Joseph Conrad Biography

Biography (History of the World: The 20th Century)

ph_0111201536-Conrad.jpgJoseph Conrad Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Although best known as an adventure novelist, Conrad raised the form to new heights, dealing with the issues of human isolation in the face of an overwhelming natural universe, with a psychological realism that revealed the depths of his characters’ consciousness and perceptions.

Early Life

Born December 3, 1857, in Podolia, Poland, to Catholic parents of the landowning class, Joseph Conrad was originally named Jósef Teodor Konrad Nałęcz Korzeniowski (he officially changed his name when he became a naturalized British citizen in 1886). His father, Apollo Korzeniowski, had been educated at St. Petersburg University before going on to become a published poet, dramatist, and translator; it was, furthermore, because of Apollo’s political activities and outspokenness against Russian imperialism in Poland that he, with his wife, Ewa (née Bobrowska), and his four-year-old son Jósef, were exiled to Vologda, Russia, in 1862. As a result of the harsh living conditions, Conrad’s mother died of tuberculosis when he was seven, and his father died of the same disease when the boy was eleven. Thereafter, until he was seventeen, Conrad was reared by a number of guardians (all of them literary, writers or aspiring writers), the most notable a matrilineal uncle who insisted upon the value of education and responsibility. Although Conrad’s schooling came mostly from private tutors after his father’s death, by the time he left Poland at seventeen he was fluent not only in his native Polish but also in French (he knew some German and Russian as well), and he was familiar with the works of such writers as Homer, Miguel de Cervantes, William Shakespeare, Alexander Pushkin, Mikhail Lermontov, George Gordon, Lord Byron, Edgar Allan Poe, Friedrich Schiller, Victor Hugo, Charles Dickens, and Alfred de Vigny.

When Conrad left Poland in 1874, his destination being Marseilles, France, he left not to become a writer but—against his uncle’s wishes—to become a seaman. He had always been a lover of geography and travel books and had always been attracted to travel; for example, he had predicted, when he was ten or eleven and looking at a map of Africa, “When I grow up I shall go there.” (He did indeed, and the journey almost killed him.) Leaving his homeland for France and, more specifically, the sea was therefore not so much a teenager’s impulsive move as it was a departure the young Conrad had been growing toward for years. Arriving in Marseilles in October, 1874, he was to remain in France ostensibly for several years, during which time he secured berths on board French ships: first, two months after he arrived in France, as a passenger on the Mont Blanc for five months; on the same ship, as an apprentice seaman for six months; and then, on the Saint Antoine, as a steward for seven months. On these sailing vessels he traveled throughout the Caribbean area, and there is some reason to believe that he was involved in smuggling weapons to revolutionaries in Spain sometime during his residence in France, twenty-four months of which he spent pursuing shore activities. As a result of one of those activities, gambling, Conrad incurred large debts and, suffering deep depression over these debts and his more or less reckless life-style while on shore, he attempted suicide early in 1878 by shooting himself in the chest. The bullet passed through his body and out his back without touching any organs. Two months later, he began his English sea career, taking a berth on the Mavis, an English ship sailing for Constantinople.

Unromantic and demanding much hard work, Conrad’s English sea career involved him in several near-wrecks, and it situated him among men who had been shipwrecked. Apparent in much of the fiction he was to write is the ability he had to assimilate his shipmates’ stories and integrate them with his own hazardous experiences—as well as with the famous shipwrecks or near-wrecks he probably read about in the maritime histories of the day. Eight years would pass, however, after he signed on with the Mavis, before Conrad would write his first story in English, the language he struggled to learn after sailing from France. Two years after taking his berth on the English ship, furthermore, Conrad passed his examination as a second mate, and he would go on to pass two more examinations to become a captain in the English merchant service. He sailed three times to Australia (each trip taking a little more than a year), twice to Singapore, twice to India, and at least once to Java—all before sailing to the Congo in May of 1889. This latter journey was important to Conrad, who had become an English citizen in 1886, because he would be the captain of the ship, and throughout his career as an officer he had been forced to accept berths that were below what he had attained by examination (at least one biographer suggests that this must have been a blow to Conrad’s pride and sense of accomplishment, and that it may have contributed to his decision to leave the sea in favor of a writing career).

The firm that hired Conrad to sail its vessel to Africa expected him to remain in their service, in the Congo region, for three years. Besides the depressing and murderous signs of British imperialism that he witnessed while he was in the Congo, as well as the squalid living conditions of the natives he encountered, Conrad suffered nearly fatal attacks of dysentery and fever, and he left Africa in December, 1890, arriving back in England in January, 1891. He carried with him out of Africa six chapters of his first novel, Almayer’s Folly (1895), which he had begun writing in 1889 while still in England; thus, as his twenty-year-long sea career was nearing its end (he sailed only twice after his Congo journey), he was launching himself into his greater—and in many ways more difficult—writing career. He would be thirty-seven when his first novel was published, and a year later he would marry Jesse George, fifteen years his junior, with whom he would have two sons, Borys and John, born in 1898 and 1906, respectively.

