- Robert Hampson's Contribution to Conrad Studies
Robert Hampson is among the most prominent Conrad scholars in the world today. He is also among the most prolific. Along with numerous articles, book chapters, and edited works, Robert Hampson has written three monographs on Conrad, all making important contributions to the development of the history of commentary on Conrad's works.
I first encountered Hampson's work many years ago while reviewing a collection of essays on Conrad. In an otherwise pedestrian volume, Hampson's essay was among few that stood out from the rest. Invariably, that has been a pattern in my experience. I am always impressed by the quality and originality of Hampson's work. This fact is all the more impressive when one considers that Hampson often works in well-traveled areas of scholarship (such as Conrad and colonialism or Conrad's later career) and yet consistently contributes new and evocative insights to the critical conversations.
Hampson's first such work was his Joseph Conrad: Betrayal and Identity (1992). As early as Virginia Woolf's reviews of Conrad's later novels in the Times Literary Supplement, concern began to be expressed about the literary quality of Conrad's later works. Not until M.C. Bradbrook's Joseph Conrad: Poland's English Genius (1941), though, did scholars pick up this thought and elaborate on it. Bradbrook's study was followed by Albert Guerard's Joseph Conrad (1947), Douglas Hewitt's Conrad: A Reassessment (1952), and finally Thomas Moser's Joseph Conrad: Achievement and Decline (1957), which codified this "achievement and decline" theory concerning Conrad's career. This view of Conrad's works became the dominant view on Conrad criticism for twenty-five or more years, and still has many adherents. To be sure, Paul L. Wiley, in his Conrad's Measure of Man (1954), took issue with this theory, as did John A. Palmer in his Joseph Conrad's Fiction: A Study in Literary Growth (1968), but these were voices crying in the wilderness as it were. Beginning [End Page iii] with Gary Geddes's Conrad's Later Novels (1980) and Daniel R. Schwarz's Conrad: The Later Fiction (1982), some scholars started to challenge the "achievement and decline" theory in earnest. Geddes and Schwarz, however, tend to respond to the "achievement and decline" theory by arguing that Conrad's later works still reflect his early ideas and strengths but in a different way. It was not until Hampson's Joseph Conrad: Betrayal and Identity (1992), though, that anyone argued that Conrad in fact shifted direction in his later writings and sought to do something different from what he had done previously. This critical turn would largely push the debate about Conrad's later work in a new direction, as those who followed Hampson, such as Susan Jones in her Conrad and Women (1999) and Katherine Isobel Baxter in her Joseph Conrad and the Swan Song of Romance (2010), ceased to argue necessarily for the literary quality or focus of Conrad's later works in light of his early works and instead argued for their value based upon other criteria.
Like Joseph Conrad: Betrayal and Identity, Hampson's next monograph, Cross-Cultural Encounters in Joseph Conrad's Malay Fiction (2000), also enters a well-established critical conversation. Even though commentary on Conrad's colonial fiction goes back at least as far as Florence Clemens's dissertation "Conrad's Malaysian Fiction" (1937), criticism on the colonial aspects of Conrad's works did not begin in earnest until Chinua Achebe's famous essay "An Image of Africa" (1977). Since that time, issues of colonialism and imperialism in Conrad's works have been consistently one of the most dominant strains of commentary even down to the present. Much of the discussion has tended to consider issues related to whether Conrad affirmed or rejected colonial practice and ideology, as we see, for example, in Benita Parry's Conrad and Imperialism: Ideological Boundaries and Visionary Frontiers (1983) or even Edward Said's Culture and Imperialism (1993). Hampson, however, focuses instead on the way in which the West perceives the East and more particularly how Conrad presents the West through its...