Joseph Conrad was born Teodor Jozef Konrad Nalecz Korzeniowski near Berdyczew, Poland, on December 3, 1857. His father was an idealist-a poet, translator of Shakespeare, and Polish patriot whose political activities prompted the family’s exile to northern Russia in 1862. His mother, who came from an influential family of landowners, died of the Siberian cold when Joseph was eight years old. His father died four years later and Conrad’s well-to-do uncle Tadeusz Bobrowski took charge of the twelve-year-old boy, returning him to Poland. Conrad attended St. Anne school in Krakow for five years, and as a graduation present his uncle gave him a European tour. In Venice he saw the sea for the first time and vowed to become part of it. His formal education completed, Conrad nonetheless remained an avid reader, culling his impressive knowledge of literature from works written in Russian, French, and English.
Conrad left Poland for Marseilles, France, where he planned to become a seaman. With his uncle’s money, the seventeen-year-old purchased part interest in a boat that smuggled Spanish arms into France-an intrigue that provided material for his novel The Arrow of Gold (1919). Although the facts remain sketchy, his adventures in Marseilles ended badly, and in 1878 Conrad signed on the British ship Mavis. Thus began a remarkable career in which Conrad, a foreigner, who initially spoke no English, rose to the rank of captain in the world’s most powerful navy. Even more remarkable than his naval career, however, was the literary career, inspired, in large part, by Conrad’s years in the British merchant marine fleet. Raised speaking Polish, Conrad wrote exclusively in English, becoming an undisputed master of its nuances and the creator of the language’s most popular sea stories. He died in Bishopsbourne, England, on August 3, 1924; he is buried in nearby Canterbury.
Conrad’s works enjoyed a resurgence in popularity during the 1940s. The subject of extensive biographical and critical attention since the 1950s, Conrad holds a particular attraction for present-day readers, many of whom find in his work elements of fatalism and nihilism well suited to postmodern literature and modern life. The works that won him popularity during his lifetime, Chance (1913) and Victory (1915), are not those that have since come to prominence. His most popular works today are Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim, Youth, “The Lagoon,” “The Secret Sharer,” The Nigger of the Narcissus, and “Typhoon.” Conrad’s political novels-Nostromo, The Secret Agent, and Under Western Eyes-have also received increasing critical and popular attention as a result of both their literary merits and the continuing public attention fixed upon worldwide terrorism, the nuclear arms race, and political and economic unrest in Central and South America.