- The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad:A Review Essay
The publication of volumes 8 and 9 of The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad in December 2007 brought to happy completion a project that began with the appearance of the first volume in 1983. To dyed-in-the-wool Conrad scholars, the emergence of these volumes of letters has afforded the sensation of aging at the same rate as Conrad. The handsome cover photograph of Conrad in 1923, by T. R. Annan and Sons, has graced each volume, holding out to the patient reader the promise of final synchrony between the private thoughts and the public image of the subject. This promise has now been fulfilled, and the result is a complete edition to celebrate and even wonder at.
The scholarly excellence that sustains the nine volumes of The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad deserves recognition. Work on the editions began under the editorship of Frederick R. Karl and Laurence Davies. By the time of Karl's death in 2004, the editorial team had been [End Page 182]
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supplemented by three eminent Conradians (Owen Knowles, Gene M. Moore, and J. H. Stape) in order to hasten the project's completion. The additions proved felicitous: the final four volumes have appeared since 2002. More importantly, this increased rate of production—in defiance of the publishing laws that usually appertain in these cases—saw no diminution in the standards that have been a hallmark of the edition. They were maintained and, if anything, improved upon. The editorial scholarship is at once generous and suitably supportive, and the magisterial notes, whereby letters are not overwhelmed but constantly illuminated, a continual delight. As George Steiner rightly observed, "The scholarly wealth and care of this edition, the clarity of layout and secondary material, are beyond praise" ("Darkness of the Heart," The Sunday Times, 24 August 1986, 43).
At the heart of Conrad's vision of humanity stands a belief in the importance of solidarity. In many respects, the success of these nine volumes is a testament to that vision. Together, the Acknowledgements pages compile a who's who not only of Conrad scholars across the last three decades but also, extending to the legions of librarians, the broader scholarly community. The editors have been well served by the crew—and by no one more than the late Hans van Marle whose unrivalled and generous behind-the-scenes contributions steered the project home.
Laurence Davies admits in his introduction to volume 9 that this "does not pretend to be the final word" on Conrad's correspondence, and since its publication a few short letters, previously unknown, have already turned up on the market and will, at the request of the copyright holder, soon appear in The Conradian, publication of the Joseph Conrad Society of the United Kingdom and journal of record in the field. Be that as it may, what he and his fellow editors have given us, though, is just about as final and scholarly an edition as we could have wished for, and in his own collected introductions, Davies has incidentally offered perhaps one of the finest biographical insights into Conrad the artist that we have.
Following the series format, volume 8 includes a helpful Gazetteer of Correspondents and Chronology of the years covered, while, in keeping with the standards set by previous volumes, the annotation of the letters is formidably detailed and erudite, drawing upon expertise built up over a quarter of a century...