Life’s Work

After the publication of Almayer’s Folly, his first novel, in 1895, Joseph Conrad’s life was devoted mainly to the writing of his short stories and novels, an endeavor seldom easy for him, with a growing family, a frequent shortage of money, an inexact knowledge of the English language, and the unyieldingly high artistic standards to which he devoted himself. When he was not writing he suffered bouts of deep depression, and when he was writing it was a painfully slow process (he confessed on several occasions, in his letters, to sitting before a blank sheet of paper for days sometimes before he could begin writing). In addition to these difficulties, throughout his adult life he suffered from hereditary gout, attacks of nerves, neuralgia, and fevers, and periods of desperate anxiety.

The odds against Conrad’s ever being able to support himself and his family as a writer were great; after all, when he began writing seriously he was a middle-aged Pole and retired sailor who had not begun learning the English language until he was in his twenties, had married and begun rearing a family in his thirties, had developed no friendships with others in the literary world, and had had his first novel accepted for publication primarily because of John Galsworthy’s influence. (A writer himself, and to be winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1932, Galsworthy had met Conrad for the first time on board a ship for which the latter was chief mate, and had agreed to read—and was favorably impressed by—the manuscript of Almayer’s Folly.) Still, Conrad’s father and several relatives had themselves been published writers, so the profession was not completely foreign to Conrad when he began writing. In any case, it is a testament to Galsworthy’s insight, as well as to Conrad’s genius, that Conrad went beyond his first novel to become one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century. The first twenty years of his thirty-year writing career were,...

(The entire section is 3337 words.)

Joseph Conrad Biography (Short Stories for Students)

Joseph Conrad Published by Gale Cengage

Joseph Conrad was born Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski on December 3, 1857, in Berdichev, Poland. Conrad's parents were exiled to Northern Russia in 1862 and both of them died before Conrad was eleven. He was then supported and raised by various relatives, including his maternal uncle, Tadeusz Bobrowski, a prosperous lawyer who provided financial aid until Conrad was in his thirties. Conrad received sporadic and irregular schooling and was often ill. He joined the British merchant marines in 1878 and traveled to Africa, Australia India and the Orient. These experiences would later aid and inform his writing. Due to poor health, Conrad was forced to retire from the merchant marines, and in 1894 he began a career as a writer. It was not until 1913, with the publication of Chance, that Conrad became an acclaimed writer.

Most of Conrad's stories were inspired by his experiences at sea: Lord Jim was a story that he had heard about the ship the Jeddah; The Nigger of the Narcissus was based on his adventures from Bombay to England; "The Secret Sharer" was taken from an actual incident aboard the Cutty Sark in 1880; and Heart of Darkness, Conrad's most famous work, is a fictional account of the author's own experience in the Belgian Congo. On August 3, 1924 Joseph Conrad died at the age of 66 and was buried in Canterbury, England.

Joseph Conrad Biography (Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Joseph Conrad had one of the most unusual lives of any major writer in English literature. He was born in Berdyczów, Poland, on December 3, 1857, and was christened Jósef Teodor Konrad Nacz Korzeniowski. His father, Apollo Korzeniowski, was a Polish intellectual and writer whose works included original verse and translations of William Shakespeare. Apollo Korzeniowski was also a fervent Polish patriot, and his activities against Russian repression (Poland was at that time part of the Russian Empire) caused his arrest and exile in 1861. Apollo Korzeniowski, along with his wife, Ewelina Bobrowska, and his young son, Josef, was sent to Vologda, a dismal town northeast of Moscow.

The climate was severe, and living...

(The entire section is 693 words.)

Joseph Conrad Biography (Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Joseph Conrad was born Jósef Teodor Konrad Naęcz Korzeniowski on December 3, 1857, near the rural village of Berdyczów in Poland, under Russian domination. Conrad’s mother, Ewa Bobrowski, came from an affluent and influential family of landowners who had made their peace, as best they could, with their Russian overlords. Conrad’s father, Apollo Korzeniowski, was a would-be poet, a dedicated patriot, and a translator of William Shakespeare into Polish who found no peace in Russian Poland. The marriage of Apollo and Ewa was frowned upon by the Bobrowskis, who felt that Ewa had married beneath herself, and Ewa’s brother, Tadeusz, a prominent lawyer and member of the landed gentry, seldom missed an opportunity to remind his...

