Exclusive to M/m Print Plus

Conrad’s Dynamite Time

On February 15, 1894, a bomb went off in Greenwich Park near the Royal Observatory. The event set off a media frenzy that, thirteen years later, resulted in Joseph Conrad writing The Secret Agent (1907). Recent readings of the novel have begun to explore how in constructing his ironic re-mediation of the event, Conrad also began to lay bare some of the complex energy infrastructures of his historical moment. In Victorian Literature, Energy, and the Ecological Imagination, Allen Macduffie argues that we can read “The Secret Agent’s imagery of light and darkness not simply as moral signifiers, but more particularly, and more materially, as components in the representation of a global economy of energy forms.”[1] Few writers have ever participated more materially in the supply chain of resource extraction than Conrad, whose nautical career spanned the transition from wind to steam power, and whose novels dramatize its infrastructure from exhausted silver mines to the Congolese rubber trade.

Revisiting the late 19th century, when global industry and energy forms began to take the shapes still recognizable today gives modern readers access to the complex pre-history of our contemporary climate crisis. Elizabeth Carolyn Miller points out how “Industrial-era exhaustion debates demand reconsideration now because they show that the transition to extraction-based life was understood at the time to entail a depleted earth for future generations.”[2] From the outset of our extraction-dependent cultural turn, there has been an ongoing discussion of the unavoidable damage of depleting resources, and, at the same time, a struggle to relate that damage to the broader public. In reading Conrad’s entry into the genre of Dynamite Fiction, we may potentially find an early model for how a mysterious explosive crime can twin with the explosive new technology of resource extraction to make the violence of energy modernity available to readers.

Listen to Tobias Wilson Bates in conversation with Elizabeth Carolyn Miller and Devin Griffiths here:

Secret Agent Podcast

Elizabeth Carolyn Miller is a professor in the English Department at UC Davis. Her recently-completed book titled Extraction Ecologies and the Literature of the Long Exhaustion appeared with Princeton University Press in October 2021.

Devin Griffiths is an associate English professor at the University of Southern California. His first book, The Age of Analogy: Science and Literature Between the Darwins, published in 2016 by the Johns Hopkins University Press.


[1] Allen MacDuffie, Victorian Literature, Energy, and the Ecological Imagination (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 198.

[2] Elizabeth Carolyn Miller, Extraction Ecologies and the Literature of the Long Exhaustion (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2021), 35.