restricted access Joseph Conrad: A Literary Life, and: Conrad's Narrative Method (review)
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Reviewed by
Cedric Watts. Joseph Conrad: A Literary Life. New York: St. Martin's, 1989. 160 pp. $35.00.
Jakob Lothe. Conrad's Narrative Method. Oxford: Clarendon, 1989. 318 pp. $49.95.

Much recent literary criticism has come to valorize history in reaction to the longstanding authority of formalism. Historically comprehensive yet specific, Cedric Watts's Joseph Conrad: A Literary Life avoids the facile cultural totalization of many "new" historicisms by reconstructing Conrad within "the professional, publishing, and social contexts" that shaped his career. In Conrad's Narrative Method Jakob Lothe registers the imperative to historicize only by suggesting that his formal analyses may illuminate Conrad's "crucially transitional" position in literary history.

Despite Zdzislaw Najder's thorough biographical demystifications, only now, with Watts's compressed corrective, is Conrad as "sea dreamer" beginning to give way to Conrad as a canny communicator exploiting England's newly favorable conditions for authorship. Consonant with the aims of Macmillan's Literary Lives series, Watts explores the financing of Conrad's career and "the phases" of his "literary development" by examining the "economic causes" of "cultural matters." Although Watts's book accordingly finds a sympathetic context in the work of British materialists such as Norman Feltes, his study, unlike Feltes's Modes of Production of Victorian Novels, is not strictly marxist. Thus when describing The Nigger of the "Narcissus" as "a text ideologically modified by the immediate circumstances of magazine publication," Watts does not analyze how the ideology inherent in a specific mode of production is encoded in the text; rather, he examines how Conrad's revisions align the story's politics with the well-known political beliefs of W. E. Henley, who serialized it in his New Review. (Watts's valuable publication chronology includes all the variant forms in which Conrad's works appeared.) And although Watts is committed to the idea of authorship as an essentially social activity—his remarks on Conrad's "literary imperialism," for instance, are acute—he neither dismisses individual agency as a bourgeois illusion nor dispenses altogether with the concept of artistic "genius."

Consistently illuminating on Conrad's conflicted investment in "literary integrity" and the need "to earn a living by pleasing the public," Watts also devotes attention to the "financial safety-net" provided by Conrad's uncle, Tadeusz Bobrowski. Bobrowski's support of Conrad's sea years added up to a sum greater than an English working man could earn in thirty-five years, underscoring the fact that Conrad, his plangent self-pity notwithstanding, was extraordinarily fortunate in his early finances. Conrad's oft-noted detachment, Watts speculates, was underwritten by the knowledge that he stood to inherit a substantial sum from Bobrowski, thus easing the risk of becoming a professional author. Watts also shows that well before Chance (1914) was successfully pitched toward women, Conrad tried to capture a share of the new mass market by exploiting popular generic formulas. [End Page 265]

Limited to 60,000 words, Watts can only sketch the ways in which Conrad's professional circumstances inflected his work, but his blueprints establish the ground-work for others. While composing Lord Jim Conrad wrote to a friend: "I fear I have not the capacity and the power to go on,—to satisfy the just expectations of those who are dependent on my exertions." Informed by Watts, we can use this letter to reconstrue the relation between text and context in the representation of Jim's precarious dependence on the trusting faces of the Bugis in Patusan. For Conrad at this time also badly needed the reassurance he had newly found in Blackwood's, even as he felt trapped, like Jim, by the promise of autonomy his audience seemed to offer. Although burdened with a family "dependent on his exertions," Conrad nevertheless spent lavishly, and his debt to Bobrowski, whose income came from rent paid by Polish peasants, casts a different light on the looting of Nicholas B.'s writing desk in A Personal Record, not to mention on Conrad's ambivalent identification with the "self-indulgence" of Don Quixote.

Although Watts may be overly inclined to adopt Conrad's own rationalized sense that his commercial activity was confined to...


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