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Reviewed by:
  • The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad: Volume 6, 1917–1919
  • Marion C. Michael (bio)
Conrad, Joseph. The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad: Volume 6, 1917–1919. Ed. Laurence DaviesFrederick R. KarlOwen Knowles. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. 628p. ISBN 0–521–56195–7

In addition to the biographies by Frederick Karl and Zdzisław Najder— Joseph Conrad: The Three Livesand Joseph Conrad: A Chronicle—undoubtedly the most important and comprehensive work on Conrad during the last quarter of the twentieth century, and continuing into the present, is represented by the Cambridge Edition of the Worksand The Collected Letters. In relation to the entire matter of Conrad’s letters, no one was more qualified to assess their multiple meanings than the late Fred Karl. In fact, in his 1999 article in Conradiana, “Life & Letters, Letters & Life, The Final Three Volumes,” Karl very nicely anticipates, perhaps even eliminates the necessity for, postpublication reviews of volumes 6–8. Karl writes:

The final three volumes of Conrad’s letters—coming at a time when it is generally agreed that he was closing down fictionally—reveal that he was very much alive to all aspects of his life, work, and reputation; but more than that, we see him interpreting and reinterpreting his life as his earlier fictional efforts burst upon him, in translations, collected editions, and his own use of earlier work to energize later fictions. The last three volumes give Conrad a sense of completion that perhaps we did not recognize before, focused as we were on earlier success and later decline. Memory, return, awareness of origins, all, characterized the later years.

(“Life” 75)

Volume 6 of The Collected Letters, covering the years 1917–19, contains all of the ingredients which Karl observes and, thankfully, a few more which he did not comment upon, thus leaving room for a few independent observations. After all, Karl modestly asserts that his remarks “only scratch the surface of Conrad’s complicated later years” [End Page 193](“Life” 83). Significant in relation to Karl’s comment that in his later years Conrad was “very much alive to all aspects of his life, work, and reputation” is a letter to John Quinn written on 31 July 1919 (“Life” 75). In this letter Conrad rejects Doubleday’s idea to publish a set of “sea stories” in as many as six volumes, citing the limited appeal of such a production, but, more importantly, strongly protesting that it was suggestive of a too limited overall achievement:

With all deference to Mr. D’s opinion I do not like the idea of a special set of “Sea” books. How would poor Thackeray have liked a set labelled Mr. Thack’s “Society Novels.” He lived in society. (“The Newcomes” could be described in a sense as a “High-Life” novel). But it would be absurd to brand him as a “Society” writer. The sea is not my subject. Mankind is my subject “and imaginative rendering” of truth is my aim.

( CL6: 453–54)

This letter reflects an impressive consistency in Conrad’s interpretation of his literary achievements, asserting that his fiction has a universal appeal rooted in universal, not incidental, issues. It is reminiscent of his letter to William Blackwood, written in 1902, in which, casting Thackeray in a somewhat lesser role, Conrad proclaims his own modernity:

I am long in my development. What of that? Is not Thackeray’s penny worth of mediocre fact drowned in an ocean of twaddle? And yet he lives. And Sir Walter, himself, was not the writer of concise anecdotes I fancy. And G. Elliott [ sic]—is she as swift as the present public (incapable of fixing it attention for five consecutive minutes) requires us to be at the cost of all honesty, of all truth, and even the most elementary conception of art? But these are great names. I don’t compare myself with them. I am modern.

( CL2: 418).

Like Fred Karl, Laurence Davies in his excellent “Introduction to Volume Six” eases the reviewer’s task in his accurate and discerning discussion of some of the more prominent aspects of the volume. As represented by the letters, Davies notes...


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