[Thanks to James Heffernan, founder and editor-in-chief of Review 19 for sharing this review with readers of the Victorian Web. —Philip L. Stein]

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here is something paradoxical about writing a review of books compiling reviews -- some of which come from the periodical Review of Reviews and others of which have themselves been reviewed by Joseph Conrad. This might begin to sound silly, were it not for the fascinating picture we get of the interlocking dialogues. Ideally, we should also read these four volumes within the broader range of Conrad publications (e.g., his letters and the Authorial Notes to the Dent Standard Edition of 1921) to see what they add to our knowledge of Conrad and the historical-literary context of his writing.

Complementing the superb Cambridge editions of his works and letters, this collection of Anglophone reviews of his works is a very welcome addition to the long-term commitment that Cambridge University Press has made to Conrad studies. The Cambridge edition of his Collected Letters (CL), has by now reached Volume 9, the Uncollected Letters (2007), which was supplemented by Volume 8 in 2008, a nicely Conradian temporal dislocation. The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Joseph Conrad (2008-13), of which the letters and Contemporary Reviews are a part, is an unprecedented project for modern English letters. Given the present state of print publishing in our digital age, I wonder how many more such long-term projects lie ahead of us. It is a great credit to CUP that it has made possible a formidable body of finely researched and authoritative editions.

As the General Editorial Preface rightly claims, this collection clearly supersedes the much more limited but hitherto standard compendium of reviews, Norman Sherry's Joseph Conrad: The Critical Heritage (1973). Containing some 1786 reviews, these new volumes offer well over ten times the number Sherry compiled. But it is only fair to note that Sherry was working without the advantages of electronic resources, and also that the present collection might have adopted certain features of Sherry's edition, as I explain below.

The great wealth of reviews compiled here is impressively distributed over most of Conrad's opus, fictional and non-fictional. (Reviews of his less successful attempts at playwriting are excluded.) As one would expect, the number of reviews increased as Conrad's reputation grew, particularly in Britain and the United States, and the largest number focus on his major period-- from Typhoon (1902) to Under Western Eyes (1911). The editorial principles of selection are clear. These volumes include all reviews of Conrad's works that were published in his lifetime (or shortly afterwards) in newspapers and periodicals of the English--speaking world, when the works first appeared. Not included are longer contemporary essays or contemporary foreign-language reviews, mainly in French, Russian and Polish. (Though we already know something of these reviews from Joseph Conrad: Annotated Bibliography of Writings about Him, ed. Teets and Gerber [1971], compiling them might have been too big a project.) Except when the first U.S. edition of a particular work appeared later than the first English edition, reviews of each publication are organized chronologically under geographical categories. For each work, the reviews come first from newspapers and journals in the United Kingdom, then from the US and 'Elsewhere' (predominantly Canada, Australia, New Zealand, but also India, Malaysia, and Hong Kong). With political and historical nicety, Ireland falls within the UK category until 1922, when it becomes 'Elsewhere'. The volumes include some reviews even of works that came out in serial form prior to full publication. Particularly welcome are reviews of Conrad's non-fictional prose works, his autobiographical books (The Mirror of the Sea and A Personal Record), and the two volumes of occasional essays, Notes on Life and Letters and Last Essays. These latter works are important additions to Sherry's earlier collection, for recent scholarship has demonstrated that they play a crucial role in our understanding of Conrad's self-fashioning. Read beside his letters, they show how much he cared about being publically understood, or at least perceived, and how he responded to this "figuration." To read these reviews, then, is to see how they created and then endorsed recurrent critical tropes about his work.

With one or two notable exceptions, Conrad's works appeared just about simultaneously in England and the United States. Though all the reviews in these volumes are ordered by date, some reviews of a given work appear months or even years after others. This is due in part to the complex publishing history of some works. In the UK, for instance, "Youth," "The Heart of Darkness," and "The End of the Tether" were first serialized in Blackwood's Magazine in 1898, 1899 and 1902, respectively, and then appeared within a book titled Youth: a Narrative and Two other Stories in 1902. (Here “The Heart of Darkness” became Heart of Darkness.) The U.S. publication of Conrad's work was equally complex, as Volume 1 shows, with some books first appearing many years after making their debut in England and reviews stretching out accordingly. Some titles also drastically changed in crossing the Atlantic: The Nigger of the 'Narcissus' (England, December 1897) became The Children of the Sea when it appeared six months later in the U.S. This publishing history thus produces interesting conjunctions. In relation to Youth, for example, both Lord Jim (1900) and Typhoon (1902), with their equally complex publishing histories, overlap with the earlier works. Contemporary Reviews lets us see how earlier work inflects the reception of later work, the way it is understood and placed, but sometimes, more surprisingly, how the later work inflects reception of the earlier.

