- The Penguin Editions of Conrad's Novels:A Review Essay
In 2007 the international literary community celebrated the one-hundred-fiftieth anniversary of the birth of Joseph Conrad. In the U.K. Conrad was celebrated in theatres, libraries, museums and art galleries. BBC Radio 4 dedicated a programme to the discussion of Conrad's best-known tale, Heart of Darkness, and Penguin published seven volumes of Conrad's works in their Classics series. It is hardly necessary to wonder why this Polish seaman turned writer of English literature should be so fêted one hundred and fifty years after his birth: during the eighty-four years since his death many of Conrad's best known works have never been out of print, dissertations appear with regularity, academic monographs abound, and every few years a new biography emerges. The Joseph Conrad Society (U.K.) was inaugurated in London in 1972 and flourishes to this day, inspiring similar such societies in America and Poland. There are three academic journals devoted to Conrad and annual essay prizes awarded by both the Joseph Conrad Society (U.K.) and the Joseph Conrad Society of America. International conferences, colloquia, seminars and study days devoted to Conrad abound, and many an academic career has been launched on the basis of research into this most fascinating author. Conrad was such a prodigious letter writer that it has taken the best part of fifty years to collect, catalogue and annotate his letters. The long-term general editor of this correspondence, Laurence Davies, has decided that, at nine volumes, the Cambridge Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad must come to an end, but he is aware that new letters will continue to surface for years to come.
All of this offers only an overview of the activities surrounding an author who continues to capture the public imagination. It is true that in the years following his death Conrad's work fell somewhat out of favour. However, he maintained a core, if rather exclusive readership. As Virginia Woolf observed: "Schoolboys of fourteen, driving their way through Marryat, Scott, Henty, and Dickens, swallowed him down with the rest; while the seasoned and fastidious, who in a process of time have eaten their way to the heart of literature and there turn over and over a few precious crumbs, set Conrad scrupulously upon their banqueting table."1 Conrad never really disappeared from the literary scene, and the second half of the twentieth century saw interest in his work mushroom. Conrad's novels remain a regular feature on school and university syllabi because he figures as one of the greatest writers of English literature, an early literary modernist who influenced writers [End Page 197] from H. G. Wells to V. S. Naipaul. In the first decade of the twenty-first century it is clear that Conrad studies are healthier than they have ever been. Despite the familiar lament of "not another conference paper on Heart of Darkness!" it is undeniable that Conrad's enigmatic novella has entered into the popular consciousness, and many of his works continue to inspire filmmakers and television producers.2
What all of this tells us is that Conrad was a man both of his time...