The boundaries of Colonialism, like those of many literary eras, are difficult to draw. The history of Colonialism as a policy or practice goes back for centuries, and arguably the story of Colonialism is not over yet. Thus literature of several ages reflects concerns about Colonialism in depictions of encounters with native peoples and foreign landscapes and in vague allusions to distant plantations. As colonial activity gained momentum in the late nineteenth century, so the reflection of that activity— as a celebration of European might or as fears of what lay in the wilderness—grew in intensity. Thus rough boundaries for the literary movement of Colonialism would begin in 1875, when historians date the start of a “New Imperialism,” through the waning empires of World War I and up to the beginning of World War II, around 1939, although the years after World War I reflect primarily nostalgia for an era that was rapidly coming to a close. Colonialism is primarily a feature of British literature, given that the British dominated the imperial age; even colonial writers of other nationalities often wrote in English or from an English setting. The literature of Colonialism is characterized by a strong sense of ambiguity: uncertainty about the morality of imperialism, about the nature of humanity, and about the continuing viability of European civilization. Perhaps the essential colonial critique is Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, though such works as Olive Schreiner’s Story of an African Farm and E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India similarly explore the paradoxes of Colonialism. Colonial literature is also full of high adventure, romance, and excitement, as depicted in Rudyard Kipling’s spy thriller Kim or the adventure tales of H. Rider Haggard. Isak Dinesen’s memoirs, including Out of Africa, similarly romanticize the wildness of the colonial landscape and the heroism of adventurous colonizers.
Joseph Conrad (1857–1924)
Though considered one of the masters of modern English literature, Conrad was ethnically Polish. He was born in the Ukraine as Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski on December 3, 1857, but he correctly presumed that Conrad would be a surname more easily pronounced by readers of the English language, in which he wrote. He lost his father at the age of four to Russian authorities, who arrested him for nationalist activities on behalf of Poland. His mother died when he was eight, leaving him in the care of his uncle. He joined the British navy in 1880 and became a British citizen in 1886. In 1890 he traveled to the Belgian Congo, a difficult trip that provided the background for Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness, first published in serial form in 1899 and 1900. Heart of Darkness is a paradigmatic work not only of colonialist literature but also of modernist literature. Conrad wrote several major novels, including The Nigger of Narcissus (1897), Lord Jim (1900), Nostromo (1904), and Under Western Eyes (1911). Conrad’s works are widely believed to be highly critical of the colonizers, especially when they are compared to the works of his contemporary Rudyard Kipling, the only other author who is as representative of colonialist literature as Conrad himself. Scholar William York Tindall, in Forces in Modern British Literature, 1885–1956, wrote that Conrad was distinct from Kipling in “producing many novels and stories that without being imperialistic are colonial.” The postcolonial African writer Chinua Achebe, however, contended that Conrad was a racist who depicted Africans as “savages.” Conrad turned down an offer of knighthood in 1924; he died of a heart attack that same year, in England.
Isak Dinesen (1885–1962)
Isak Dinesen is the pen name adopted by Karen Blixen, who was born Karen Christentze Dinesen on April 17, 1885. Dinesen was born in Denmark, fifteen miles north of Copenhagen. Her father, Wilhelm, committed suicide when Dinesen was ten. She nonetheless grew up on her family’s comfortable estate as a member of the upper classes. She was schooled in painting and design and began writing stories as a young woman, publishing three ghost stories in Denmark before moving to British East Africa in 1914. That year, she married her cousin Baron Bror von Blixen-Finecke of Sweden and moved with him to a coffee farm in Kenya. She was married only seven years before divorcing her husband, who had infected her with syphilis. She kept the coffee farm, preferring the relative freedom of life in Africa. She stayed for ten more years before returning to Denmark in 1931, where she began writing about her life as an early colonist. Her major works about Africa include Out of Africa (1937) and Shadows on the Grass (1960), which depict in detail her view of Africa and, in particular, the Africans who worked for her on her coffee farm. One of her short stories on a non-colonial theme, “Babette’s Feast” (1958), was made into a major motion picture by Gabriel Axel in 1986 and won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. Sydney Pollack directed a film version of Out of...
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