in 1913–14, covering the Suffragist movement there for the Metropolitan.
By the beginning of 1913, every cover carried a colour picture of a young woman fashionably dressed. Many of them had Titian or flame-coloured hair (e. g. March 1913, July 1914, October 1914, October 1916), sometimes piled to give a helmeted effect. In other words, they could be portraits of Felicia Moorsom: “She was tall and supple, carrying nobly on her straight body a head of a character which to him appeared peculiar, something—well—pagan, crowned with a great wealth of hair” (Conrad 2012, 17). Her hair is “red coppery gold” (Conrad 2012, 18). As the narrative continues, she is likened repeatedly to a classical goddess. Yet her aunt and father shelter her, and she talks more like an aggrieved Victorian lady than a New Woman. There are comparable ambivalences in other Metropolitan stories, including Louise Dutton’s novella “The Goddess Girl: A Love Story of Bohemia,” whose last part appeared in the June 1914 number along with the first part of “The Planter.” Rose Saxon lives among the artists and writers of Greenwich Village. Like Tennyson Jesse’s Viv, she dismisses a suitor but, unlike Viv, she falls into his arms in the very last sentence.
Other contradictions and ambivalences surface in the presentation of economics, political movements and ideas, and colonialism. The “By the Editor” column in January 1913 advocates nationalisation of the railroads and closes with a resounding endorsement of Socialist ideas: “Socialism so far from being a menace is the one hopeful and constructive factor on which we shall all have to rely more and more in the future” (4). “Letters and Comments” in the same issue quotes a state senator from Oklahoma who suggests that copies of the Metropolitan should be in every library and every school in the land. “Then there would be no excuse for the coming generation living in darkness of the rights of man as they do to-day; the selfish struggle for dollars would pass away, and love and brotherhood would take its place” (5). Yet the advertisements often seem targeted at the prosperous (see here and here). On the subject of empire-building, John Reed’s reports and editorials from Mexico boldly argue the folly of any attempt at a conquest of the country and the fatuity of the rhetoric that would encourage it: “We Americans honestly believe that we will benefit the Mexicans by forcing our institutions upon them. We do not realize that the Latin temperament is different from our own–and that their ideal of liberty is broader than ours. We want to debauch the Mexican people and turn them into little brown copies of American businessmen and laborers, as we are doing to the Cubans and the Filipinos”. Yet the stories set in Africa, Asia, or Latin America do not for the most part come across as anti-imperialist. Perhaps Charles Edward Hay’s “About McRay,” set in the Philippines, is an exercise in unreliable narration, with its description of Tagalog as a “dialect” rather than a language (February 1912, 17), and remarks such as: “Any strangers appearing in the town were at once brought to him by his own soldiers or by the native police and given a mild third degree examination” (16); but I very much doubt it. The story’s slant favours the Lieutenant and his vigorous techniques and goes against the more cautious colonial administrators at HQ.

