Conrad First The Joseph Conrad Periodical Archive

Conrad’s Agent

Mary Ann Gillies, Simon Fraser University, Vancouver

© Mary Ann Gillies. No part of this text may be reposted or republished without the permission of the author.


At the dawn of the twentieth century, the literary field experienced remarkable expansion as well as significant fragmentation; as a consequence, writers were required to traverse an increasingly complex landscape in order to find and sustain a readership. In many respects, Joseph Conrad was the epitome of the man of letters in this era. He launched his literary career in a manner that would have been familiar to many of his predecessors. He actively sought out mentors and collaborators who had already established themselves as contributors, editors, and publishers of the periodicals that he felt best represented the company in which he wanted his stories to appear. And his extensive correspondence tells the tale of a man who anxiously nurtured these relationships, using his literary friendships and contacts not only to place his work, but also to advise him on all aspects of life as a professional writer.
Yet, as the familiar narrative about Conrad’s writing career reminds us, this well-worn path to literary success failed to obtain the expected outcome for Conrad. His work habits were ill-suited to changing times that demanded a constant output of material suitable for what many critics have characterized as a diverse readership whose needs were being met by increasing numbers of periodicals aimed at niche demographics (see McDonald 1997; Ohmann 1998; Morrison 2001; Delany 2002; Donovan 2005). And, as the second part of this oft-told story reminds us, Conrad’s authorial persona was not especially well suited to this rapidly changing marketplace. This multilingual, Polish exile, saw himself primarily as a literary artist who might have been forced to become familiar with the business of literature, but who above all sought to redefine his craft independent of the imperatives of the marketplace. He thus found himself positioned, somewhat ironically perhaps, in the vanguard of a literary revolution, arriving in England just prior to the other expatriates—such as the Americans Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot or New Zealand’s Katherine Mansfield—whose names are now synonymous with the early twentieth century’s most important literary movement, Modernism. In effect, at the turn of the nineteenth-century Conrad had one foot squarely placed in the late Victorian literary establishment’s comfy clubroom, and another in the literary salon of emergent Modernism. How he negotiated these two positions is both a fascinating and an exemplary case study of the formation of a new breed of professional writer.
Conrad’s transition from merchant mariner to one of England’s leading novelists has been extensively studied. His debt to mentors and friends such as Edward Garnett and David Meldrum, for example, has been well charted. Somewhat less documented, at least until fairly recently, are his relationships with the literary businessmen whose money and influence played significant roles in his writing life, men such as T. Fisher Unwin, whom he mockingly nicknamed his “Enlightened Patron of Letters,” or, later, Alfred Harmsworth, whose publishing empire gave Conrad access to the broad readership he craved. Usually rating little more than a passing mention in the extensive corpus of Conrad scholarship is his long-term association with James Brand Pinker (1863–1922, his literary agent. A few critics have noted that the sometimes troubled relationship which he forged with Pinker enabled Conrad to focus more on writing and less on business affairs; others have acknowledged Pinker’s significant financial contribution during Conrad’s lean years. However, little attention has been paid to the specifics of how Conrad’s employment of Pinker permitted him to occupy a liminal space between nineteenth- and twentieth-century models of authorship. The Pinker-Conrad crafting of this space was partly the result of circumstance. Conrad’s methods of production did not mesh well with Victorian publishing norms, for example, but Pinker’s active marketing of his work offset that failing to some extent thereby maintaining and extending Conrad’s presence in the marketplace. But their partnership also reflects a shift towards a Modernist model of publishing. Pinker’s business model, based on the principle of the agent managing all aspects of his client’s professional life, permitted a client like Conrad to align himself with a public stance, adopted by of many early-twentieth century-artists, advocating the separation of art and commerce, even as his agent ensured that he received appropriate remuneration for that art.
This essay will begin by looking at two pivotal moments in Conrad’s writing career: the publication of “Karain: A Memory” in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1897 and the publication of Chance in 1912 (serialized in the New York Herald and subsequently syndicated in an array of newspapers across North America) and 1913/4 (book publication by Doubleday in the US and Methuen in the UK). In both cases, our focus will be on the events behind the scenes that preceded these pivotal moments, rather than the literary texts themselves. With “Karain” the primary focus will be on Conrad’s reliance on an informal network of mentors and friends—in this instance Edward Garnett, his first important British literary mentor. Taking “Karain” as a case study will provide us with a specific example of how Conrad’s informal network functioned and how it helped to launch his career. Turning to the publication of Chance, we will look at a more formal relationship, Conrad’s employment of J.B. Pinker, and examine how Pinker’s careful nurturing of Conrad’s career ultimately brought the writer lasting financial and critical success. The main aim of the essay’s final section is to tease out the ways in which Pinker and Conrad, as they guided Conrad’s career, jointly participated in shaping what David Finkelstein has characterized as “a more general shift in fin-de-siècle British professional authorship practices from amateur business models to professionally supported cultural production.” (Finkelstein 2009, 31) In the process of teasing this out, an alternative to the received portrait of Conrad can be seen to take shape.

