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  • The First & Last of Conrad
  • Richard Niland
Joseph Conrad . Last Essays. Harold Ray Stevens and J. H. Stape, eds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. lv + 480 pp. $120.00

In 1929 publishers Ernest Benn published a collection entitled The First and Last of Conrad, which included Almayer's Folly, An Outcast of the Islands, The Arrow of Gold and The Rover. Appearing five years after Conrad's death it encompassed the scope of the writer's career, from his emergence as an author in 1895 up to his last completed novel in 1923. However, as Conrad's posthumously published final collection of writings, Last Essays, reveals, the real first and last of Conrad can be found both earlier and later than either Almayer's Folly or The Rover. The first ray of light that illuminates the literary gloom before Conrad's arrival with Almayer's Folly (1895), and the dying embers found glowing in his final writings before his death in 1924, lie in the pages of Last Essays, now published in its definitive Cambridge edition. This edition, with its presentation of an authoritative version of the essay "Legends," left unfinished at Conrad's death, and the inclusion of both "The Congo Diary" and the "Up-River Book" dating from Conrad's formative journey to Africa in 1890, unveils the various subjects occupying the writer in his last years before subsequently bringing the reader by a commodious vicus of recirculation back to the emergence of the Conradian voice in the heart of Africa in the last decade of the nineteenth century.

First published in 1926, Last Essays was envisaged by Conrad's literary executor, Richard Curle, as a companion piece to Notes on Life and Letters (1921), which had brought together Conrad's major occasional essays on politics, literature and the sea. With Notes on Life and Letters, which appeared in its Cambridge edition some years ago, Conrad oversaw publication, thereby making the job of the contemporary editor more straightforward with regard to authorial intention. With Last [End Page 419] Essays, things become more complicated given that there is no comparable Conradian approval, or even knowledge, of the volume's contents and appearance. As the editors explain, Conrad's agent Eric S. Pinker "was keenly aware of his late client's market value [and] wasted no time in beginning negotiations for this final collection of essays." Consequently, Richard Curle took charge of offering to the public what he surmised to be Conrad's vision of a companion volume to Notes on Life and Letters and a work that would evoke the earlier autobiographical The Mirror of the Sea (1906). Naturally, this involved the troubled process of selecting materials from Conrad's past writings overlooked in the production of Notes on Life and Letters, and also, importantly, of adding material that would justify the appearance of Last Essays, which would be a slim volume by itself. To ensure this, Curle, as a way of unveiling Conradian rarities, chose the earliest then-known extant example of Conrad's writing. This is what has come to be known as "The Congo Diary"—so named by Curle, the title preserved in this edition.

However, the relatively slight size of the volume still remains apparent in the Cambridge edition, with the original essays and "The Congo Diary" taking up a mere 137 of some 500 pages of text. To redress this imbalance, the editors have included the "Up-River Book" as the one major alteration to the textual integrity of Curle's edition of Last Essays. Additionally, a number of "Uncollected Essays" present forewords and introductory notes that Conrad contributed to different publications toward the end of his life, and a series of useful appendices offer some of Conrad's previously unpublished notes and drafts for the essays. However, of the main body of the Cambridge Last Essays, all the selections have appeared in an earlier form in print, either in contemporary serial and book publications and/or collected in Zdzislaw Najder's Congo Diary and Other Uncollected Essays (1978).

The introduction divides the contents of Last Essays into writings on the Congo, the sea, geopolitics, and prefaces and reviews. These essays see Conrad treat...


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pp. 419-422
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