My approach invites several objections. Why pay attention to advertisements? Wouldn’t it be sensible to distinguish between a literary editor choosing fiction and a business manager canvassing for advertisements? Why should anybody be shocked, shocked to find material interests trumping moral, political, or literary convictions or authors straying from the editorial line? First of all, we cannot easily tell who read what in the periodicals of that age. Editors may sometimes note that a particular item has attracted an unusual amount of mail from readers. Where trustworthy circulation figures are available, it may be possible to speculate about the cause of peaks and troughs. At least some advertisers had ways of telling which advertisements were most effective—by counting requests for brochures for instance. Until the1960s, most agencies favoured what now looks like an inordinate amount of copy in each advertisement, so presumably some portion of the public was happy to spend time reading miniature essays on the competing virtues of one product or another. One could imagine readership as a spectrum: at one end people who read from cover to cover and at the other those who read eclectically, ignoring everything but their favourite topics or authors. At the less eclectic end, advertisements, essays, editorials, art work, poems, stories may overlap, or even merge, creating a mutual reinforcement on the page, and in the reader’s mind. Or they may create a dissonance, as in this pair of advertisements, or this spread from Ridgway’s, pairing a scene between Ossipon and the Professor, who are talking about the man blown to smithereens in Greenwich Park, with a poem about lovers yearning for the mystic Isle of Avalon. But whether consonant or dissonant, the advertisements are no more irrelevant to the experience of reading than a poem or an article. Conrad himself was alert to the insidious workings of publicity, sometimes amused, sometimes fascinated, mostly horrified (see Donovan 2005, 112–60). So was H. G. Wells, whose When the Sleeper Wakes (serial and book form 1899) imagines London three centuries hence as a metropolis where the blare and glare of high-tech news and advertising batters the senses. Another version of the future is Kipling’s venture into science fiction “With the Night Mail,” a spoof magazine article from 2025 first published in McClure’s in November 1905. The article is accompanied by advertisements and official notices all relevant to aviation; these paratexts, as narratologists call them, are clever parodies of the editorial comments, book reviews, gossip columns, official notices, and advertisements of Kipling’s own time, but they also bring to life an enthusiasts’ debate about the rival merits of dirigibles and aeroplanes, and flesh out the culture of a whole future society. All three authors reveal the permeability of modern culture’s membranes.
Ridgway’s and the Metropolitan had clear political agendas. They also needed to inveigle readers and advertisers and survive in the ruthless commercial world they professed to deplore. According to personal beliefs and temperaments, one could see here the contradictions of capitalism, the confusions of rapid social change, hypocrisy, canny compromise, or even a degree of cunning. First you catch your reader. . . . The sociologist Pierre Bourdieu writes of habitus, the net of assumptions, unexamined ideas, and dispositions (i.e. inclinations) which trawls beneath the surface of an individual’s mind. Theorists of narrative such as Wolfgang Iser write of the implied reader, the imaginary person who seems best shaped by attitude, knowledge, and experience to make the most sense of a particular story. Thinking of magazines that preach an openly formulated ideology, whether intended to convert, to reassure the converted, or both, I suggest that another kind of hypothetical reader comes into play: the desired or designated reader whom the owners and / or editors of the periodical would like to reach. In the struggle between habitus and consistency, implied and desired readers are frequently at odds. Conrad’s work, which easily seems out of place in the company of hyperproductive and ubiquitous authors like Gouverneur Morris and Booth Tarkington, speaks to these conflicts.

Challenging the notion of classic works as timeless and serene, Wai Chee Dimock observes: “Since readers, past, present, and future are not the same reader, a text can remain literary only by not being the same text. It endures by being read differently. Over time, not only does the membership of the literary domain change, but also each text becomes different from itself, suffers a semantic sea change, acquires a freight of new meaning” (Dimock 1997, 1064). Ridgway’s and the Metropolitan contributed to the making of an American Conrad, but not the same American Conrad.
Inside the rear cover of the March 1912 Metropolitan are side by side blurbs for the April number which are not so much puffs as gales. One is for an essay by Norman Hapgood, editor of Collier’s Weekly on “The Why of Baseball.” The other is for “Freya of the Seven Isles,” and it cries out for copious quotation:

Kipling and Stevenson never had a rival until Joseph Conrad began to write his glorious, iridescent romances of life on the tropic seas. . . . Conrad became known and accepted as the greatest living English writer.
Then Conrad, with the frank wilfulness of genius stopped writing about the sea and the tropics and lustrous women and manly men. He wrote books about anarchists and all sorts of queer human freaks; sinister, terrible books, great in their way, but lacking the wonderful, bracing beauty and humanness of ‘Lord Jim.’
Now he has written a new story in his old manner, the manner of “Youth” and “Lord Jim,” a story in which he is the great and inimitable Conrad once more. The Metropolitan has secured this treasure. It will be published in the April number. The story was an editorial find of the first water. We cannot put it too strongly that if you miss reading it, you will miss the best piece of fiction which any magazine has offered its readers in years. (n.p.)

Adding another touch of the exotic, in an advertisement for the Santa Fe Railroad on the opposite page, a young Hopi woman, her hair done up in the traditional whorls, stares enigmatically (perhaps lustrously?) at the reader.
As cited above, in mid-December 1913 Hovey added Lord Jim to the list of works that on account of milieu, tone, or narrative technique were uncongenial to the 400,000 people who bought his magazine and the estimated 1,000,000 people who read it (Letters 5: 322n.). Hovey was not unique in promoting Conrad as the stalwart and forthright sailor-author who wrote simple, mesmerising fiction set in exotic places. Here, for example, is the cover of a Doubleday publicity pamphlet from 1926 (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Publicity pamphlet, Doubleday, 1926.

The image comes from Conrad’s voyage in HMS Ready (alias the SS Freya) rather than voyages to the East, but evokes a whole back-story. Doubleday’s promotional campaigns, though, did not and (given the goal of selling the whole range of his work) could not carve a line between accessible fiction teeming with “lustrous women and manly men” and inaccessible fiction teeming with “queer human freaks.” We should also note that what Hovey actually published after “Freya” (in itself a disturbingly ironic story wherein the vindictive Dutch lieutenant suffers no retribution for wrecking the hero’s brig, driving him insane, and draining the heroine’s will to live) includes, among many other unsettling episodes, an attempt to stifle a naval officer in a collapsible four-poster bed (“The Inn of the Two Witches”), the perverse inability of a manly man to tell the truth (“The Planter of Malata”), the battering to death of a former prostitute by a handless marauder who ties an iron weight to the stump of one arm (“Laughing Anne”), and, against the background of Napoleon’s disastrous retreat from Moscow, the predicament of a humane Russian officer who can only repay the earlier generosity of a French officer now desperate with hunger and humiliation by shooting him (“The Warrior’s Soul”). It is in Hovey’s publicity rather than his editorial choices that we see the brighter version of an American Conrad, romantic, exciting, inspirational.
Ridgway’s quite evidently approved a darker version. True, the often-made triangulation with Kipling and Stevenson shows up in the heading to the first instalment of The Secret Agent, but those authors had their darker aspects as well as their “iridescent” ones. “Joseph Conrad, the author of ‘Youth,’ ‘Romance,’ ‘Typhoon,’ etc., is a story-teller who writes literature. Like Stevenson and Kipling, his tales last because there is more of them that the bare bones of plot; there is the knowledge of men, the feeling for life. In his new novel, ‘The Secret Agent,’ there is a deal of both plot and life. It is a story of diplomatic intrigue and anarchist treachery.” Any notion that Conrad is chiefly a writer about manly men in exotic locales vanishes the moment one sees the illustrations for the opening pages.
A spread showing first the outside of a pornographer’s den and on the opposite page a view of Mr Verloc coaxing a reluctant customer  might seem odd in a journal describing itself as A Militant Weekly for God and Country. In fact, Ridgway’s stood at a well-trodden intersection of three early twentieth century forces: the Social Gospel, a predominantly Protestant movement that sought to better the conditions of the poor in great cities by facing such problems as alcoholism, prostitution, inadequate education, and insanitary housing; the Progressive movement, which used political means for dealing with these evils, sponsoring, for example, the Pure Food and Drugs Act and the Meat Inspection Act, both in 1906; and the Muckrakers (a name those involved disliked), a loose alliance of investigative journalists such as Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, Nellie Bly, and Upton Sinclair, and campaigning editors and proprietors. Among these proprietors were Sam McClure (in the early days, one of Conrad’s publishers in the USA) and Erman J. Ridgway, who besides presiding over the mere eighteen issues of Ridgway’s owned Everybody’s, a journal conducted for many years in the same spirit, but with less journalism and more fiction (for contents lists, see this link. For a cover from 1915 and a Conrad publication from 1925, see this link.)The first issue of Ridgway’s includes a sermon by the President of Hamilton College on Christ’s scourging the money-changers from the Temple, a whole-page cartoon representing Ridgway’s as an armoured knight flanked by a shamefaced Democratic donkey and a bewildered Republican elephant while in the background a fat, top-hatted member of a trust (looking distressingly like an anti-semitic caricature) haggles with a corrupt politician. There is the first of a series of “Little Tragedies of the Trusts,” telling how a corner grocer is forced out of business. There are reports from correspondents in thirteen cities, and a piece on the iniquities of Standard Oil. The editorial strategy combines very local with national reporting, extended anecdotes of personal experience and analyses of extortionate and corrupt practices on a national scale.
An editorial focuses on the sale of putrid chicken and the complaints of poultry wholesalers at being forced into managing their cold storage plants more hygienically: “The cold storage people maintain their right to sell these ancient fowl, or others like them. Nowhere is it stated that they wish to sell them as fertilizer. Presumably they will regard the chickens as food–for other people.” Writing to John Galsworthy in June 1906, in the aftermath of an anarchist attempt to assassinate the king of Spain, and while working on the middle chapters of the novel, Conrad posed a rhetorical question: “Query: Which is really more criminal?—the Bomb of Madrid or the Meat of Chicago” (Letters 3: 333). Had they been asked the same question Ridgway and his chief editorial writer Samuel Hopkins Adams might well have plumped for Chicago, but insisted that anarchism was a real threat to the United States. After all, Leon Czolgosz, who claimed to be an anarchist, had assassinated President McKinley five years earlier, and nine years before that Alexander Berkman had shot the steel and railroad tycoon Henry Clay Frick in an attempt to kill him. After fourteen years of incarceration, Berkman was released in May 1906 . (For his greeting to readers of Mother Earth, the anarchist monthly co-edited and published by Emma Goldman, see this link; Max Baginski, the other editor , explicitly rejected “the application of force,” arguing that the real source of violence was “the power of the State”.). The Immigration Acts of 1903 and 1906 identified four classes of inadmissible immigrants—beggars, epileptics, white slavers, and anarchists, and, with some exceptions, authorised the deportation of foreign anarchists already in the country. The new law stimulated a revival of anarchist sympathies. During a meeting in 1903 at Cooper Union to denounce the arrest and imminent deportation of a Scottish anarchist, one of the speakers, Ernest H. Crosby, a Tolstoyan pacifist, praised “the beauty of anarchy.” On 5 December 1903, an editorial in the New York Times Saturday Review of Arts and Letters commented: “When he preaches ‘the beautiful theory’ there are pretty sure to be in his audience persons who are no empty theorists. He implants in seething brains ideas which experience teaches us are likely to ripen into hideous crimes. Czolgosz was an attendant upon anarchistic meetings.” Yet the perceived threat of anarchism did not lie only with the advocates of physical force, who by then constituted nothing much more than a groupuscule. The New York Times editorialist goes on to argue that “We are an organized society governed in accordance with certain well-tried and accepted principles. We are no more bound to extend the hospitable welcome to men who come to preach the destruction of those principles and the overthrow of our Government than a church is bound to extend the hospitality of its pulpit to a blatant atheist.” Here was anarchism’s real threat to the Progressive reformers. Visually as well as verbally, Ridgway’s attacked corrupt politicians as lackeys of the great trusts. One full-page cartoon depicts the House of Representatives as a gigantic toyshop. The goal, however, was to clean up government, not to strangle it. Moreover, Ridgway’s repeated appeals to the principles of religion, chivalry, and the American Revolution made a sturdy shield against any counter-attack by moneyed interests trying to frame the editor and proprietor as dangerous radicals. To judge by its iconography, the cover of the 27 October issue was clearly not an endorsement of mass movements or working class militancy.
This then was the context of The Secret Agent in Ridgway’s. The British context was rather different. In Britain, there had been the trial of an anarchist cell from Walsall in 1892 on charges of bomb-making (now known to have been the work of an agent provocateur) and of course the death of Martial Bourdin, killed by his own bomb as he attempted to demolish Greenwich Observatory, the event that was the ultimate source of The Secret Agent. Nevertheless, in the late Victorian and Edwardian period, socialism and militant trades unionism replaced Fenianism as the major threats to national equanimity. Anarchism was the stuff of speculative fiction: for example, E. Douglas Fawcett’s Hartmann the Anarchist (1893), with its famous illustration of Big Ben collapsing in an air raid, and Fred Jane’s The Violet Flame (1899), whose chief villain, the leader of the Finis Mundi Society, has invented a violet ray capable of destroying the world (he is known variously as The Beast or The Professor) (Davies 2007, 26–9). In American popular culture, physical force anarchism had its ludicrous side, best seen in the recently introduced comics supplements to the New York World and the New York Sun; the samples reproduced in Art Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers (n. pag.) invariably show a hirsute anarchist clutching a spherical bomb with a sputtering fuse. Generally, though, the imaginary face of anarchism was a menacing one at least as late as the prejudicial trial and execution of Ferdinando Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti in 1927. There is an American history of reading The Secret Agent as an authoritative representation of real, would-be, and alleged terrorism, and of the political uses of terrorism as an excuse to shackle civil liberties (Mallios 2010, 168–9; Mallios 2005, 155–65). There is another history of reading it as a study of the extremities of human experience and behaviour, as in the case of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury (Mallios 2010, 354–5). Soon forgotten as Ridgway’s was, it began a counter-narrative to the untroubling simplicities promoted, but far from always exemplified by the Metropolitan’s Conrad.