(The entire section is 1620 words.)

Joseph Conrad Biography (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Joseph Conrad was born in Poland, spent much of his childhood in Russian exile with his parents, was orphaned at an early age and reared by his uncle, lived as a young man in France, and then, after a career with the British merchant marine, became one of the major writers in English literature. He lived a life as adventurous as that portrayed in any of his novels, and, in fact, many of the episodes of Conrad’s later fiction were rooted in his own experiences.

He was born near Berdyczów on December 3, 1857, and christened Jósef Teodor Konrad Nacz Korzeniowski. Conrad was particularly proud of his ancestry, which, rooted in the Polish nobility, had a long and distinguished history. Apollo Korzeniowski, his father,...

(The entire section is 1059 words.)

Joseph Conrad Biography (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Joseph Conrad’s mastery of the psychological story and his creation of memorable and highly complex characters established him as one of the most important authors in world literature. In exploring such concepts as the double and the human subconscious, Conrad both anticipated and complemented many modern psychological theories. In addition, Conrad is one of the most original and influential of modern English prose stylists. His densely written and often highly descriptive passages reflect perfectly the complex world of his narratives and his often mysterious but always memorable characters.

(The entire section is 89 words.)

Joseph Conrad Biography (Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Joseph Conrad was born Josef Teodor Konrad Nalecz Korzeniowski near Berdyczew, Poland, on December 3, 1857. His father was an idealist—a...

(The entire section is 443 words.)

Joseph Conrad Biography (Novels for Students)

Conrad was born Teodor Józef Konrad Nalecz Korzeniowski on December 3, 1857, in the Polish Ukraine. He was an only child to his parents. His...

(The entire section is 433 words.)

Joseph Conrad Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Born Jósef Teodor Konrad Nacz Korzeniowski, the son of a Polish nobleman, writer, and militant nationalist, this great English novelist adopted the name of Joseph Conrad after many years of adventure at sea. He settled in England and became a naturalized British subject in 1886, only eight years after he had learned to speak and write English. Considered to be one of the supreme stylists in English, his third language (he had mastered French earlier), Conrad revealed in his letters that writing was an enormous struggle for him and a calling at which he worked strenuously and with all his heart. He left Poland in 1874, attracted to the life of the sea but also downhearted about the fate of his native land, which had been burdened...

(The entire section is 687 words.)

Joseph Conrad Biography (Short Stories for Students)

Joseph Conrad Published by Gale Cengage

In a part of Russia that once belonged to Poland Joseph Conrad was born Josef Teodor Konrad Nalecz Korzeniowski on December 3, 1857, to his parents, Apollo and Evelina. Members of the landed gentry, his parents believed in liberating Poland, though from opposite extremes. Apollo Korzeniowski came from a family dedicated to the romantic idealism of their cause, eager to act, if necessary, to die for Poland. Though championing the same beliefs, Evelina Bobrowski’s family advocated working quietly for their goal, and surviving as best they could under the dictates of the occupying power. Their concerns deeply influenced Conrad’s upbringing.

Apollo devoted his life to literary interests and political involvement. He wrote plays and poems of little value, but adeptly translated Victor Hugo and Shakespeare into Polish. In 1862, Conrad’s father started a literary journal, Fortnightly Review. Politically, Apollo’s main concern centered around fortifying resistance against Russian oppression. He helped organize the National Central Committee. He joined a radical wing and was arrested before he took any action. Exiled to the Vologda region of northern Russia in 1862, Apollo longed to have his family accompany him.

Already physically fragile, Conrad’s mother suffered under the harshness of exile. The strain of imprisonment hastened her death in 1865 at thirty-four, less than three years after their exile. Authorities allowed Apollo to move to southern Russia after his wife’s death. Suffering from tuberculosis later in life, and not considered a threat anymore, Apollo returned home. He spent his last months in Cracow, where he died in 1869.

By the time Conrad was a teenager, he had suffered from his family’s political involvement. At four, he saw his father arrested; at seven, he saw his mother die; and, at eleven, he saw his father die. He was left in the care of his uncle, Thaddeus Bobrowski. These traumatic experiences stayed with Conrad for his entire life. They fueled his wish to flee Poland. Consequently, they also instilled in him feelings of desertion, betrayal, and guilt for leaving his homeland. These themes were explored deeply in his work Lord Jim.

From his parents’ tribulations, Conrad concluded that no future lay in store for him in Poland. He needed to escape to fashion a life based on his inner promptings. His desire to see other countries led him to say as he looked at a map of Africa, “When I grow up I shall go there.” That place was the Belgian Congo, which became the germ for Heart of Darkness.

