Recursions, Part 10: “The Dawn Watch,” by Maya Jasanoff


This is the tenth in a series of short critical looks at books of literary criticism. Yes, a writer writing about writers who write about writers! I composed these for a private Facebook group originated by my friend Sara Mortimer Boyd, called the “Literary Criticism/Critical Theory Reading Group.” Members suggested a number of books about writing, and read them and reacted to them.  I will publish mine here, once or twice a month, in the order in which I wrote them–an order voted on by the group. 

“The Dawn Watch,” by Maya Jasanoff

Just finished this book today, and while it was a good biography of Joseph Conrad, I don’t feel that it was much of a work of literary criticism. Jasanoff’s chief critical interest seems to lie in associating Conrad’s writing with specific incidents from his life. There’s nothing wrong with this, but pretty much every realistic novelist writing since 1800 has based most of his work on experiences that he either lived through himself or heard about shortly after they happened. It would have been nice to hear more about Conrad’s style and how it developed, especially considering he was writing in what was his third or fourth language! To pull this off is impressive, and to pull it off well enough to become one of icons of English literature is stunning. Yet we have few examples of his work in the book. We have no consideration of how Conrad handled his characters’ dialogue, or how he used the English language to explore his themes (which Jasanoff does touch on) to create atmosphere and mood, and to express nuances of character.

This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy the book; I’d never read a biography of Conrad before, though I’ve read most of his work. But The Dawn Watch was presented as a critical biography, and I don’t think it focussed enough on the work itself.

And Jasanoff gest her seafaring language wrong now and then, as when she asserts that “sails are called sheets” on a wind ship. This is simply not true; “sheets” are the lines that control the orientation, or “set” of a sail. And the first watch on a ship that keeps a traditional watch-and-watch schedule is called the “morning watch.” Not the “dawn watch.” The title of the book is, in effect, wrong! These simple errors make me wonder what else she might have goofed up, despite what appears to be vigorous research and a good quarter-inch of endnotes.

I’m still glad I read it, and I still recommend it to anyone interested in Joseph Conrad himself. Just don’t expect too much insight into his writing from this work.

Have you read this book? Scroll down to comment with your own reaction to it, or to my essay.

Rick Risemberg