A Literary Network
Whether it was a legacy of his unsettled childhood and adolescence, a fundamental feature of his character, or some combination of the two, it is clear that from a very early age Conrad functioned best when enmeshed in a network of family, friends, and mentors. They supplied all manner of support, ranging from the purely financial to the very personal, but it is clear that without the assistance of individuals such as his uncle Tadeusz Bobrowski and Marguerite Poradowska (his aunt by marriage) Conrad’s life would have been markedly different.
Conrad’s writing life followed a familiar pattern. He would befriend individuals from whom he would obtain advice on the stories he was writing, and who would in many cases also provide him with, or arrange for, the means to pay bills while he focused on his writing. Over time, Conrad created an extensive network of such mentor-friends, which he took pains to nurture. In part, this was a prudent investment since it was through this network that Conrad’s career was sustained. But it was also a necessary intellectual and social support for a man who by nature and circumstances tended to live a somewhat isolated life.
In addition to his aunt Marguerite, amongst the earliest of his literary friends were John Galsworthy and Ted Sanderson, both of whom he met aboard the Torrens in 1893. The hours they spent talking about literature formed the foundation for a deep and lasting relationship. It was, however, another young literary man who was to be pivotal in launching Conrad’s writing career and who become an integral figure in his literary network. In June of 1894, Conrad submitted the manuscript of Almayer’s Folly to the publishing firm of T. Fisher Unwin. It was sent to the firm’s readers; one of whom, Edward Garnett, was sufficiently impressed by it to not only recommend publication, but also to take the unusual step of asking to meet the author. That Conrad was fortunate to find such a sympathetic reader in Garnett would be an understatement, since despite his protestations otherwise, Garnett was well placed in the literary field and was disposed to put his own connections at the service of writers in whose talents he believed.
Garnett proved to be a careful and perceptive reader of Conrad’s work, providing insightful criticism that Conrad used in revising much of his early work. Indeed, Garnett noted that for the first four years of their acquaintance, he “saw and commented on in turn” all of Conrad’s work. (Garnett 1928, 1) As important as Garnett’s editorial advice was, perhaps more valuable for the novice author was his understanding of the literary marketplace and the advice that he gave to Conrad about it.

“Karain: A Memory”
According to Garnett, Conrad sent him the first manuscript pages of what would become “Karain” on 28 February 1897. In the letter that accompanied the MS, Conrad’s playful tone does not hide his assumption that Garnett would not only have time to read the story, but that he would offer a serious critique of it:

Ecco là! I deliver my misguided soul into your hands. Be merciful. I want you, besides as much criticism as you have time and inclination for, to tell me whether the things is printable. . . . And understand well this: If you say ‘Burn!’ I will burn – and won’t hate you. But if you say: ‘Correct – Alter!’ I won’t do it – but shall hate you henceforth and for ever! (Garnett 1928, 91–92)

Garnett provided the expected critique, and while we do not know the specific changes he made at Garnett’s behest, Conrad’s letter of 10 March, in which he says, “I have been at Karain and have rewritten all You had seen. A painful task” (Conrad 1983–2007, 1: 342) gives some indication of the cost of the revisions.
More interestingly, Conrad goes on to state clearly his awareness of how important Garnett has become to him:

Strangely, though I always recognised the justness of Your criticism it is only this evening after I had finished the horrid job that the full comprehension of what you objected to came to me like a flash of light into a dark cavern. It came and went; but it left me informed with such knowledge as comes of a short vision. The best kind of Knowledge because the most akin to revelation.
I have thought of You much. Somehow you have intruded into many moments of my life. You have appeared between lines of print, in the red glow of coals – and in other incongruous places. And I still think that there were several shades of truth in all the impertinences of my talk with you and about you. I think Your mission is to work for art – and I know You will work artistically for art – for the very essence of it. (Conrad 1983–2007, 1: 342)

It may be impossible to determine the full extent of Garnett’s influence on Conrad’s writing at this stage, but Conrad’s admission of the importance of this relationship to his artistic development ought not to be taken lightly.
Turning to the business side of things, we see an equally revealing development. Though Garnett was still a reader for Unwin, he had for some time been acting informally on Conrad’s behalf as an unpaid business advisor. Unsurprisingly, then, when Conrad sent the finished MS of “Karain” to Unwin on 14 April, on the understanding that Unwin could have the book rights in return for shopping it around to various periodicals, he specifically asked Unwin “before sending the story out to let Garnett have a look at it.” (Conrad 1983–2007, 1: 351) Garnett’s account of what happened next illuminates his role in placing “Karain’ in one of the leading periodicals of the day:

I remember leaving 11 Paternoster Buildings [Unwin’s offices], a few days later, in Conrad’s company and halting on the pavement opposite Newgate Prison, while jostled by the passing crowd, I declared positively that Karain was destined by Providence for Blackwood’s Magazine. For some reason Conrad never forgot this Newgate Street prophecy and recurs to it fourteen years later “it is you who turned Karain on to Maga. with inspired judgment.” But in fact I believed then it was a case of Maga. or nothing. (Garnett 1928, 23–24)

For many writers in the late 1890s, including Conrad, Maga represented the apex of the publishing world. It had a long tradition of publishing quality work, its current roster of regular contributors included men whose work Conrad greatly admired, and the Blackwood family had a reputation for treating its writers considerately. For Conrad, publication in Maga signified an important arrival of sorts: he was being taken seriously as a writer because his work was to be published in the establishment’s leading periodical, and perhaps even more importantly, a publisher whose opinion mattered to him was treating him with respect. All of this comes through in his letter to Garnett of 28 August:

I have a bit of news which I am bursting with. The other day I wrote to Blackwoods asking them to send me proofs early and so on – just to give them my address. Yesterday I had a charming, friendly letter from Wm. Blackwood saying he would have the story set up on purpose and at once – asking me whether I would mind the story coming out in Nover instead of Oct. but leaving it to me – and so on in that unheard of tone. At the end he asks me whether I have a long story ‘on the stocks’ and wished to know whether there is enough of it for him to see with a view of running it as a serial in the magazine. Imagine my satisfaction! (Conrad 1983–2007, 1: 378)

The publication of “Karain” in Blackwood’s Magazine in November of 1897 was undoubtedly a turning point in Conrad’s career. Having delivered his friend into the capable hands of the Blackwoods, and specifically into the care of David Meldrum, their London literary advisor, who became Conrad’s next important mentor, Garnett likely felt that he had done his best to help Conrad to a long and successful career. Indeed, the opportunity ought to have launched Conrad’s career along a trajectory similar to writers such as Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, and even H. Rider Haggard with whom his stories were being compared. And yet his five-year association with the Blackwoods was not an unqualified success. In part, the relationship suffered by Conrad’s inability to fit the model of professional writing upon which the Blackwoods’ system was based; in part, changing conditions in the literary marketplace were rendering the Blackwoods’ model more or less obsolete. I will return to this point in the final part of this article. For now, we move on to another major turning point in Conrad’s career, the publication of Chance.

A Literary Agent
As early as autumn 1896, Garnett told Conrad that he might benefit from the services of a literary agent who could manage his ever more complex business arrangements. Garnett apparently recommended that his friend contact A.P. Watt, London’s foremost literary agent. Conrad’s reply is telling: “As to Watt I think I ought to know him. It would be a great relief to have someone to do one’s ‘dirty work’ as the sailors say of any occupation they dislike” (Conrad 1983–2007, 1: 312). Conrad’s disdain for “dirty work” meant he too often failed to produce copy on time, promised the same work to more than one publisher, and lost track of what he had promised to whom. His muddled business affairs were clearly of great concern to both men, and Garnett’s choice of Watt is interesting in signaling both the kind of career which Garnett still envisioned for Conrad and the authorial persona which he ascribed to him.
Alexander Pollock Watt (1834–1914) is widely credited with establishing the profession of literary agent, having started his agency in the late 1870s. By the late 1890s he was regarded as the pre-eminent literary agent in Britain, and arguably the most influential agent in the world. Indeed, his agency had assumed such a central role in the literary field that its premises at 2 Paternoster Square operated as a major clearing-house for literature, a place where the Watts could buy and sell whatever literary property their clients produced and the market demanded. The ideal Watt client at this time was someone like Arthur Conan Doyle. In many regards, Doyle was a model late-Victorian professional writer. He was prolific, producing an ample stream of marketable material; he wrote for well defined audiences, which resulted in a steady demand for his work from editors and publishers; he was reliable in meeting deadlines and keeping his contracts in order; and, while he desired to be taken seriously as a writer and courted critical acceptance of his work, he was equally aware of the need to conform to the requirements of the marketplace in order to earn a good living from his pen.
The fact that Garnett attempted to steer Conrad towards Watt suggests that he believed that with Watt’s guidance Conrad might conform to this model of authorship and thereby attain a measure of financial stability. Similarly, it illustrates Garnett’s belief that, with the kind of skillful management a professional agent might bring, Conrad’s work would find and sustain the readership he deserved. However, there is no record that Conrad ever contacted Watt, an indication, I believe, that Conrad recognized that he was not the sort of writer who would flourish in Watt’s system.
Nevertheless, Conrad desperately needed a full-time manager, and when another agent, James Brand Pinker, approached him in August 1899, he readily considered the possibility of a formal arrangement. Begun in September 1900, their business partnership lasted until Pinker’s death in 1922, with Pinker becoming far more than just Conrad’s financial manager. Their relationship eventually helped Conrad to gain the financial security and artistic status that he craved. But that success required a different author-agent relationship than Watt offered to his clients, and it resulted, in turn, in a different authorial model.
A stonemason’s son, James Brand Pinker was born in London’s East End and briefly worked as a clerk at Tilbury Docks before pursuing a career, first as a news reporter and then a literary magazine editor. When opening his own literary agency in about 1896, he set himself apart from Watt and other agents by proclaiming that: “My idea was not simply to relieve the man of established reputation from the worry of business, but to take up the unknown man, the youngster struggling for reputation and bread and butter, and help him to build his reputation” (“A.D.” 1898, 9–10). Conrad was hardly unknown when Pinker approached him in 1899, but he was certainly “struggling for reputation and bread and butter.”
Over the next two decades, Pinker worked tirelessly to build up Conrad’s reputation—no mean feat given the mess of business arrangements which he had to untangle and which had made editors and publishers leery of working with Conrad. He also worked on the bread and butter side of things, patiently attending to his client’s pressing financial needs by providing loans and, later, a regular allowance to cover household expenses when Conrad’s accounts ran dry. As their business arrangement grew into friendship, he also became the sort of mentor figure that Conrad needed in order to thrive. While the relationship went through its difficult phases, most notably around 1910 where there was an extended period of estrangement, it nevertheless became a touchstone in Conrad’s life. So important did Pinker become to Conrad, in fact, that when the agent died unexpectedly in 1922 while in America on business, Conrad wrote to his American Publisher, F.N. Doubleday:

I need not tell you how profundly I feel the loss of J. B. Pinker, my friend of twenty years’ standing, whose devotion to my interests and whose affection borne towards myself and all belonging to me were the greatest moral and material support through nearly all my writing life.
During the years of the war our intimacy had become very close. For the last two years he was very frequently staying in our house and I learned more and more to appreciate in him qualities which were not perhaps obvious to the world which looked upon him mainly as a succesful man. It is certain that the value of my connection to him can not be wholly or truly expressed in terms of money. (Conrad 1983–2007, 7: 419–20)

Critics have long regarded the composition and publication of Chance as a turning-point in Conrad’s career. Many have taken the position perhaps most forcefully articulated by Thomas Moser in his Joseph Conrad: Achievement and Decline (1957), that the novel represents a faultline between the earlier innovative work that established Conrad’s credentials as a serious writer and later work which he wrote primarily for the money. More recently, critics such Daniel Schwarz, Stephen Donovan, Susan Jones, and Ellen Gerber have sought to rebut this position by arguing that Chance demonstrates Conrad’s ongoing commitment both to literary experimentation and to cultivating the wider readership that he had wanted to reach early in his career. Important as those debates are, I want to put them aside to look at the role that Conrad’s literary agent played in the publication of Chance.
Like many of Conrad’s novels, Chance began life as a short story. Conrad started the story in 1898, according to a letter written in late spring of that year to Garnett in which he remarks in passing about a story called “Dynamite.” He mentions it again, referring to it in a letter to Meldrum as “one about a Captain’s wife” (Conrad 1983–2007, 2: 169). We hear about it again in a letter to Pinker of April 1905, where Conrad writes that, “all you can expect from me before we see each other is a short story something in the style of Youth—about a dynamite ship. That’s nearly done but is now hung up with everything else” (Conrad 1983–2007, 3: 228) By September, Conrad was referring to the story by the title Chance and reassuring Pinker that “Chance simmers slowly on to be ready by the end of the year” (Conrad 1983–2007, 3: 280) Over the next five years, Pinker periodically received similar assurances even as Conrad continued to put this story aside in favour of other projects including The Secret Agent and Under Western Eyes.
By May 1910, Conrad had returned to Chance in earnest, spurred by a new financial arrangement with Pinker and his gradual recovery from the breakdown he had suffered following completion of Under Western Eyes in January. In August further impetus was provided by a request from the New York Herald for a Conrad story for serialization. After some hesitation—Conrad wrote Galsworthy in September that “I was really afraid to bind myself to an undertaking which a fit of gout could have knocked into a cocked hat at any time” (Conrad 1983–2007, 4: 366)—and further negotiations which stretched into early 1911, it was settled that Chance would be serialized in the Herald that year. Despite steady work, the usual delays interrupted Conrad’s progress and as a consequence, it did not begin its run in the Herald until January 1912. Even then, Conrad had not yet finished the novel, only providing Pinker with the final MS pages on 25 March. The text was subsequently revised and published in volume form in 1913/14 by Methuen in the UK and by Doubleday in the US.
Pinker’s importance in bringing Chance to press is easily overlooked, especially given that his relationship with Conrad was severely strained in 1910 owing to a falling-out between the two men around the time of Conrad’s collapse after the completion of Under Western Eyes. Their estrangement colours many of the comments Conrad makes about Pinker in his letters at this time. Nonetheless, three things stand out in their correspondence that indicate the central role Pinker played. First, according to the new financial arrangement put in place following their quarrel, Conrad was to be paid a set sum (initially £3, later £4) for each thousand words of MS delivered to Pinker. This replaced the annual allowance that Pinker had been supplying against royalties since about 1907, an arrangement that Conrad had thoroughly abused and which had been a contributing factor in the growing tension between the two men. What might be called piece work enabled Conrad to produce copy on a more regular basis, and was a major factor in the completion of Chance. Second, as was his practice, Pinker managed the publication agreements such that Chance was serialized in at least six different periodicals in the US and Canada. This meant additional income, but, more importantly, it further widened Conrad’s readership. Third, Pinker’s unwavering support and skilled management of both the serialization and book publication of Chance in the face of Conrad’s own doubts was of immeasurable value, as Conrad acknowledged in a letter of July 1912:

To bring about this state of affairs I haven’t done as much as I should have liked. I have done however my utmost: work up to my standard—but slow! The lucky stroke of the N.Y. Herald serial and, in the main, your brilliant management of Dent and skilful dealing in America are responsible for the greatest part, and I thank you heartily for it my dear fellow. (Conrad 1983–2007, 5: 249–50)

The letter’s tone indicates that the breach in their relationship had healed nicely over the intervening two years. Indeed, it is safe to conclude that the repair of the rupture in their relationship remained significant to Conrad’s career and well-being long after the publication of Chance, especially in light of comments made by Conrad about his agent after Pinker’s unexpected death in 1922.
Chance proved to be the breakthrough novel for which Conrad had long hoped. It generated strong sales in the UK, going through seven printings (12,000 copies) by mid-February 1914, and recording even stronger sales in the US after its release in March that year. American sales, in particular, were assisted by a vigorous advertising campaign which helped Conrad find a much wider readership than with previous works. Chance also received widespread praise from reviewers—although, tellingly, Henry James’ more qualified review has had the greatest influence on Conrad scholars. More typical of the contemporary reviews was that of his former mentor at Blackwood’s David Meldrum, who wrote in the Daily Chronicle: “Coming straight from its spell, indeed still in the entrancement, which Mr. Conrad’s writing produces, one may well declare the latest to be the best of his books” (qtd in Sherry 1979, 281). Conrad and Pinker were able to capitalize on its sales and critical success in a variety of ways: they obtained more favourable publishing contracts for subsequent works, which meant more money in the bank for Conrad; and on the strength of his growing popularity, they arranged for publication of collected editions of his works in the US and the UK, which helped to fashion his lasting literary legacy. After nearly fifteen years of hard work together, their partnership finally paid off.

An Enduring Literary Legacy
Sidney Colvin’s review of Chance in the Observer provides a good place to start the final part of this article. Colvin, a friend of Conrad’s, wrote:

Chance leaves on the mind the impression of a work of genius in the full sense, and helps to confirm its author’s position among the very first of living imaginative writers, by all critics and novelists. It is the work of a master from which we may all learn. So much is certain. But we also have an idea that it will appeal more than Mr. Conrad’s previous works have done to a wider public. It may prove the means of educating a large number of readers to appreciate the work of one of the most remarkable writers of our generation. (qtd in Sherry 1979, 281–82)

While one would expect a friend to point out the merits of the new novel in glowing terms, and his comments are consistent with what other reviewers were saying, it is the final sentence that interests me most. By drawing attention to the possibility that Chance might “prove the means of educating a large number of readers to appreciate” Conrad’s work, Colvin points out the obvious: building a readership requires conscious attention and work. From early in his career, Conrad was aware of this and he consequently developed a number of strategies that he used a different times to not only educate and nurture a readership base, but to also establish a lasting literary legacy. The three specific strategies I focus on next are not only the most enduring in Conrad’s own career, but in many ways are symptomatic of shifts occurring in the literary field at this time..

Critics have often pointed out Conrad’s complex feelings toward his readership. On the one hand, as we have seen when “Karain” inaugurated his association with Maga, Conrad wanted his work to find an existing, educated readership who would appreciate the complexities of his narrative technique and style. On the other hand, he deliberately sought popular success and was happy when Chance brought him the popularity he had feared he might never attain. Publication in mass-market periodicals meant not only greater financial reward, but also meant that more people read his stories; this wider readership was important to Conrad. Though the conflict between these two positions permeates Conrad’s comments about his work, I believe it was a productive tension rooted in a genuine desire to disseminate his work as widely as possible.
As has been noted by a number of scholars in the last couple of decades, including Daniel Schwarz, Vivienne Rundle, Alison Wheatley, Stephen Donovan, and Ellen Gerber, Conrad set out from very early in his career to create a “public for myself,” however “limited” it might be (Conrad 1983–2007, 1: 390).1
True, his conception of that public varied over time, and his letters are replete with denigrating comments about the readership of some of the periodicals in which his work appeared. But what did not waver, even in the face of criticisms from within his own circle about his choices in terms of style, subject matter or publication venue, was a desire to find this public. I would argue that what drove Conrad to move beyond the narrow conception of a public that he outlined in the 1897 letter quoted above was more than mere financial necessity and more than a healthy writerly ego. It was Conrad’s core belief that well-crafted art could transcend the boundaries that kept humans separate and isolated. His conviction that his stories were exemplars of such well-crafted art compelled him to find new publication venues in order to extend his audience.
Ellen Gerber has argued convincingly that Conrad deliberately sought to educate his readers in the art of reading Conrad. Using his prefaces as a platform from which to impart both aesthetic and moral wisdom, she concludes: “Conrad creates a space for authority that is characterized by humility, generosity, and a belief in equality. He can guide and assist—not proselytize—his readers in a manner that is marked by his affability, humor, and his commitment to inclusiveness” (Gerber 2007, 87). This education process was key to increasing and sustaining his readership well beyond well-established literary markets such as those embodied in Maga, for example. It was also an acknowledgment of two important shifts in the literary marketplace. First, writers could no longer assume that their readership shared a common educational or cultural background. A significant portion of the reading public still had less than the basic education mandated by law (which they may or may not have supplemented by their own initiatives). Conrad knew this at first hand from his own patchwork education, which may have prompted his efforts to educate his own readers. Second, international markets were playing a much larger role in publishing decisions, with authors finding lucrative opportunities in markets other than the UK and US. Translations were becoming an important source of revenue in 1900, and book and serial markets in Australia or Asia, for instance, were fertile territory that could be profitably exploited with an agent’s help. These readers, too, needed guidance and assistance in how to read works that sometimes originated in cultures very different from their own.

