Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1311
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 Africa in 1985, with Meryl Streep portraying Dinesen. The film won an Academy Award for Best Picture that year along with six other Academy Awards. Dinesen died of emaciation on September 7, 1962, in Denmark and is remembered by modern readers as either a white colonizer with a patronizing view of Africans or a sympathetic advocate of the colonized. She was twice nominated for a Nobel Prize in literature.
E. M. Forster (1879–1970)
Edward Morgan Forster was born January 1, 1879, to Edward Forster, a painter and architect, and Alice (Lily) Whichelo Forster. His father died when he turned two years old; afterwards, he was cared for by his mother and his paternal great-aunt Marianne Thornton, who focused almost solely on his health and development. He attended several prep schools, then entered Cambridge in 1897. He was already publishing books while at Cambridge, in addition to studying literature. However, his first real success did not come until 1910, with the publication of Howard’s End, a critique of both class structure and cultural taste in Edwardian England. Forster first visited India for pleasure in 1912 and began writing about it in 1914. He visited again in 1921, when India was much changed by the rise in nationalism following a 1919 attack by the British military on Indian civilians. There he worked as a personal secretary for a maharajah. A Passage to India (1924), Forster’s last novel, is often thought to be influenced by the Hindu and nationalist views of India. The novel was such a success that Forster feared he could not live up to it, and though he continued writing for many years, he never again wrote a full-length novel. He was a member of the Bloomsbury Group, an informal collective of writers, artists, and intellectuals, all of whom are associated with Modernism, including Virginia Woolf. He was homosexual but not openly so; his novel Maurice, which addressed homosexual themes, was not published until after his death. He died January 7, 1970, in Coventry, England.
H. Rider Haggard (1856–1925)
Henry Rider Haggard was born on June 22, 1856, in Bradenham, Norfolk, England, and moved to South Africa at the age of nineteen. He worked in the colonial service for at least five years before returning to London and pursuing a career in law. Inspired by the success of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, Haggard began writing adventure novels of his own, eventually penning over thirty. Among the most well known is King Solomon’s Mines (1886), which was an immediate commercial success. Its popularity may have been enhanced by the multiple anonymous reviews Haggard wrote with his friend Andrew Lang to promote the book. King Solomon’s Mines began a series of South African adventures featuring the white hunter Allan Quatermain. Perhaps Haggard’s best-known novel is She (1887), which features the character She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed, a catch phrase still in use. “She” is a beautiful but deadly Arab goddess who presents an obstacle to a white adventurer sometimes considered a prototype of Indiana Jones of the Raiders of the Lost Ark films. Haggard was a friend of Rudyard Kipling and shared many of Kipling’s views about native peoples. His books depict white heroes as brave adventurers and black men and women as exotic and mysterious. He died May 14, 1925; his autobiography, The Days of My Life, was published in 1926.
Rudyard Kipling (1865–1936)
Rudyard Kipling was born in Bombay, India, on December 30, 1865. His father was the curator of the Lahore Museum, the setting for the first scene of his novel Kim (1901). Kipling lived with his parents, British natives, for five years until he went to England for schooling. He came back to India in 1882 as a journalist and worked seven years in the northern part of India. He left India to travel throughout the British colonies, including South Africa, Rhodesia, Australia, and New Zealand. He married an American, Caroline Balestier, and lived for a short time in the United States. During those years, he also began publishing short fiction to great success. Soon he returned to England, where he was already well known as a writer. Two of his major works are generally considered children’s literature: The Jungle Book (1894–1895) and Kim. He also published several collections of stories and an autobiography, Something of Myself (1934). Much of his earlier work, including Kim, was written during very difficult times in Kipling’s life; he nearly died from influenza, and he lost his seven-year-old daughter Josephine to the disease. Kipling coined the phrase “the white man’s burden” as a description of Colonialism in the 1899 poem of the same name. The poem echoes the beliefs about race and imperialism that are reflected in most of Kipling’s works, which suggest that it is the obligation of white Westerners to bring the “primitives” of other races into the fold of civilization. Kipling died following an intestinal hemorrhage, January 18, 1936, in London, England, and is buried in the Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey.