Secret agents, official secrets: Joseph Conrad and the security of the mail

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This essay stages a new reading of Joseph Conrad's novel of 1907, The Secret Agent, tracing beyond the novel itself the communications networks that traverse Conrad's London, in particular the Post Office. As an officer in British cargo ships, as a Polish exile from a family of dissidents, and as a struggling author, Conrad had become acutely aware of the communications systems that crisscrossed England, Europe, and the globe, and of the forms of surveillance and control that those systems enabled. But the reception history of this novel of anarchism has tended too readily to draw attention to the mismatch between its literary ambitions and its penny-dreadful content at the cost of undervaluing its attention to the technologies of information control in which those generic distinctions participate. The essay therefore offers an analysis of the novel's interest in postal systems and in related efforts to distinguish between public and private, official and unofficial, forms of communication. Situating The Secret Agent in relation to postal interception scandals of the 1840s and intelligence leaks of the 1880s, the essay re-evaluates the 'gratuitous' and 'irrelevant' matter disparaged by its first critics to show how Conrad's work acknowledges the new social and technological extent of communications control, while insisting on the prerogative of literary writing to reshape and critique the new systems of textual categorization that emerged in response to the information surge of the late nineteenth century.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)302-320
Number of pages19
JournalReview of English Studies
Issue number269
Early online date3 May 2013
Publication statusPublished - 1 Apr 2014


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