As already noted, the serialization of “Karain” was Conrad’s entrée into the privileged circle of writers and editors/publishers associated with the Blackwood’s magazine. Membership in that coterie not only brought with it a certain measure of prestige, it promised a solid base of readers who could be counted on to purchase the works of writers belonging to the Blackwood set. Coteries had long occupied a central place in the publishing world, with writers and publishers/editors joining in loosely bonded groups with shared intellectual and artistic interests. These groups would form and disband as market and cultural forces shifted, but the basic principles by which they worked remained in place well in to the twentieth century where Modernist coteries, such as the Bloomsbury Group or what Wyndham Lewis dubbed “the Men of 1914,” emerged to wield significant influence on the literary field. Though the politics, aesthetic as well as cultural, of Modernist coteries differed from those of their immediate predecessors and often from each other, they nonetheless fulfilled the same functions in drawing together like-minded writers, editors, and publishers with a view to promoting their own positions in the literary field.
Conventional wisdom, embodied in the advice of early mentors such as Garnett or Meldrum and sometimes reflected in Conrad’s own comments to friends, reckoned that he ought to have been content to remain within the friendly confines of Maga’s coterie, producing work of the sort for which it was known and reaping the rewards of membership. Or, once Maga began its slide away from the center of the literary field, Conrad would have been well advised to find another amenable group, aligning himself with their ideals and finding a home in their publications. That he did not do so is often cited as a reason for his ongoing struggles. It is therefore fascinating to hear Conrad proclaim in a letter written to F. N. Doubleday in 1918 that

I am sufficiently of a democrat to detest the idea of being a writer of any “coterie” of some small self-appointed aristocracy in the vast domain of art or letters. As a matter of feeling—not as a matter of business—I want to be read by many eyes and by all kinds of them, at that. I pride myself that there is no sentence of my writing, either thought or image, that is not accessible, I won’t say to the meanest intelligence (meanness is a matter of temperament rather) but to the simplest intelligence that is aware at all of the world in which we live. (Conrad 1983–2007, 6: 333)

Even taking into account both the audience and the occasion—Conrad was justifying his objections to a proposed publishing schedule for The Arrow of Gold and explaining his aesthetics to a sympathetic ear—Conrad’s disdain for coteries is significant for what it reveals about his conception of authorship. However, it was not the first time that Conrad had proclaimed his authorial independence. From early in his writing career, Conrad consistently claimed the right to speak his own mind, even when he knew that doing so might jeopardize his relations with powerful editors or publishers. In 1898, for example, Conrad wrote to Charles Lewis Hind, editor of the Academy, about a review Conrad had been asked to write of Hugh Clifford’s book Studies in Brown Humanity. Conrad was anxious that the review appear under his own signature if possible:

I am of course aware that it is the high standing and the intellectual authority of the publication which gives its final value to the criticism appearing in its pages. And it is this conviction which induced me to avail myself of your offer. Yet it seems to me that fundamentally, in the matter of criticism it is always the individual voice that speaks and, if so, then the individual should not be hidden. The responsibility for truth or error is on his shoulders also. (Conrad 1983–2007, 2: 57)

Conrad’s desire not to hide his opinion behind the anonymity of an unsigned review, even in so important a magazine as The Academy, is clearly consistent with his later comments to Doubleday about not wanting to be part of a self-appointed aristocracy of letters or coterie that wielded its power behind the scenes. One finds other examples at various junctures throughout Conrad’s career where he chose the path of individual responsibility (and reward/failure) over the camaraderie of the group. Conrad, it is clear, consistently opted to cut his own path.
It was a path that was fashioned with the able assistance of Pinker in particular, who understood Conrad’s reluctance to form long-term alliances with any one group. In this light, Conrad’s oft-quoted comment to Pinker in 1901—“However I don’t want to go to B[lackwood] for the present for many reasons—one of them being that I wish to reach another public than Maga’s” (CL 2, 321)—can be understood to have originated as much in a desire to space himself from the Blackwoods due to strains in their relationship as in a need to remain separate from coterie allegiances. Yet this outsider position meant that Conrad had to find a different way to negotiate the complexities of the literary field, and in this Pinker’s assistance proved not only useful but also essential.

