Joseph Conrad is considered one of the greatest novelists writing in the English language. However, not many people know that the author of Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim, Nostromo, and The Secret Agent was a Polish national—born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski. He learned English fluently only in his twenties.
Conrad’s life was an interesting one. He was born in Russia-occupied Poland. His father, Apollo, a poet, translator, and freedom fighter, memorialized Conrad’s birth with a poem titled “To My Son Born in the 85th Year of Muscovite Oppression.” The family was exiled to Vologda in 1861 due to Apollo’s political activism. Sadly, a lifetime of poor living conditions meant that both of Conrad’s parents died of tuberculosis, leaving him an orphan by age 11, after which he was taken in by his uncle in Krakow. This created a significant financial burden for his uncle, as Conrad had poor health and didn’t excel academically. After countless tutors and school changes, Conrad was granted his wish to become a sailor. In 1874, the then 16-year-old Conrad was sent to Marseilles, France, to become a marine merchant. After four years of serving under the French flag, the Russian consul refused to provide the documents needed for him to continue. Conrad signed on as a British merchant marine in 1878 and stayed with the job for the next 15 years.
During this time, he travelled around the world, visiting places that later become the backdrop of his novels. One of his most influential voyages was the 1890s sail down the Congo River that inspired his canonical novella Heart of Darkness (1902). It is worth noting that during his time in the Congo, Conrad shared quarters with Roger Casement. The pair become friends, and some academics claim that some of the characteristics of Kurtz, the central character of Heart of Darkness, are based on Casement.
In 1894, Conrad gave up the sea and focused his attention on becoming a writer. He published his first book, Almayer’s Folly, a year later. He quickly became quite successful, not only among readers, but also among fellow writers. His fans included modern literature greats like T.S. Elliot, Ernest Hemingway, and George Orwell. F. Scott Fitzgerald was also a fan and according to some sources once danced on the lawn of Doubleday publishers to attract Conrad’s attention. Unfortunately, the caretaker noticed him before Conrad did and removed him from the property.
Conrad was one of the first great writers of the modern era. Despite his novels’ colonial themes, his style was modern. His lack of nostalgia and romance, the precision of his details, and his sensible and matter-of-fact heroes that had little sense of redemption were innovative and, in a way, gave rise to other disillusioned voices of modern literature.
Yet Conrad’s influence transcends literature. His novels are repeatedly mentioned as inspirations by filmmakers. Almost all his works have been adapted for film and television and are frequently referenced. One of the finest examples is Apocalypse Now by Francis Ford Coppola. Though the film is set during the Vietnam War, the story is inspired by Heart of Darkness, with the main character sharing the same name with the protagonist of Conrad’s novel.
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