Academic journal article The Conradian : the Journal of the Joseph Conrad Society (U.K.)

"Writing Man to Fighting Man": Conrad Republished for the Armed Services during the World Wars

Academic journal article The Conradian : the Journal of the Joseph Conrad Society (U.K.)

"Writing Man to Fighting Man": Conrad Republished for the Armed Services during the World Wars

Article excerpt

THE GREAT WAR weighed heavily on Conrad. Although he was prone to bouts of lassitude, the outbreak of hostilities had a particularly debilitating effect upon his physical and creative vitality. Writing in November 1914, he confessed that the "thoughts of this war sit on one's chest like a nightmare. I am painfully aware of being crippled, of being idle, of being useless with a sort of absurd anxiety" (CL5 427). Such feelings were exacerbated by the enlistment of his seventeen-year old son at a moment when "all the people we know, without exception, have had losses" (CL5 509). Conrad conceded that his lingering wartime despondency was further underscored with regret at his inability, due mainly to his age and an increasing lack of mobility, to participate in the war effort: "Perhaps if I had been able to 'lend a hand' in some way I would have found this war easier to bear" (CL5 559-60).

He was, however, approached in 1916 by Captain Sir Douglas Brownrigg of the Admiralty with a request to contribute to the war effort by writing a series of propaganda articles about the work and the men of the Royal Naval Reserve (Stape and Knowles, ed. 1996: 116).1 The overture coincided with the Admiralty's concern at the paucity of press reporting "with a naval interest," and Conrad was invited to gather material by visiting ports and participating in minesweeping and decoy expeditions.2 His attempt at writing propagandist copy for the Admiralty proved, however, unsuccessful. He completed just one article, "The Unlighted Coast," which was evidendy deemed unsuitable for the purpose and not published during the war or, indeed, during his lifetime.3

Whatever the failure of "The Unlighted Coast" to achieve its objective, Conrad's published work none the less contributed to Allied propaganda efforts during not only the Great War but also the Second World War. One of the specific purposes of propaganda in both wars was to "maintain the morale of the armed forces," literature being central to that aim (Lutz 1933: 497). American educator and diplomat Dr Henry van Dyke argued in 1917 that the "morale of the army is the hidden force which uses the weapons of war to the best advantage, and nothing is more important in keeping up this morale than a supply of really good reading for the men" (qtd. in Koch 1919: ix). The New York Times echoed his sentiments during the Second World War with the declaration that books were the "great builders of morale ... companionable Weapons' against fatigue, boredom, and fear" (20 June 1944: [np]).

It was additionally intended that the supply of good reading material serve as a reminder to the servicemen of the rich "inheritance they were fighting to defend" (The Times, 30 August 1915: 7). The latter consideration acquired even greater import in light of the Nazi book burnings of 1933, with literature increasingly cast during the Second World War as a potent symbol of freedom. Winston Churchill was accordingly moved to declare in 1941 that books were the "means whereby civilization may be carried triumphantly forward," while the following year Franklin D. Roosevelt similarly contended they were the "light that guides civilization" (qtd. in Brophy, 1942: 65).

Consequently, it became an imperative during both wars to supply the armed forces with good and portable literature that could, moreover, be produced economically and abundantly.4 Conrad's work was included in two such programmes that were underwritten respectively by the London Times in late 1915 and by the United States government from 1943 to 1947. The Times? initiative consisted of a series of extracts taken from a diverse range of the "best literature" and issued as unbound single-page broadsheets.5 Although the scheme was only operational from September to December 1915, the first series sold in excess of one million copies. Conrad was represented in two of the broadsheets with extended passages reprinted from The Nigger of the "Narcissus" and Some Reminiscences (later A Personal Record). …

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