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Joseph Conrad | Biography

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Early Life and Influences

Joseph Conrad (Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski) was born on December 3, 1857, in Berdichev, Ukraine (part of the Russian Empire at the time). His parents were of Polish nobility and conspired against Russian rule of their homeland, which, after a long history of independence, had been divided among the Russian, Austrian, and Prussian empires. They were arrested and exiled to northern Russia when Conrad was four years old, and both died before he turned 13. Conrad's parents' politics and their suffering were his earliest lessons in political oppression. Thus, Conrad developed a sense of the mixed nature of human beings, who had the capacity for both good and evil.

Conrad spent time in his formative years in France, supported by family and influential family friends. By age 15, he had decided he wanted to go to sea, and he did so in his late teens, entering the French merchant marine. In his autobiographical work, A Personal Record (1912), Conrad observes there was "no precedent ... for a boy of my nationality and antecedents taking a ... standing jump out of his racial surroundings and associations." Conrad learned English during his time at sea, and, although he might have found a wider audience had he written in French, he notes in A Personal Record that he did not choose English: "It was I who was adopted by the genius of the language, an adoption by English ... too mysterious to explain." Despite this late adoption, Conrad developed a style of artful prose that places him among the foremost stylists of English literature.

Conrad's service as a deckhand on a British freighter brought him to England in 1878. He would return to England when not at sea and, after marrying, would continue to live there. His career at sea spanned two decades, took him all over the world, and provided a rich source of material for his novels.

Literary Career

In 1890 Conrad spent six months traveling in the Congo as a steamboat officer. When he returned, he was exhausted, sick with malaria, and deeply troubled by all his experiences. He started writing full-time in 1894 and adopted the English version of his name, Joseph Conrad, the following year. In 1899, Heart of Darkness was published serially in three issues of Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine. His writing brought attention to the barbarity of Belgian colonial control of central Africa established in the 1880s to exploit the region. In 1903, a British consul solicited Conrad's support in exposing these atrocities to the public.

His next published work, Lord Jim (1900), was similarly serialized in Blackwood's. Narrated by Marlow—the English sea captain from Heart of Darkness—it was published in 14 installments from October 1899 to November 1900. Once again, Conrad drew upon his personal experiences at sea. He also turned to historical sources to inspire and shape significant plot elements—most notably an infamous 1880 maritime scandal in which white European officers abandoned their posts on the Jeddah—a sinking ship laden with Asian Muslim passengers en route to Mecca. Lord Jim, published during an innovative and dynamic period in British literature, is considered one of the finest novels of its era.

Conrad continued writing until his death in England on August 3, 1924. Some of his notable works are the novella Typhoon (1903), along with the novels Nostromo (1904), The Secret Agent (1907), and his first best seller, Chance (1913). His works stand as early examples of literary modernism, a writing style that would mature after World War I.

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