Joseph Conrad Biography


Personal Background

Joseph Conrad, one of the English language's greatest stylists, was born Teodor Josef Konrad Nalecz Korzenikowski in Podolia, a province of the Polish Ukraine. Poland had been a Roman Catholic kingdom since 1024, but was invaded, partitioned, and repartitioned throughout the late eighteenth-century by Russia, Prussia, and Austria. At the time of Conrad's birth (December 3, 1857), Poland was one-third of its size before being divided between the three great powers; despite the efforts of nationalists such as Tadeusz Kosciuszko, who led an unsuccessful uprising in 1795, Poland was controlled by other nations and struggled for independence. When Conrad was born, Russia effectively controlled Poland.

Conrad's childhood was largely affected by his homeland's struggle for independence. His father, Apollo Korzeniowski, belonged to the szlachta, a hereditary social class comprised of members of the landed gentry; he despised the Russian oppression of his native land. At the time of Conrad's birth, Apollo's land had been seized by the Russian government because of his participation in past uprisings. He and one of Conrad's maternal uncles, Stefan Bobrowski, helped plan an uprising against Russian rule in 1863. Other members of Conrad's family showed similar patriotic convictions: Kazimirez Bobrowski, another maternal uncle, resigned his commission in the army (controlled by Russia) and was imprisoned, while Robert and Hilary Korzeniowski, two fraternal uncles, also assisted in planning the aforementioned rebellion. (Robert died in 1863 and Hilary was imprisoned and exiled.) All of this political turmoil would prove to be predictably disturbing to young Josef, who could only stand idly by as he watched his family embroiled in such dangerous controversy.

Conrad's father was also a writer and translator, who composed political tracts, poetry, and satirical plays. His public urgings for Polish freedom, however, eventually caused Russian authorities to arrest and imprison him in 1861; in 1862, his wife (Conrad's mother), Eva, was also arrested and charged with assisting her husband in his anti-Russian activities. The two were sentenced to exile in Vologda, a town in northern Russia. Their exile was a hard and bitter one: Eva died of tuberculosis in 1865 and Apollo died of the same disease in 1869. Conrad, now only twelve years old, was naturally devastated; his own physical health deteriorated and he suffered from a number of lung inflammations and epileptic seizures. His poor health would become a recurring problem throughout the remainder of his life. Poland did not gain independence until 1919, and although patriots such as Apollo were instrumental in this eventual success, their martyrdom left many children (such as Conrad) without parents or hope for their future.

The Call of the Sea

After his father's death, Conrad was returned to Krakow, Poland where he became a ward of his maternal uncle, Thaddeus Bobrowski. His uncle sent Conrad to school in Krakow and then to Geneva under the guidance of a private tutor. However, Conrad was a poor student; Despite his having studied Greek, Latin, mathematics, and (of course) geography, he never completed the formal courses of study that he was expected to finish. His apathy toward formal education was counterbalanced by the reading he did on his own: During his early teenage years, Conrad read a great deal, particularly translations Charles Dickens' novels and Captain Frederick Marryat, an English novelist who wrote popular adventure yarns about life at sea. (He also read widely in French.)

Marryat's novels may have been partly responsible for the sixteen-year-old Conrad's desire to go to sea and travel the world as a merchant marine (an exotic wish for a boy who grew up in a land-locked country); in 1874, his uncle reluctantly granted him permission to leave Poland and travel, by train, to the French port city of Marseille to join the French Merchant Navy. After his arrival, Conrad made three voyages to the West Indies between 1875 and 1878; During this time, he smuggled guns for the Carlists, who were trying to put Carlos de Bourbon on the throne of Spain. In 1878, Conrad suffered from depression, caused in part by gambling debts and his being forbidden to work on any French ships due to his lying about having the proper permits. He made an unsuccessful attempt at suicide, shooting himself through the shoulder and missing his vital organs. (Biographers differ in their interpretations of this attempt: Some contend that Conrad was depressed about his squandering all his money, while others report that the attempt was a ruse designed to put Conrad out of work and thus escape the grasp of creditors.) Later that year, Conrad boarded an English ship that took him to the eastern port-town of Lowestoft; there, he joined the crew of a ship that made six voyages between Lowestoft and Newcastle. During this time, he learned English. Conrad's determination to succeed as a seaman was impressive: Although he began his career as a common sailor, by 1886 he had sailed to the Asia and was made master of his own ship. He then became a British subject and changed his name to Joseph Conrad (partly to avoid having to return to Poland and serve in the Russian military).

