Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Bound in Blackwood's: The Imperialism of "The Heart of Darkness" in Its Immediate Context

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Bound in Blackwood's: The Imperialism of "The Heart of Darkness" in Its Immediate Context

Article excerpt

We now read Heart of Darkness as an independent text or as part of an anthology of texts representative of their period and culture. Or perhaps we read it in its 1902 form, bookended between "Youth" and "The End of the Tether." Its first readers, on the other hand, came upon "The Heart of Darkness" (1) in three successive issues of Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, a long-established monthly with a clearly delineated political attitude. They read it not only as a work of Conrad's but also as part of Blackwood's. My premise is that embedded in Blackwood's, "The Heart of Darkness" functioned somewhat differently from the way it functions elsewhere. An archaeologist is always careful to preserve the immediate context of an artifact in order to establish how it was used by its makers; once we place the artifact in a collection, we are using it for purposes of our own. What follows, then, is an essay in literary archaeology: some suggestions on how the immediate context of "The Heart of Darkness"--the February, March, and April 1899 issues of Blackwood's--would have influenced what its first readers made of it.

Conrad remarked in a letter to William Blackwood that he thought the subject of his African story very much "of our time" (Letters 2: 140); he meant that it dealt with imperialism, specifically with King Leopold's colonial project in central Africa. Few scholars today would quibble with the claim that Conrad's narrative is about imperialism, but what it says about imperialism and just whose imperialism it has in mind are more contentious matters. There is a mass of scholarship that explains what was going on in the Congo and who was doing it, and there are extensive studies of the discourse on Africa and imperialism, the discourse within which Heart of Darkness operated. A contemporary Conradian brings so much of this material to Heart of Darkness that the story looks very different now from the way it did 30 years ago. Is this ambient textual material now part of Conrad's text? No, but many instructors put together a set of materials gathered from various sources to provide background--historiographical pieces, articles from other journals of the period, and pertinent criticism. Bound together, these materials become a single text unified by their relationship to Conrad's text. And when we bind Heart of Darkness together with such background material, we have a third text. One example is the "enriched" Heart of Darkness published in 1972 by Pocket Books: in the middle of the narrative is a 48-page "reader's supplement" containing biographical, historical, and critical material. Another is Ross C. Murfin's 1996 "case study" Joseph Conrad: Heart of Darkness, two-thirds of which consists of critical essays. While in these two examples all the additional material points toward Conrad's story, John Kucich's Fictions of Empire binds together Heart of Darkness, Kipling's "The Man Who Would Be King," and Stevenson's "The Beach of Falesa" with other materials that address imperialism.

The Pocket Books volume foregrounds Conrad's story, the Kucich book foregrounds imperialism, and the Murfin collection could be regarded as foregrounding literary critical theory and practice, using Conrad's text as the occasion. Thus, the company a text keeps will affect how we read it. In what sort of material was the original text, "The Heart of Darkness," embedded? In what direction was that textual bedrock aligned?

"Personality in a periodical publication"

There is evidence that Conrad was keen to become a Blackwood's writer. He did not care very much for popular magazines, even though they paid him well for his fiction, but he regarded Blackwood's as an exception: "One was in decent company there and had a good sort of public" (Letters 2: 130). He was happy to place "Karain," which he had written at a venture, with the magazine in November 1897, but he wrote "Youth" the next year with Blackwood's in mind. …

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