“Conradesque” and the Conrad Brand
Frederick R. Karl and others have noted that Conrad used a remarkable letter to William Blackwood in May 1902 as an “occasion to defend his art and his own life as an artist” (Karl 1979, 531). The letter was written while Conrad was in a highly anxious state: he had just met with Blackwood in hopes of staving off a rupture in their relationship brought on by Conrad’s escalating requests for advances against work not yet delivered. Despite Conrad’s eloquent and forceful appeal, a breach occurred. While the letter warrants fuller treatment than is possible here, I wish to examine two aspects of this defense of his art that have attracted less attention than they warrant.
First, Karl is absolutely correct when he characterizes the letter as a defense of Conrad’s art and life as an artist. However, I would argue that Conrad also articulated something else that was equally fundamental. What this is becomes evident when we examine the passage where he says:

For, the writing is as good as I can make it (first duty), and in the light of the final incident, the whole story in all its descriptive detail shall fall into its place—
acquire its value and its significance. This is my method based on deliberate conviction. I’ve never departed from it. I call your own kind self to witness and beg to instance Karain—Lord Jim (where the method is fully developed)—the last pages of Heart of Darkness where the interview of the man and the girl locks in – as it were – the whole 30000 words of narrative description into one suggestive view of a whole phase of life and makes of that story something quite on another plane than an anecdote of a man who went mad in the Centre of Africa. . . .
And however unfavourably it may affect the business in hand I must confess that I shall not depart from my method. I am at need prepared to explain on what grounds I think it a true method. All my endeavours shall be directed to understand it better, to develop its great possibilities, to acquire greater skill in the handling—to mastery in short. (Conrad 1983–2007, 2: 417)

Yes, one could read this as a defense of his art—it is certainly that—but it also defines the essence of what he begins to refer to as “J. Conrad” or “a very genuine Conrad” work in 1903 (Conrad 1983–2007, 3: 10, 55) His method was as much “genuine Conrad” as his product; indeed, the method provides the thread that runs through the body of his work, weaving together the early adventure stories with the mid-career political novels and the late career sketches. In effect, Conrad is describing what constitutes his brand, a distinctive mode of writing that is immediately recognizable as “genuine Conrad” regardless of where the story is set or who is telling it or how the plot might unfold.
Second, Conrad, who is no longer the novice writer whom Garnett had steered towards Maga, recognizes something that the very experienced William Blackwood apparently does not. As David Finkelstein notes, “Blackwood’s functioned in an environment still very much based on earlier models of publishing” (Finkelstein 2009, 41).Conrad’s argument could not but fall on deaf ears because it did not conform to his publisher’s construction of the literary field. A breach was inevitable, not simply because of the financial issues that have so frequently been cited by critics, but, more importantly, because Conrad intuited that the changing literary marketplace required an approach he was unlikely to find at the House of Blackwood. His decision to place his business affairs in Pinker’s hands reflects just this awareness. Pinker’s business model depended on increasing Conrad’s market penetration. Each time he placed a “genuine Conrad” piece in a new periodical, and particularly when that periodical appealed to a readership that had not been introduced to Conrad before, he expanded the reach of Conrad’s brand. New readers meant the potential for further demand from periodicals geared towards these readers. Over time, Pinker’s marketing strategy managed to extend Conrad’s appeal widely, bringing financial rewards as well as the popular success which Conrad had sought from the start of his career but which he had despaired of attaining.

Reference to a “Conrad brand” would likely have discomforted many of his contemporaries—and perhaps even some readers today. Certainly, Conrad himself would have bridled at equating “genuine Conrad” or “Conradesque” with a brand; as Stephen Donovan writes, “Conrad made little secret of his contempt for advertising” (Donovan 2005, 118). And yet, as Donovan persuasively argues, “there was no escaping the new medium” of advertising, a fact of which Conrad was well aware and which resulted in “a nice paradox that disdain for advertising became an integral part of Conrad’s public image, itself the object of careful promotion in later years” (Donovan 2005, 117–18). Conrad was able to sustain a public attitude of disdain for advertising, which is evidenced even in his private correspondence, because he could shift responsibility for development and promotion of his brand onto Pinker. Of the many tasks that Pinker undertook for Conrad, including his extended and extensive financial support, this was arguably the most important in allowing Conrad to benefit from Pinker’s business model while maintaining the pose of a disinterested artist who deigned to deal with the “dirty work” only when circumstances required it.
The success of this sleight-of-hand is evident in two different ways. First, for much of the twentieth century, Conrad’s literary reputation rested upon acceptance of the authorial persona Conrad carefully presented to the world: the literary artist whose innovations were developed despite his financial difficulties and poor business skills. I have shown here and elsewhere (Gillies 2007) that this argument cannot be sustained when one considers Conrad’s letters and the extent to which he engaged in detailed discussions with Pinker, for example, about advertising campaigns for various books, or when he turned to Pinker for help in launching an informal campaign for the Nobel Prize. Yet Conrad’s authorial self-presentation, dependent as it was on separating the functions of author and agent, had strong influence on his early biographers and critics, who in turn played significant roles in establishing Conrad’s literary legacy. Second, Conrad’s strategy of displacing the commercial aspects of a writing career onto his literary agent provided a model that was adopted by many of his contemporaries and successors. This is not the venue to explore that point further, although several critics, myself included, have elsewhere made this case for several other Modernist writers. The point I want to make is that Conrad’s sleight-of-hand was emulated by writers who, for a variety of reasons, wished to create a gap between those who wrote “difficult” or experimental work for a discerning audience and those who wrote for a mass readership.
The influence of Conrad’s literary experimentation on twentieth-century fiction is the focus of a very large body of criticism. Such studies have benefitted from the preservation of his extensive correspondence, which has given us an invaluable window onto his interactions with the writers, publishers, mentors and friends who sustained him over the course of his career. As this article has argued, it was through his literary networks that Conrad was able to pursue the aesthetic vision on which his literary reputation now rests. Without their support, he might not have been able to find and nurture a readership that ultimately rewarded his vision with financial and critical success. One of the most enduring members of his literary network was Pinker, whose twenty years of unwavering support was crucial to Conrad’s eventual status as one of the twentieth century’s leading novelists. The fact that other writers have sought to emulate the writer-agent relationship fashioned by Conrad and Pinker speaks volumes of its key role in Conrad’s career, but also, more broadly, about the necessity of retaining a professional agent in a changing market for literary production. As with his innovations in writing, Conrad in his pioneering relationship with Pinker established a new paradigm for the literary field.



