Reading Congo Reform Literature: Humanitarianism and Form in the Edwardian Era
Galli, Mary Kathryn
Social and political upheaval was ubiquitous at the turn of the twentieth century. The death of Queen Victoria in 1901 and King Edward VII’s subsequent ascension created a transitional moment that ended around the time of Edward’s death in 1910. Narrative form during the Edwardian era reflects the transitional nature of the time. In this thesis, I analyze the literary forms that authors used to address imperial violence and the atrocities committed in King Leopold II of Belgium’s Congo Free State (1885-1908). Joseph Conrad’s 1899 modernist novella, Heart of Darkness, predated the Congo Reform Association (1904-1912), but significantly influenced the reform movement, which is often identified as the first modern human rights and first mass media campaign. While Conrad’s modernist form differs from Mark Twain’s 1905 satirical pamphlet, King Leopold’s Soliloquy, and from Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1909 nonfiction, The Crime of the Congo, I argue that the diverse forms of these three texts delay the reading experience, which creates time for the reader (and possibly the writer) to think about the atrocities in the Congo, who to blame, and how to respond.However, these authors separate Belgian imperialism in the Congo from British benevolent paternalism, and the forms of their texts ultimately fail to conclude a larger meaning about the systemic issues of imperialism. When they do attempt to conclude, they perpetuate a humanitarian discourse that problematically assumes superiority. While the Congo reform movement might be considered a success, the problematic failures of humanitarianism continue to this day in human rights discourse, as evidenced by the contemporary successor of the Congo Reform Association, which aims to “serve the heroic legacy” of E.D. Morel and the other Congo reformers. I assert that it is a failure to pursue reform if it’s purpose is to achieve a sense of heroism for oneself. Failure defines the Edwardian transitional moment, exemplified through the works of Conrad, Twain, and Doyle that span the era. Through an assessment of these authors’ formal structures, I conclude that their texts raise more questions than they solve, forcing readers to slow down, think, and determine an answer themselves.
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