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  • Reclaiming Conrad from His Editors:The Case of an Outcast of the Islands
  • Allan H. Simmons (bio)

(For my friend, John Stape)

This essay concerns itself with Conrad’s second novel, An Outcast of the Islands, first published in March 1896, and uses the novel to address the tangled issue of what we mean when we say we are reading “Conrad.” To what extent are we reading the text that Joseph Conrad wrote—the “authorial” text—and to what extent are we reading what is now called a “social” text, bearing the traces and interference of typists, compositors, and editors? As a community of readers of Conrad, the stakes could hardly be higher.

To illustrate the nature of the problem, let me turn to a well-known example of editorial interference. The three-part division of “Heart of Darkness” has been found structurally significant, yet, in his superb edition of the novella for the Cambridge Edition,1 Owen Knowles has demonstrated that this tripartite division did not originate with Conrad, but was, instead, imposed by Blackwood’s Magazine, which published the tale in three instalments in the spring of 1899.2 This division was then carried forward into the first book version, also published by Blackwood’s, in Youth: A Narrative and Two Other Stories in 1902. When this division is removed, the uninterrupted reading of “Heart of Darkness” confers even more poignantly the overwhelming and relentless nature of Marlow’s experience, providing the reader with no respite, and an even greater sense of the loss of boundaries, definitions and margins, and responding to the mimetic situation of the hearers of the tale aboard the Nellie, who receive it as a continuous narrative interrupted only by Marlow’s occasional pauses. By coincidence, “An Outpost of Progress,” the “lightest part of the loot” that Conrad “carried off from Central Africa,”3 suffered the same fate (and, arguably, because of its brevity, even greater damage to its narrative texture). It too was [End Page 39] sub-divided for serial publication—this time in Cosmopolis magazine, in June and July 1897. When the story was found to be too long for a single issue, Conrad reluctantly agreed to its being spread over two, being afforded the opportunity to decide where this division should occur.4 The Saturday Review shared Conrad’s unease, arguing that the story “must lose as much as Mr Kipling’s [“Slaves of the Lamp”] gained by the division in two parts.”5 This division, too, passed into the story’s book version, providing an unintended structural balance. No doubt, this too has been invoked by critics and scholars to sustain arguments about Conrad’s artistry. The Cambridge Edition of the text restores the tale to its uninterrupted condition as Conrad himself intended.6 It should already be obvious that the Cambridge Edition of these works alters them, and opens new interpretive possibilities yet to be explored by literary criticism.

By the late 1960s, scholars realized that Conrad’s texts were circulating mainly in unsatisfactory forms, with the investigation of this topic beginning in the next decade with the establishment of The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Joseph Conrad. This edition aimed to provide the scholar and advanced general reader with a reliable text, by examining a given work’s textual history and the creative and production processes that went into its making and dissemination. The Cambridge Edition has had this goal from its outset, in the late 1970s, when Bruce Harkness and S. W. Reid ambitiously foresaw replacing Conrad’s varyingly corrupt and defective standard texts by ones that, for the first time, considered the original sources, weighed evidence and took account of the circumstances of publication. The first editions and Doubleday’s “Sun-Dial” and Heinemann’s collected editions—accorded the status of a “death bed” edition and with the latter, in particular, widely regarded as authoritative, and even “definitive,” until the editors of The Secret Agent (1990) largely debunked this myth7—were finally seen for what they were and at long last were to be retired.


In a word, the policy established by Harkness and Reid, nourished in part by the then-recent...


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pp. 39-52
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