In formulating this part of my argument, I am indebted to Ellen Gerber’s treatment of Conrad’s complicated relationships with his readership, which occurs in the second chapter of her 2007 doctoral dissertation.


Works Cited

“A. D.” 1898. “An Interview with Mr. J. B. Pinker.” The Bookman XIV.79 (April): 9–10.

Sherry, Norman, ed. 1979. Conrad: The Critical Heritage. Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Conrad, Joseph. 1983–2007. The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad. Ed. Frederick R. Karl, Laurence Davies, et al. 9 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Delany, Paul. 2002. Literature, Money and the Market from Trollope to Amis. London: Palgrave.

Donovan, Stephen. 2005. Joseph Conrad and Popular Culture. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Finkelstein, David. 2009. “Decent Company: Conrad, Blackwood's, and the Literary Mark.” Conradiana 41.1 (Spring): 29–47.

Garnett, Edward, ed.. 1928. Letters from Joseph Conrad. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.

Gerber, Ellen. 2007. “Modernist Pedagogies: Conrad, Woolf, Pound, and the Reading Public.” Unpublished PhD dissertation, University of Pittsburgh.

Gillies, Mary Ann. 2007. The Professional Literary Agent in Britain: 1880–1920. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Jones, Susan. 2007. “Modernism and the Marketplace: The Case of Conrad’s Chance.” College Literature 34.3 (Summer): 101–119.

Jones, Susan. 2009. “Conrad’s Critique of the Serial Romance: Chance and The Rover.” Conradiana 41.2–3 (Summer/Fall): 288–309.

Karl, Frederick R. 1979. Joseph Conrad: The Three Lives. New York: Ferrar, Straus, and Giroux.

McDonald, Peter D. 1997. British Literary Culture and Publishing Practice: 1880–1914. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Morrison, Mark. 2001. The Public Face of Modernism. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Moser, Thomas. 1957. Achievement and Decline. Hamden: Archon.

Ohmann, Richard. 1998. Selling Cultures: Markets, Magazines, and Class at the Turn of the Century. London: Verso.

Rundle, Vivienne. 1995. “Defining Frames: The Prefaces of Henry James and Joseph Conrad.” The Henry James Review 16.1 (Winter): 66–92.

Schwarz, Daniel. 2001. Rereading Conrad.Columbia: Missouri University Press.

Sherry, Norman. 1973. Conrad: The Critical Heritage. Boston: Routledge, and Kegan Paul.

Wheatley, Alison. 2003. “Real and Desired Readers of Conrad.” Conradiana 35.1–2 (Spring/Summer): 7–19.

Mary Ann Gillies was educated at the University of Alberta and Oxford University.  She holds the position of Professor in the English Department at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada where she teaches and publishes on late nineteenth and early twentieth century British literature and Anglo-American modernism.  She is the author of Henri Bergson and British Modernism (1995); The Professional Literary Agent in Britian:1880-1920 (2007); co-author with Aurelea Mahood of Modernist Literature: An Introduction (2007); and co-editor with Helen Sword and Steven Yao of Pacific Rim Modernisms (2009).  She is currently at work on a book about Emily Carr and Katherine Mansfield and is beginning a project on trauma theory and detective fiction.


Publishers’ URLS:

Henri Bergson and British Modernism: MCGill-Queen’s University Press
The Professional Literary Agent in Britain: 1880-1920: University of Toronto Press
Modernist Literature: An Introduction: Edinburgh University Press
Pacific Rim Modernisms: University of Toronto Press


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