Joseph Conrad

H.L. Mencken

Baltimore Evening Sun/June 20, 1916


With Meredith gone and James gone, only Thomas Hardy remains to challenge the position of Joseph Conrad, the Pole, as the first living English novelist. He has been steadily growing in stature for a dozen years; he has of late taken his undisputed place in the front rank. A sombre spirit, still overwhelmingly Slavic, despite his long expatriation, he has brought into English fiction a note that sounds a deep bass beneath the prevailing chatter of lighter tones. There is no one like him; there is no one even remotely like him; he stands almost as solitary as Blake, or Richard Burton or, to come nearer home, Ambrose Bierce. No wonder he refuses to fit into the shining generalities of the professors of literature! No wonder they deal with him gingerly and suspiciously! The man has done much more than open a new box of tricks. He has restored passion to the English novel. He has rescued it from mere clever craftsmanship, and put into it the sober beauty of a profound and moving art.

“Under all Conrad’s stories,” says Wilson Follet, in an excellent little study, “there ebbs and flows a kind of tempered melancholy, a sense of seeking and not finding.” The saying defines both the mood of the stories as works of the imagination and their burden and direction as criticisms of human life. Conrad, like Theodore Dreiser, is forever fascinated by “the immense indifference of things,” the essential futility of all hope and striving, the meaninglessness of existence—fascinated, and left wondering. One looks in vain for any attempt at a solution of the riddle in the whole canon of his work. Dreiser, more than once, seems ready to take refuge in a vague sort of mysticism, but Conrad,  from first to last, faces squarely the massive and intolerable fact.


His stories are not chronicles of heroes who conquer fate, nor even of heroes who hold out indomitably to the end, but of men who are themselves conquered and undone. Each protagonist is a new Prometheus; each goes down a Greek route to defeat and disaster, leaving nothing behind him save an unanswered question. I can scarcely recall an exception. Kurtz, Lord Jim, Razumov, Nostromo, old Captain Whalley, Yanko Goorall, Verloc, Heyst, Gaspar Ruis, Almayer: one and all they are destroyed by the blind, incomprehensible forces that beset them.

Even in Youth and Typhoon, superficially stories of the indomitable, that same vast melancholy, that same pressing sense of the irresistible and inexplicable, ebbs and flows beneath the surface. Captain MacWhirr gets the Nan-Shan to port at last; but it is a victory that stands quite outside the man himself; he is no more than a marker in the unfathomable game; the elemental forces, fighting one another, almost disregard him; the view of him that we get is one of disdain, almost one of contempt. So, too, in Youth. A tale of the spirit’s triumph, of youth beating destiny? I do not see it so. To me its significance is all subjective; it is an aging man’s hymn to the hope and high resolution that the years have blown away, a sentimental reminiscence of what the implacable gods have made a joke of, leaving only its gallant memory behind.

The whole Conradean system sums itself up in the title of Victory, an incomparable piece of irony. Imagine a better label for that tragic record of heroic and yet bootless effort, that incomparable picture, in microcosm, of the relentless, cruel revolutions in the macrocosm.


Mr. Follet, with too much critical facility, finds the cause of Conrad’s unyielding pessimism in the circumstances of his own life—his double exile, first from Poland, and then from the sea. But this is surely stretching the facts to fit an hypothesis. Neither exile, it must be plain, was enforced, nor is either irrevocable. Conrad has been back to Poland, and he is free to return to the ships whenever the spirit moves him. I see no reason for looking in such directions for his view of the world, nor even in the direction of his nationality. We detect curious qualities in every Slav simply because he is more given than we are to revealing the qualities that are in all of us. Introspection is his habit; he carries the study of man and fate to a point that seems morbid to Westerners; but in the last analysis his verdicts are the immemorial and almost universal ones.

Surely his resignationism, so penetratingly described by William Lyon Phelps in the first of his essays on the Russian novelists, is not a Slavic copyright; all human philosophies and religions seem doomed to come to it at last. Once it takes shape as the concept of Nirvana, the desire for nothingness, the will to not­will. Again, it is fatalism in this form or that—Mohammedanism, Agnosticism . . . Presbyterianism! Yet, again, it is the “Out, out, brief candle!” of Shakespeare, the “Vanitas vanitatum; omnia vanitus!” of the Preacher. Or, to make an end, it is millennialism, the theory that the world is going to blow up tomorrow, or the day after, or two weeks hence, and that all sweating and striving are thus useless. Search where you will, near or far, in ancient or modern times, and you will never find a race or an age that gave more than a passing bow to optimism!

Even Christianity, starting out as “glad tidings,” has had to take on protective coloration to survive, and today its loudest professors moan and blubber like a prophet in a rain barrel. The sanctified are few and far between. The vast majority of us must suffer in hell, just as we suffer on earth. The divine grace, so omnipotent to save, is withheld from us. Why? There, alas, is your insoluble mystery, your riddle of the universe!


