Academic journal article Conradiana

"Don't You Think I Am a Lost Soul?" Conrad's Early Stories and the Magazines

Academic journal article Conradiana

"Don't You Think I Am a Lost Soul?" Conrad's Early Stories and the Magazines

Article excerpt

If most readers of Lord Jim must be thankful Joseph Conrad did not leave it as a five-thousand-word "Sketch" or a forty-thousand-word novella, few readers of "The Idiots," "The Lagoon," or "The Return" would want to find them longer than they are or, remarkable though "An Outpost of Progress" is, see Kayerts and Carlier receive as much attention as Marlow and Mr. Kurtz. Yet, partly because, after Almayer's Folly and An Outcast, Conrad made a practice of letting promising stories burgeon into novels, the generic lines smudge easily, and many of the Conrad stories that did not follow this pattern are considerably longer and more episodic than the short fiction of our own day. Conrad was not unique in this respect: Henry James called the five-thousandword tales published in Harper's Magazine "their terrible little shortest of short stories" (Home 5). Although the "Author's Note" to Tales of Unrest (1919) is a blur of retrospection, it offers another reason for not insisting on too strict a divide between longer and shorter works, namely the thematic, circumstantial, and aesthetic affinities that group certain fictions together regardless of their length. "The Lagoon," Conrad declares, was "[c]onceived in the same mood," "told in the same breath," "seen with the same vision," and "rendered with the same method" as Almayer's Folly and An Outcast (Tales vi). While Conrad promptly denies that method held any conscious fascination for him in those days, the abrupt and often disconcerting shifts of voice and vision in "The Idiots" and The Nigger suggest otherwise. Whatever the scale, he was always trying something new. This experimentalism offers one more reason for thinking of his work published between 1895 and 1900 as a fictional continuum rather than two not quite isomorphic domains. Without for a moment suggesting that, for instance, "The Lagoon" shows as much ambition, yields as much pleasure, or deserves as much attention as Almayer's Folly, both works belong to a period when Conrad was setting out, seeking an audience, and beginning to make an existence as an artist.

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"Existence" conveys the appropriate, overarching ambiguity. Conrad hoped to make a living; he hoped to write fiction that would live up to his creative desires; he also hoped to become a literary presence. A literary presence grows from self-awareness as much as reputation, from seeing oneself in print. In creating or sustaining a literary presence, authors are neither entirely free agents nor entirely creatures of circumstance. The established writer is constrained by what he has already done (the tyranny of the fixed); the novice by what he has not done (the tyranny of uncertain expectations); both are constrained by what other writers, not to mention editors, critics, publishers, and readers are doing (the tyrannies of fashion and the market). Drawing on Pierre Bourdieu's theory of the literary field, Peter McDonald offers a model of such constraints: "In ideal terms [... ] the field has a dual structure determined by two different but interrelated oppositions: the purists versus the profiteers, on the one hand and the establishment versus the newcomers, on the other" (17). This model is all the more useful to the study of Conrad because McDonald applies it to the period from 1880 to 1914, when clashes between "purists" and "profiteers," "newcomers" and sentries of "the establishment" grew noisier and noisier. The widening gap between the literary and the popular drew much attention, and contemporary critics found it "a puzzling and sometimes distressing phenomenon" (White 32). Even so, determining a writer's habitus (1) is not exactly a scientific procedure; it is all very well to class Conrad as a "purist newcomer" and a "'born' literary intellectual," but the tradition into which he was born extolled not sacrifice for art but sacrifice for nation--a very different kind of purism from that exemplified, say, by Henry James (McDonald 31, 17). …

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