Consequently, reception means not simply reading a particular work in isolation but crucially, as we discern in these volumes, judging it in relation to Conrad's previous work. Reception builds, builds on, and sometimes alters the sum of earlier opinions. To change the metaphor, this collection demonstrates the fascinating changes in the critical weather surrounding Conrad, who was very attuned to changes in the actual weather. When, for instance, a later reviewer re-cycles words or phrases taken from an earlier one (and the taking may be deliberate, for the purpose of quotation or contestation), the recycled items tend to become critical tropes that place Conrad's work in increasingly predictable categories, whether honorific or puzzled. The tropes vary but the critical drive is clear. When a new writer appears, reviewers tend to categorize his or her work in terms of well-known writers and well-established genres. So it was with Conrad. First classified as a writer of sea-adventures set in exotic locales, in the so-called Far East, Conrad was compared to writers who were mainly of the nineteenth century: to Michael Scott, Captain Marryat, Clark Russell, R.L. Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, and Rider Haggard, and also to the French novelist Pierre Loti as well as James Fennimore Cooper and Herman Melville.

In citing such authors, reviewers understandably tried to link Conrad to seamen-writers or writers of the sea, or others who wrote of distant and exotic parts. But from the earliest reviews, they also tried to differentiate him from his then better-known "models." As Conrad's works leave the sea, references to these precursors fade, though they are fleetingly resurrected in reviews of two of his mature works, Chance and The Rover. Conrad himself spoke of how inspiring he found the tales of Captain Marryat, though he resented being compared to the "airy R.L. Stevenson who considered his art a prostitute and the artist no better than one" (CL 2: 371). From an early date, Conrad realized that he had to fashion himself in the eyes of the public and publishers alike. So he contested as much as he collaborated in the pictures drawn of him by his reviewers.

In Conrad the newcomer reviewers saw a sailor-writer who could not only recount adventure on the high sea but also conjure an "impression" of the "psychology" of being at sea. These words crop up repeatedly in the writing of early reviewers who wavered between incomprehension and acuity. While one reviewer found An Outcast of the Island "undeniably dull" (1:88), another judged it both "unquestionably brilliant" and "nebulously defused" (1.97). Likewise, H.G. Wells opined that Conrad was wordy, hazy, misty, and "in detailed workmanship copiously bad," yet also "so well worth reading, so convincing" (CR 1.110-114).

A comparable ambivalence marks reviews of the three stories in Youth. While one of the three is called "the Haunt of Darkness" in a review that Sherry ascribes to the Daily Mail of 25 Nov. 1902, the present editors have silently corrected the error, perhaps missing the joke (1:383). The same review goes on to warn readers that they may expect to "find Henry James in the African jungle." Is this good or bad? And what is the valence of the word "impression"? While it may imply something positive (as when it means, roughly, "meaningful subjective interiority"), it can also be negative (as when it connotes "meaninglessness"). Thus from "diffuse" the word "impressionist" evolved, with one review actually evoking Manet ( 1:383).

Conrad was soon framed in the trope of impressionism. An early and highly influential review of "Heart of Darkness" declared that "to present its theme bluntly, [the novel] is an impression "taken from life" (1:391). Conrad loved the review, correctly identifying its anonymous author as his mentor and supporter Edward Garnett. In thanking Garnett for the review, he complicates the concept of "impression" by mentioning the "foggishness" of his novel (2. 467). In a later review of The Arrow of Gold (CR 3: 566), Walter de la Mare likewise mentions Conrad's extensive use of the word "mysterious," and the reviewer himself notes the "abstruse music of its words" and "obscure disguise." Since De la Mare's own style seems to have been influenced by Conrad's, he aptly declares that "his words, his prose seduce us" ( 3:570).. But not all readers were thus seduced. Reviewing Notes on Life and Letters in 1921, E.M. Forster observes: "the casket of his genius contains a vapour rather than a jewel" (4:198). Likewise, writing on Suspense (1925), Leonard Woolf finds a "walnut with nothing inside it' ( 4:531). Impression/impressionism slips into "foggishness," and "fogginess" into "vapour." Outside these reviews, the trope lands with famous critical resonance in F.R. Leavis's contentious description of Conrad's "adjectival insistence" in The Great Tradition (1947). Depending on evolving critical viewpoints, Conrad's "impressionist art" is one of either deep interiority or imprecise vacuity.

