Decent Company: Conrad, Blackwood's, and the Literary Marketplace

By Finkelstein, David | Conradiana, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Decent Company: Conrad, Blackwood's, and the Literary Marketplace


Finkelstein, David, Conradiana


In 1923 the Irish man of letters Stephen Gwynn wrote an article for the Irish Statesman addressing the craft of writing. In it he singled out his work for the staunchly conservative Edinburgh-based monthly Blackwood's Magazine (or Maga as it was affectionately known by its readers and contributors) (see Figure 5). Writing for Blackwood's, he exclaimed, involved participating in a particular literary world and addressing a particular audience:

But certain publications have an atmosphere of their own, a personality which is not entirely the editor's, nor is it made by the readers, nor by the combined influence of all the customary writers. It results from all of these, and when I write, say for Blackwood's Magazine, I feel myself part of a society; I am affected by its tone, knowing in a general way what will interest it, what it will like and dislike. It does not get rid of me as the first audience; nothing by which I cannot interest myself thoroughly is going to interest this circle; but one writes there with a certain pleasure as one goes to a hospitable house. (Gwynn 279)

Gwynn was not the only one to share this worldview of Maga and the House of Blackwood. Joseph Conrad's contemporary, friend, and literary admirer Hugh Clifford, who played an important role in promoting Conrad at the start of his career, wrote equally strongly about the opportunities afforded by Blackwood and his magazine, exclaiming in 1927: "It was, I think, the ambition of all young writers in my day to find themselves in Blackwood and old Mr. William Blackwood, who later became a good friend of mine, prided himself on trying to pick out good work by unknown authors and 'to give it a show'" (Clifford 5).

[FIGURE 5 OMITTED]

The literary community Gwynn and Clifford evoked was one that Joseph Conrad recognized and enjoyed for a significant seven-year period in his writing career, between 1897 and 1903. Years later, reminiscing about his connection with the firm and its magazine, the softening aura of nostalgia allowed Conrad to recall the comforting solidity of being a "Blackwood" author. In publishing work in Maga, he wrote his literary agent J. B. Pinker, one knew that "one was in decent company there and had a good sort of public. There isn't a single club and messroom and man-of-war in the British Seas and Dominions which hasn't its copy of Maga" (CL 2: 30).

I look here at the literary field represented and promoted by the Edinburgh publishers William Blackwood and Sons. I also examine Conrad's periodical publishing career with the Blackwoods and argue that through studying the negotiations over his work, and his subsequent move between 1897 and 1903 from personal dealings with the Blackwood firm to financial management by his literary agent J. B. Pinker, one can find reflections of a more general shift in fin-de-siecle British professional authorship practices from amateur business models to professionally supported cultural production.

I. THE BLACKWOOD METHOD

The history of the Edinburgh family firm William Blackwood and Sons was one of small beginnings and triumphant ascent. A family firm founded in 1804 in Edinburgh to publish Scottish-based authors and a range of prose and fiction, by the 1870s it had risen to become one of the major players in the British literary market. Under the guidance of John Blackwood (editor of the firm's monthly magazine from 1845 and general head of the firm from 1852 until his death in 1879), it had encouraged and developed the careers of Anthony Trollope, George Eliot, Laurence Oliphant, and Edward Bulwer Lytton, among others; run strong lists in history, ecclesiastical, and educational areas; and become identified with a conservative imperialism (manifested in its monthly magazine and in the fiction and nonfiction it issued under its imprint) that embraced calls for patriotism, honor, civil justice, and the preservation of the political status quo. …

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Decent Company: Conrad, Blackwood's, and the Literary Marketplace
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