This conviction that human life is a seeking without a finding, that its purpose is impenetrable, that joy and sorrow are alike meaningless, you will see written largely in the work of all great artists. It is obviously the final message, if any message is to be sought there at all, of the nine symphonies of Ludwig van Beethoven. It is the idea that broods over Wagner’s Ring, as the divine wrath broods over the Old Testament. In Shakespeare, as Shaw has demonstrated, it amounts to a veritable obsession. What else is there in Turgenev, Dostoievski, Andrieff? Or in the Zola of L’Assommoir, Germinal, La Debacle, the whole Rougon-Macquart series? (The Zola of Les Quatres Evangiles, and particularly of Fécondité, turned uplifter and optimist, and became ludicrous.) Or, in Hauptmann, or Hardy, or Sudermann? (I mean, of course, Sudermann the novelist; Sudermann the dramatist is a mere mechanician).


The younger men of today, in all countries, seem to cherish this philosophy of impotence and surrender. Consider the last words of Riders to the Sea. Or Gorky’s Nachtasyl. Or Frank Norris’ McTeague. Or Dreiser’s Jennie Gerhardt. Or George Moore’s Sister Theresa.

Conrad, more than any other of the men I have mentioned, grounds his whole work upon a sense of this “immense indifference of things.” The exact point of the story of Kurtz, in Heart of Darkness, is that it is pointless, that Kurtz’s death is as meaningless as his life, that the moral of such a sordid tragedy is a wholesale negation of all morals. And this, no less, is the point of the story of Falk, and of that of Almayer, and of that of Jim. Mr. Follet (he must be an American!) finds himself, in the end, unable to accept so profound a pessimism unadulterated, and so he injects a gratuitous and mythical optimism into it, and hymns Conrad as “a comrade, one of a company, gathered under the ensign of hope for common war on despair.” With the highest respect, Pish! Conrad makes war upon nothing; he is pre-eminently not a moralist. He swings, indeed, as far from moralizing as is possible, for he does not even criticize God. His undoubted comradeship, his plain kindliness toward the souls he vivisects, is not the child of hope, but of pity. Like Mark Twain, he might well say: “The more I see of men, the more I laugh at them-and the more I pity them.” He is simpatico precisely because of his infinite commiseration.

I have said that he does not criticize God, one may imagine him even pitying God.


As for Conrad the literary artist, opposing him for the moment to Conrad the interpreter of human life, the quality that all who write about him seem chiefly to mark in him is his deficient grasp of form, his tendency to approach his story from two directions at once, his frequent involvement in almost inextricable snarls of narrative, sub-narrative and sub-sub-narrative.

Lord Jim starts out conventionally in the third person, presently passes into an exhaustive psychological discussion by the mythical Marlow, then goes into a brisk narrative at second (and sometimes third) hand, and finally comes to a halt on an unresolved dissonance, a half-heard chord of the ninth: “And that’s the end. He passes away under a cloud inscrutable at heart, forgotten, unforgiven and excessively romantic.” Falk is also a story within a story; this time the narrator is “one who had not spoken before, a man over 50.” In Amy Foster the story is told by a country doctor; in Under Western Eyes by “a teacher of languages,” endlessly lamenting his lack of the “high gifts of imagination and expression”; in Youth and Heart of Darkness, by Marlow; in Romance (circa 1900) the form is autobiographical; in Chance there are two separate stories, imperfectly welded together. Almost always there is heaviness in the getting under weigh. In Heart of Darkness we are on the twentieth page before we use the mouth of the great river, and in Falk we are on the twenty-fourth before we get a glimpse of Falk. Chance is nearly half done before the drift of the action is clearly apparent; in Almayer’s Folly we are thrown into the middle of a story, and do not learn its beginning until we come to An Outcast of the Islands, a later book.

And in detail, as in structure, Conrad is full of hesitations and goings-back. He pauses to explain, to look about, to speculate. Whole chapters concern themselves with detailed discussions of motives, with exchanges of view, with generalizations. Even the author’s own story, A Personal Record (in the English edition, Some Reminiscences), starts near the end, and then goes back, halting fortunately, to the beginning.


A fault? In the eyes of formalists, undoubtedly yes. To the reader accustomed, by incessant reading of the swift and superficial, to action, action, action, this method is loaded with weariness. And yet in the end I am inclined to see it as one of the chief causes, and perhaps the chiefest of them all, of that startling reality which Conrad invariably gets into his stories, even into the worst of them. They are, beyond everything, brilliant, convincing, vivid-and the origin of that vividness lies precisely in the dimness he so deliberately leaves there.

A paradox, of course, but I do not devise it for its own sake. What I mean to say is that Conrad always shows us a picture that is full of the little obscurities, the uncertainties of outline, the mysterious shadings-off, that we see in the real world around us. He does not pretend to the traditional omniscience of the novelist. He is not forever translating the unknowable in motive and act into ready formula; instead, he says frankly that he does not know, or, at best, “I believe,” or “perhaps,” or “Marlow thinks it possible.”

A trick? To be sure. But also much more than a trick, for its constant repetition not only constitutes a manner but also indicates a state of mind. Conrad knows his characters too well to explain them too glibly. They are too real to him (and to us) to be made quite understandable. They keep to the end all of that fine mysteriousness which forever hangs about those who are most vividly before us. . . .

A man may profess to understand the President of the United States, but he seldom alleges, even to himself, that he understands his own wife.

The works of H.L. Mencken and other American journalists are now freely available at The Archive of American Journalism.