Academic journal article Conradiana

An Audience for Paper Boats: Conrad and the Marketing of Early Modernism

Academic journal article Conradiana

An Audience for Paper Boats: Conrad and the Marketing of Early Modernism

Article excerpt

They read at meals; they read before going to the mill. They read Dickens and Scott and Henry George and Bulwer Lytton and Ella Wheeler Wilcox and Alice Meynell and would like 'to get hold of any good history of the French Revolution, not Carlyle's please,' and B. Russell on China, and William Morris and Shelley and Florence Barclay and Samuel Butler's Note Books they read with the indiscriminate greed of a hungry appetite, that crams itself with toffee and beef and tarts and vinegar and champagne all in one gulp.

(Woolf qtd in Davies xxxv-xxxvi)

So wrote Virginia Woolf of the mass reading public in 1931. But how true was this really of the reception of Joseph Conrad's literature, modernist masterpieces, serious works of art that challenged the reader to think, to consider, to interpret the meaning of the episodes that, in the words of the narrator of Heart of Darkness, enveloped Conrad's tales, bringing them out "only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine" (Youth 48)? The question of how literature of this kind might be marketed successfully at thefin de siecle was of critical concern to Conrad, who was interested from the start in both securing his reputation within the literary domain and, at the same time, with being "read by many eyes and by all kinds of them, at that" (Letters 6: 333) (1) These seemingly antagonistic commitments to, on the one hand, "modernist" aesthetics and, on the other, popular success, were not as incompatible in Conrad's mind as they perhaps appear today. Indeed, Conrad's desire to learn "what pleases the general public" was driven simultaneously by financial requirement and an artistic compulsion since, in the early days at least, he believed that economic successes were the fruits of artistic and literary achievement (Letters 4: 102). (2) In fact, Conrad insisted on the compatibility of art with popularity, writing perhaps most famously in the "Preface" to The Nigger of the "Narcissus" that the artist makes his appeal to the senses, "to the latent feeling of fellowship with all creation," to "innumerable hearts," to "all humanity" (viii). And Conrad's philosophy was not so out of step with that of other early modernist writers, who, although of course aware that they belonged to a different, and even new school, did not conceive of their work as being radically different in kind from the more popular genre-based fiction of the day. Accordingly, at the turn of the nineteenth century, "what we now see as a chasm between two distinct literary cultures, the great divide, was scarcely more than a crack" (Daly 4). In reality, modernist authors

   wrote for the same magazines, were published by the same houses,
   and, in the case of the men at least, sometimes belonged to the
   same clubs. The proto-modernist Henry James was a close friend
   of two of the most significant 'romanticists': Robert Louis
   Stevenson and George Du Maurier [...] Joseph Conrad's work
   appeared in mainstream periodicals like Blackwood's, not
   in 'little magazines' of the kind that flourished when
   modernism came into its own. (Daly 4)

It is worth emphasizing, as Nicholas Daly indicates, that if Conrad as an author did not conceive of himself as producing radically new or different work, neither did his publishers or agents. Indeed, the lines between popular and "modern" were so blurred in British culture at the fin de siecle, that in 1899 a collaboration of authors as diverse as Henry James, Robert Barr, George Gissing, H. Rider Haggard, H. G. Wells, H. B. Marriott-Watson, Stephen Crane, A. E. W. Mason, Edwin Pugh, and Conrad himself was formed for the purpose of producing a gothic play, The Ghost. Conrad, James, Crane, Wells, and Gissing, all of whom remain recognized names today, clearly did not seek to alienate themselves either professionally or personally from less literary writers who by the end of the twentieth century would be all but forgotten, despite the fact that their fiction clearly drew inspiration from and aspired to different traditions. …

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