Works Cited

Baginski, Max. 1906. “Without Government.” Mother Earth 1.1 (March): 20–26. Accessed 2 January 2013.

Berkman, Alexander. 1906. “A Greeting.” Mother Earth 1.4 (June): 3–6. Accessed 2 January 2013.

Conrad, Joseph. The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Volume Two. Ed. Frederick R. Karl and Laurence Davies. 1986. Volume Three. Ed. Frederick R. Karl and Laurence Davies. 1988. Volume Five. Ed. Frederick R. Karl and Laurence Davies. 1996. Volume Six. Ed. Laurence Davies, Frederick R. Karl, and Owen Knowles. 2002. Volume Nine. Ed. Laurence Davies, Owen Knowles, Gene M. Moore, and J. H. Stape. 2007.

Conrad, Joseph. 2012. Within the Tides. Ed. Alexandre Fachard with Andrew Purssell. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dalgarno, Emily. 1977. “Conrad, Pinker, and the Writing of The Secret Agent. Conradiana 9.1 (Spring): 51–53.

Davies, Laurence. 2007. “Clenched Fists and Open Hands: Conrad’s Unruliness.” The Conradian 32.2 (Autumn): 23–35.

-----. 2009. “Uncanny Conrad: Home, Exile, Memory, and Communion with the Dead.” Leviathan: A Journal of Melville Studies 11.1 (January): 105–17.

-----. 2012. “Introduction.” In Joseph Conrad, Within the Tides, xxv-lxxiii. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Davis, Laura L. 2009. “‘Not so Much Art as a Financial Operation’: Conrad and Metropolitan Magazine.” Conradiana 41.2–3 (Summer/ Fall): 244–65.

Dimock, Wai Chee. 1997. “A Theory of Resonance.” PMLA 112.5 (October 1997): 1060–71.

Donovan, Stephen. 2005. Joseph Conrad and Popular Culture. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Fiction Mags Index. Accessed 2 December 2012.

Hovey, Carl. 1912. “By the Editor.” Metropolitan Magazine 35.2 (February): 6.

“In Defense of Anarchy.” 1913. Metropolitan Magazine 37.1 (January): 5.

“Letters and Comments.” 1913. Metropolitan Magazine 37.1 (January): 5.

Mallios, Peter Lancelot. 2010. Our Conrad: Constituting American Modernity. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Mallios, Peter Lancelot. 2005. “Reading The Secret Agent Now: The Press, the Police, the Premonition of Simulation.” In Conrad in the Twenty-first Century, edited by Carola M. Kaplan, Peter Mallios, and Andrea White, 155–72. New York: Routledge.

New York Times Archives. Accessed 20 December 2012. “In Defense of Anarchy.” 5 December 1903.

Pasolini, Pier Paolo. 2005. Heretical Empiricism. Ed. Louise K. Barnett, trans. Ben Lawton and Louise K. Barnett. Washington: New Academia.

Reid, Sid. 2003. “American Markets, Serials, and Conrad’s Career.” The Conradian 28.1 (Spring): 57–99.

Spiegelman, Art. 2004. In the Shadow of No Towers. New York: Pantheon. No pagination.

Watts, Cedric. 1989. Joseph Conrad: A Literary Life. Basingstoke: Macmillan.


Laurence Davies is an Honorary Senior Research Fellow at the University of Glasgow, General Editor of The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad, and President of the Joseph Conrad Society, UK.



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