Born in Berdichev, Poland—part of the Ukraine--on
December 3, 1857, Joseph Conrad was the son of Apollo and Ewelina
Korzeniowski, an impoverished but highly patriotic Polish noble family
bearing the Nalecz coat-of-arms. His father was a writer of
politically themed plays and a translator of the works of Victor Hugo,
Charles Dickens, and Shakespeare from the French and English. He encouraged
his son to read widely in Polish and French. As a result, young
Korzeniowski enjoyed significant exposure to classic literature and the
In 1861, Conrad’s father was arrested by Imperial
Russian authorities in Warsaw for helping to organize what would become
known as the January Uprising of 1863–64. He was exiled to Vologda,
300 miles north of Moscow. Apollo’s wife and four-year-old son followed
Due to Ewelina's failing health, Apollo was allowed to
move to Chernihiv, Ukraine, where wıthin a few weeks his wife died of
consumption, today known as tuberculosis. Apollo died four years later in
Kraków, leaving young Conrad orphaned at the age of eleven. The boy was
eventually placed in the care of his maternal uncle, Tadeusz Bobrowski.
Although he attended school in Poland, Conrad had always dreamed of going
Finally, at the age of 16, the multilingual young man
traveled to Marseille, where he joined the French merchant marines and,
while working on a ship, sailed to the West Indies where he became involved
in the lucrative, if dangerous, activity of arms smuggling. Eventually, he
left the French service and joined the British merchant navy, where he
climbed quickly through the ranks. In 1886, he became a British citizen,
officially changing his surname from Korzeniowski to Conrad, and received
command of his own ship.
Throughout his life at sea, Conrad saw parts of the
world that most people only dreamt about. He visited Australia, various
islands in the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific, and South America. In
1889, he traveled to Africa—which he had always wanted to see—where he
became captain of a Congo River steamboat.
One day, during
one of his numerous journeys, one of his passengers--novelist John
Galsworthy--heard about Conrad's writing and asked to see a sample. After
reading a manuscript Conrad had been working on, Galsworthy encouraged him
to attempt to get it published. The result was his very first work, Almayer's
In 1894, at the age of 36, Conrad decided to leave the sea behind him, and
he settled in Kent, England, to concentrate on his new career as a writer.
Two years later, he married an Englishwoman by the name of Jessie George,
and they eventually had two sons.
his early years as a family man and writer, Conrad stayed close to home,
pounding out the chilling novella, Heart of Darkness (1899), which
decades later would become the inspiration for filmmaker Francis Ford
Coppola’s powerfully unnerving Apocalypse Now. With unwavering
precision, Conrad unveils a story filled with rich imagery and fantastic
symbolism reflecting the ambiguity between the good in mankind versus the
evil: “He was obeyed, yet he inspired neither love nor fear, nor even
respect. He inspired uneasiness. That was it!” Using the anti-hero as his
inspiration, his work explores the pessimistic moral complexities of
humanity and mankind’s boundless capacity for evil and corruption. In rich,
lush terms, he explores the darkest depths of the human psyche.
Although physically ailing from a malady contracted
while in Africa, Conrad continued his literary output with amazing grace and
speed. Over the course of the next two decades, he produced a wide range of
novels, all hanging upon the author’s suspect skepticism of the human
His influence as a writer did not go unnoticed.
In 1924, British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald
offered the author Knighthood, but Conrad courteously declined, calling
himself “unworthy” of such an honor. Others, including friends and fellow
authors John Galsworthy and H. G. Wells, disagreed.
While in his later years he maintained a hectic
schedule that included travels around the continent and a trip to the United
States, Conrad continued his prolific literary output until his death,
writing popular works such as Lord Jim (1900), Nostromo
(1904), The Secret Agent (1907), The Arrow of Gold (1914),
Victory (1915), The Shadow-Line (1917), The Rescue (1920),
and The Rover (1923). He published his last work, The Nature of
Crime, in 1924.
Joseph Conrad died of a heart attack on August 3,
1924. Although he had remained a religious agnostic for most of his life,
he received Roman Catholic services at St. Thomas church and was interred
alongside his wife and lifelong companion, Jessie, in the Westgate Court
Avenue public cemetery in Canterbury, England. His name is carved into the
sprawling gravestone as it was given to him at birth: Joseph Teodor Konrad
He was 67.
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