In 1888, Conrad received his first command of the Otago, a ship harboring in Bangkok whose master had died. Surprisingly, Conrad hated the day-to-day life of a sailor and never owned a boat after becoming famous; The sea, however, offered Conrad the opportunity to make a living. One of Conrad's most important voyages occurred in 1890, when he sailed a steamboat up the Congo River in central Africa. Conrad was attracted to this region partly because of the adventure he thought it could offer him and (perhaps more importantly) because working in the Congo could earn him some much-needed money. During this voyage, Conrad witnessed incredible barbarity, illness, and inhumanity; his recollections of this trip would eventually become the basis of his most famous work, Heart of Darkness. During this time, Conrad was considering turning his seafaring adventures into novels, and he eventually published Almayer's Folly, which he had been composing during the early 1890s in 1895. The success of his first novel lured him away from the sea to his new adventures as an English novelist. He settled in England, married Jessie George (in 1896), and began the career for which the world would remember him best.

From Sailor to Author

After the publication of Almayer's Folly, Conrad began producing a number of books in rapid succession, many of which featured plots about sailors and travel to explore moral ambiguity and the nature of human identity. The Nigger of the "Narcissus" (1897) concerns a tubercular Black sailor whose impending death affects his fellow crewmen in a number of profound ways. Lord Jim (1900) examines the effects of a cowardly act and how this act's moral repercussions haunt a man until his death. (Lord Jim's story is told by Marlow, the narrator of Heart of Darkness.) In 1902, Conrad published Heart of Darkness, a short novel detailing Marlow's journey into the Belgian Congo — and the metaphorical "heart of darkness" of man. All three books were highly regarded in their time and are still widely read and studied today. In 1904, Nostromo was published; the complex tale of an imaginary South American republic. The effects of greed and foreign exploitation helped to define Conrad's oblique and sometimes difficult narrative style. Although he produced a large body of work, Conrad was often a slow writer who felt the pressure of deadlines and the need to keep writing to keep his family financially solvent. His struggles were eased, however, in 1910, when John Quinn, an American lawyer, bought all of Conrad's manuscripts and awarded him a small pension.

Conrad continued writing tales of travel, but also turned his attention to novels of political intrigue. The Secret Agent (1907) concerns a group of anarchists who plan to blow up the Greenwich Observatory; Under Western Eyes (1911), set in nineteenth-century Czarist Russia, follows the life of a student who betrays his friend — the assassin of a government official — to the authorities. His story "The Secret Sharer" (1912) uses the "Doppelganger theme" (where a man meets his figurative double) to examine what Conrad viewed as the shifting nature of human identity and the essential isolation of all human beings. In 1913, Chance was a great success both critically and financially; the novel, like Heart of Darkness, explores the ways in which an innocent person (like Marlow) becomes hardened by the horrors that surround her. Other novels marked by these essential Conradian themes include The Inheritors (cowritten with Ford Maddox Ford, 1901), Victory (1915), and The Shadow-Line (1917). Conrad also turned to autobiography: The Mirror of the Sea (1906), A Personal Record (1912), and Notes on Life and Letters (1921). All treat his seafaring days and development as an artist.

Conrad died of heart failure on August 3, 1924. He was buried in Canterbury Cemetery and survived by his wife and sons (Borys and John). Still honored by millions of readers as one of the greatest modern writers, Conrad left behind a large body of work whose nature he defined (in his Preface to The Nigger of the "Narcissus") as "a single-minded attempt to render the highest kind of justice to the visible universe, by bringing to light the truth, manifold and one, underlying its every aspect."

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