Besides diverging in their judgments, the reviews collected here range widely in length and heft. On one hand, early and seminal essay-length assessments by figures such as Edward Garnett, John Galsworthy, and H.G. Wells helped to establish Conrad's reputation as one of the great twentieth-century writers; on the other hand, one-line reviews from obscure provincial newspapers in Britain and the US add little to critical understanding of Conrad's works but are valuable in their own right. Assessing Nostromo in 1904, for instance, a reviewer finds it "hardly up to the level of his previous work" (2: 189). While we might easily overlook or patronize comments like these, they indicate that Conrad was intelligently appreciated outside metropolitan centers. Praising (I think) the "tremendous power and interest" of The Secret Agent, the San Antonio Light declares that "the effect caused by [Conrad's] art is terrible -- if indeed it is not (sic) unforgettable" (2:422).

Many reviews come at a particularly potent and complex political moment. Though Conrad claimed that Victory (1915) sprang from "my old deep-seated and impartial conviction" rather than from the "recent animosities" of the ongoing First World War, reviews of the novel highlight the (variously) "evil," "animal," "villainous," "teuton," "German" Schomberg as well as Conrad's depiction of the evil "Teutonic psychology" (Author's Note, cited 3: 397). Likewise, though the essay "Autocracy and War" was written in 1905, it was first collected in Notes on Life and Letters in 1921; inevitably, therefore, reviewers read it and others collected in Last Essays (1926) through the lens of the First World War and Conrad's "prescience" on the dangerous rise of Germany, the clash of empires, and the collapse of Tsarist Russia.

Gradually Conrad's own geographical origins become a prominent if confused trope. His Polishness emerges. Though his almost-pseudonym, Joseph Conrad for Józef Konrad Nałęcz Korzeniovski, disguised it early on, the Polish background of this "amazing bloody foreigner," as he ironically called himself (3:488), became a context in which his writing was read, sometimes to Conrad's chagrin. Reviewers widely and carelessly identified his "Polish" ancestry as "Slavic" and even linked it to his would-be "Russian understanding" and "temperament." Garnett conflated "Polish" and "Slavic" in reviewing The Secret Agent (2:369), and later found the tales of A Set of Six "essentially Slav in [their] ironical acceptance ... [and] psychological insight" (2:471). Other reviewers thought Under Western Eyes Slavic. Conrad demurred. Rejecting the Russomania promoted by Garnett's wife Constance, translator of Dostoevsky, Conrad deplored the "idée fixe" that made him Slavic in the eyes of Garnett and others. "[Y]ou seem to forget," he wrote Garnett," I am a Pole" (3:492).

Yet if Conrad's nationality was often misconstrued, his distinction was often recognized. Surprisingly early in his career, he was called a "genius." Though an unknown spinner of sea-yarns, he was quickly recognized as a "writer of genius" because he captured the "atmosphere" and realism of everyday life on a ship, the tensions and challenges of a ship's "community." Lengthily assessing Almayer's Folly in June 1895, T.P. O'Connor (whose T.P.'s Weekly would later publish Nostromo) applauds the power with which Conrad evokes his exotic setting: "[U]under the magic of a writer of genius who has told its story," he writes, " -- and he is a writer of genius -- I learned almost the entire mystery and heart of this strange, far-off region." Comparing Conrad to Turgenev and Balzac, O'Connor suggests that "Almayer is the Lear of the Malay Archipelago" and ends with a rousing comment on Almayer's way of erasing his daughter's footprints after she escapes with her lover: "Isn't that an awful picture? And look at that little detail? '[He left] behind him a line of miniature graves right down to the water'. It is only a writer of genius who could write that and many other passages in this startling, unique, splendid book" (1:39).

Other reviews were less flattering. The World review (of 15 May 1895) called the novel "a dreary record of the still more dreary existence of a solitary Dutchman doomed to vegetate in a small village in Indonesia. [...] Altogether the book is as dull as it well could be" (1:21). On reading this review, Conrad told his publisher, T. Fisher Unwin, "[T]he poor old World kicks at me [...] like a vicious donkey [...] no criticism in the true sense of the word." With some sense of true criticism, another reviewer found Conrad's story "crude and ill-arranged , and yet tantalizingly full of rich workmanship," (1:18), a verdict Conrad judged "so-so but with evident good will." (CL. 1:219). Going back to his writing two days later, after reading these reviews, Conrad told his cousin Maria Poradowska that he felt "strongly encouraged by [T.P.O'Connor's] seven and a half columns [...] buried under an avalanche of compliments, admiration, analysis, and quotations, all of it with an enthusiasm which certainly makes him say some quite ridiculously stupid things. That, of course, puts one in the right position" (CL. 1: 229). Clearly Conrad pondered the reviews of his work and sometimes gained from them. Though parts of O'Connor's review struck him as "ridiculously stupid." it vitally encouraged him to write more.