By traveling, Conrad could secure economic independence, live out adventures, and escape political unrest. Since his uncle had connections in the shipping industry and French was his second language, the French merchant marine attracted him, even though he had never seen the sea. The excitement he had read about in the works of Victor Hugo and James Fenimore Cooper could now become part of his life. His Polish relatives viewed his choice of becoming a sailor as an insult to his cultural background.

Two months before his seventeenth birthday, in 1874, Conrad left for Marseilles and a sea career. The four years he spent on French ships gave him the richness of experience he longed for. He sailed to the West Indies, and Central and South America. On his second voyage, he met Spanish rebels and smuggled guns on their behalf. With his ship wrecked on the Spanish coast, Conrad escaped to France. He fictionalized these experiences in his novels Nostromo (1904) and The Arrow of Gold (1919).

At this time he met Dona Rita, a Spanish rebel. He supposedly fought a pistol duel with an American, Captain Blunt, over her. Both were wounded. Rita and Blunt disappeared by the time Thaddeus arrived. Conrad told his uncle he had lost money gambling and had tried to commit suicide, he said nothing about the duel. Here, his adventures in France ended.

After turning twenty, Conrad switched allegiances to Britain by becoming an English seaman. He did so for two reasons: he wanted to flee the obligation to the Russian military forces, and he thought that if he learned English, he could be promoted sooner.

Modern British literature profited from Conrad’s defection from the French seas. There is a good possibility he would not have undertaken his writing career in English if he had not joined the British navy. In 1886, the same year he was naturalized as a British citizen, Conrad passed his examinations for master mariner. By then it was clear his life had settled and he had made a wise choice.

Conrad served on British ships for nearly sixteen years. As second mate, he sailed on a ship journeying between Singapore and Borneo. He sailed to the Orient on the Palestine, a ship that burned and sank off the coast of Java. He used this adventure in Youth (1902). In 1888, ten years after his switch from the French to British seas, he commanded his only ship, the Otago. His novella, The Secret Sharer, reflects this experience. His one interlude from the British service was when he piloted a river boat to the Belgian Congo, the basis for Heart of Darkness. This journey also affected his health, a consequence which may have influenced his switch from seaman to writer.

He began writing his first novel, Almayer’s Folly, in 1889, though he did not in any way consider himself a writer. He eventually submitted the manuscript in 1894; it was accepted after Edward Garnett read it. Through Garnett’s encouragement, Conrad began writing another novel. He still pursued a sea career, however, attempting to secure a command until 1898. For the next thirteen years, he wrote nearly one volume per year.

Married and with two sons, Conrad found it difficult to live off his literary earnings, even though he lived modestly in country homes. He received a Civil List pension from the British government.

After twenty years and sixteen volumes, Conrad finally achieved popular success with his novel Chance (1913). His limited audience grew to a wider acceptance.

During his literary career, Conrad met and made friends with Stephen Crane H. G. Wells Ford Madox Ford, and Henry James—influential writers of their time. Even with their friendships, he lived outside the mainstream of literary life. He was unaware of Freud’s work and other scientific advances. He knew nothing of James Joyce Virginia Woolf and D. H. Lawrence—writers with whom his work is often compared. Yet, his relative isolation did not prevent him from formulating his philosophy about art, fiction, and their relation to life. Many of the prefaces of his novels serve as his foundation for his artistic beliefs.

Often linked to Herman Melville and Jack London other writers of adventure stories, Conrad infused his work with psychological and moral implications. His characters face deep problems, ones with difficult or no answers. Their response to these questions often determines the course of their lives. Symbol and myth fill his fiction, and much of his story lies beneath the surface narrative. The adventure is merely one level of the story, the more intriguing one is buried under the plot. Reading a work by Conrad requires patience, diligence, and concentration.

From his first book, he used “Joseph Conrad” as his writing name, his difficult given name had been misspelled too many times on official sailing papers. A master craftsman and stylist, Conrad labored at the writing process. No writing came easy to him. His major works include Almayer’s Folly (1895), The Nigger of the Narcissus (1897), Lord Jim (1900), Youth, containing Heart of Darkness, (1902), Nostromo (1904), The Secret Agent (1907), The Secret Sharer (1910), Under Western Eyes (1911), and Victory (1915).

Never a healthy man, Conrad suffered from indigestion, hypochondria, and melancholia. Conrad died at his desk in 1924, at the age of sixty-six. A man who did not speak English before he was twenty-two, and did not write English until he taught himself at thirty-two, Joseph Conrad fashioned his life at sea into his life in fiction. By transforming experience into art, he established his permanence as a twentieth-century British novelist.