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  • Surveying Conrad Criticism
  • Stephen E. Tabachnick
John G. Peters. Joseph Conrad’s Critical Reception. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. xiii + 274 pp. $95.00

John Peters’s excellent survey of Conrad criticism from 1895 to 2012 presents a familiar paradigm of writerly success. First there is an argument in the newspapers and book review journals over the quality of the given author’s work; then respected writers and critics line up behind him or her, some biographies and other scholarly and [End Page 548] critical works appear, and after a few more ups and downs his or her canonicity is established; and then comes the explosive proliferation of interpretations and ongoing arguments about ambiguous areas in the author’s work.

Peters begins with the 1895–1930 period, during which there was largely biographical criticism connecting Conrad’s life and work, with brief, impressionistic articles about the perceived quality (or lack of it) in his fiction. The first book about him, Joseph Conrad: A Study, appeared only in 1914, and in it Richard Curle argued for the unique quality of Conrad’s work. After Conrad’s death in 1924 several biographical works appeared, along with positive critical assessments by Virginia Woolf and Ernest Hemingway, among others.

Peters then moves decade by decade, discussing the critical arguments and critical and scholarly achievements in each ten year period. Beginning in 1930 notable critical works began to appear, such as the study by Gustav Morf, which stressed Conrad’s Polish connection and was influenced by psychoanalytic theory; Edward Crankshaw’s Joseph Conrad: Some Aspects of the Art of the Novel, which provided detailed analysis; and a chapter in The Novel and the Modern World by David Daiches, who discussed the philosophical implications of Conrad’s fiction. The 1940s brought J. D. Gordan’s Joseph Conrad: The Making of a Novelist, which Peters characterizes as the first truly modern work of Conrad scholarship, because it considered Conrad’s growth as a writer, his critical reception, and how he composed his works. In parallel to Gordan’s work, according to Peters, Albert Guerard’s Joseph Conrad of 1947 was the first truly modern work of Conrad criticism although it continued the earlier line of argument that saw his work declining after 1915. In 1948, F. R. Leavis praised Conrad for realism and connected him to the “great tradition” of previous realistic novelists. Other important critical names of the decade include Arnold Kettle, who discussed Conrad and imperialism, M. C. Bradbrook, who provided critical analysis and who, along with Morton Zabel, worked to rescue Conrad’s reputation from detractors.

In his summaries of each decade’s work, Peters reports on a wide range of books and articles, always emphasizing the few critics and scholars who brought new information and/or original interpretations of Conrad’s work. In the 1950s, he singles out Gordan, Zabel, Hewitt, Howe, Moser and Guerard, whose work finally established Conrad’s canonicity. Among works of the 1960s, he praises Eloise Knapp Hay’s 1963 political study of Conrad, which concluded that he was conservative, [End Page 549] and Avrom Fleishman’s Conrad’s Politics (1967), which argued that he was much more liberal than Hay thought. In the 1970s, the important names according to Peters are Daleski, Said, Achebe, Hawthorn, Sherry, Johnson, and Berthoud, who continued to debate issues discussed earlier and added new ones, such as Conrad and imperialism, language, and morality. In the 1980s, the argument about Conrad’s political position continued, with such names as Benita Parry and Patrick Brantlinger, among others, taking part. There were also more formal critiques, such as Kenneth Graham’s study of Conrad’s narrative techniques and Cedric Watt’s study of Conrad’s plots. Conrad’s religious attitudes were probed for the first time in Dwight Purdy’s Joseph Conrad’s Bible (1984) and John Lester’s Conrad and Religion (1988), while his view of science was first analyzed in Joseph Hunter’s Joseph Conrad and the Ethics of Darwinism: The Challenges of Science (1983). Zdzislaw Najder’s 1983 biography, characterized by Peters as still the best (superseded only by Najder’s 2007 updated edition), also appeared during this period. Peters similarly summarizes...


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