It did so even though it was published anonymously, like almost all reviews including those in TLS. But as the mention of O'Connor illustrates, the CR editors have retrieved some of the reviewers' names. Furthermore, O'Connor himself reports in his review that he was introduced to Conrad's work by a fellow-MP, one Justin McCarthy, a historian, novelist, journalist and politician. So while the review was anonymous, Conrad might well infer that he was not just being read; he was being read and reviewed by culturally important people.

These volumes are not as informative as they should be. Unlike the wonderfully edited Collected Letters, they offer almost no footnotes (I counted just four in four volumes) and no references to Conrad's own responses in his letters; unlike Sherry as well, they offer no annotations on some of the lesser known critics or other writers mentioned in the reviews. Furthermore, while the General Preface claims that "reviews are printed in full" ( 1: xxiii), it adds that an ellipsis indicates where "other matter is not germane." This is not strictly true.

A single example will have to suffice for this point. In January of 1898, Conrad's Nigger of the 'Narcissus' was reviewed by Arthur Symons, who was then a very influential poet, writer, and critic, and who later became a friend of Conrad. Before turning to Conrad's novel, Symons considers a translation of Trifiono della Morte by Gabriele d'Annunzio, who was hardly irrelevant to Conrad, since he was a foremost writer and flamboyant cultural figure. Unlike Sherry, who mentions d'Annunzio, the present editors say nothing of him. But surely it is relevant to know that Symons compares d'Annunzio favorably with Conrad as well as with Kipling, which was "to damn with generous praise," as Conrad wrote to his friend R.B. Cunninghame Graham. (CL 2:31).

Altogether, Symons' review upset Conrad greatly. To Cunningham Graham he noted that "[Symons] says [Nigger] has no idea behind it [...] Do you think the remark is just? Now straight!" (CL 2:31). In this and another letter to Garnett ("Frankly -- is the remark true?" [(CL 2:33]), Conrad's anxiety illustrates the intensity--sometimes pained, sometimes exuberant--with which he received the reviews of his work. It is therefore regrettable that this edition furnishes no cross-references to his comments on reviews in his letters and Author's Note. Furthermore, since d'Annunzio and Symons were far better known than Conrad was in 1898, this is the kind of information that present-day readers need. Likewise, brief annotations on some of the reviewers (H.L. Mencken, Edward Garnett, John Masefield) and other writers mentioned would inform both general readers and Conrad scholars about the once-famous body of renowned, if sometimes anonymous, writers who reviewed Conrad and held him up for comparison to their (but not our) cultural figures.

And finally, another paradox. We find in this excellent collection a subterranean history of major writers reviewing. Some--such as John Galsworthy, Henry James, H.G. Wells, Ford Madox (Hueffer) Ford, E.M. Forster, and John Buchan--were well-known at the time. Others--such as Edward Thomas, Virginia Woolf, and Katherine Mansfield--wrote reviews before their own literary gifts were recognized. Just as all these figures straddled the line between writing books and reviewing them, Conrad recognized the role that reviewers played in launching and shaping his reputation. Typically, reviewing plays its part in the history of literary reputations. Whenever a book is launched upon a more-or-less anonymous but expectant public, its reception may be largely mediated by the critical (and now multi-media) press. Beside the publicity generated by publishers, this intervention may in turn determine the future success, mere survival, or near oblivion of the writer or actor, which in turn has the capacity to ruin livelihoods. Conrad knew that he needed to make money from his books. Knowing how much reviewers could affect their success in the marketplace, he could hardly ignore their assessments, but his responses ranged from appreciation to scorn. Given the ways in which these reviews touched and roused Conrad himself, we can hardly overestimate their importance. Ideally read alongside his essays and letters, these volumes complement the work that Cambridge UP has already published on Conrad in recent decades. They should appeal to Conrad scholars and general readers alike.

Anthony Fothergill is Senior Lecturer and Honorary University Research Fellow in the Department of English at the University of Exeter. His books include Secret Sharers: Joseph Conrad's Cultural Reception in Germany (in the series Cultural History and Literary Imagination) (2006).


Joseph Conrad Contemporary Reviews, 4 Volumes. Palgrave Macmillan. xiii + 236 pp.

Last modified 24 June 2020