by Jason Paukowits
Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, was born in the Ukrainian border province of the old Poland in 1857. He was a spirited and adventurous man who would travel the world before the age of twenty. He gained international attention as a respected writer, however, it was in the English language under the pen name of Joseph Conrad. He published 28 volumes of English literature which have now become very influential works. Although much of his writing is fiction, it is considered to be autobiographical and greatly influenced by his Polish background. Although all of Conrad's works were written in English, they express emotion and sentiment that existed in Poland during that time.
Joseph Conrad endured a tumultuous childhood. His father, Apollo Korzeniowski, was a Polish national. He was a well educated man who publicly protested the Russian occupation of Poland in the middle of the nineteenth century. Eventually his family was exiled from Poland to live a life of hardship in a remote Russian province. Shortly after their return to Poland, Conrad's father died and he was taken in by his uncle. He left for France to become a sailor at the age of seventeen and joined the British navy at the age of twenty-one. Just as his father was not happy with an average "farmer's" life, Conrad too was a romantic. Throughout his childhood, he was constantly trapped. Conrad was a citizen of a country dominated by Russia. Then he lived in exile for years. It is no surprise that he chose to explore on a naval ship for so long.
After serving for eight years in the navy, Conrad struggled to find work, as a ship's captain. In 1889, he took a job with a Belgian company and piloted a ship in the Congo. During this time, he contracted "Congo fever" as well as severe gout (Dyboski, 304). While recovering from these illnesses, he published his first novel, Almayer's Folly. Shortly thereafter, he gave up sailing and began a full time writing career. He married and settled in England. Although in most of his works he rarely mentioned Poland specifically, many of his stories would be constructed in a way that revealed his country's identity.
Much of Conrad's literature is based on his life at sea. In one of his novels, Mirror on the Sea, he says "The sea has never been friendly to man...The love of the sea, to which some men and nations confess so readily, is a complex sentiment, wherein pride enters for much, necessity for not a little...". Conrad may be using the sea as metaphor for his life in Poland. He speaks of love for the sea based on pride. This seems to go for Poland as well. Living in Poland was never a comfortable thing for him as a child yet he has a love for his country, which may be a result of Polish pride. The ocean is constantly shifting, can be very dangerous, and is very unpredictable. Life in Poland is also unpredictable. Poland has been struggling to maintain its borders for hundreds of years.
Joseph Conrad wrote many novels that give insight on his character, and the character of his nation. In The Secret Agent, he writes about a man who battles against powerful forces. These forces trap the man, and take away much of his freedoms. This story is rooted in the Polish struggle against Russia, a powerful and dominating enemy. Most of Conrad's stories contain an element of heroism, along with a looming villain and eventual tragedy. (Dyboski, 305). His stories reflect a degree of pessimism rarely seen in English literature from that time period. This pessimism was one of Conrad's best known traits, and it is widely held that the roots of this sentiment come from Poland.
Conrad secured a place in literary history for himself. His works are best known for their adventurous plots and characters. Obviously Conrad showed through many of his works that life in Poland, and for the Poles themselves was hard. Although this is true, Joseph Conrad's novels also tell us other things about Poland. His stories are loved today because they have some of the most brazen characters, and adventuresome twists. Though many were confined to Poland in the nineteenth century, many intelligent authors, musicians, and scientists were adventurers themselves, and immigrated from Poland. Despite economic hardship, these Poles traveled to distant countries because they had no opportunity for growth and expression at home. In a way, Conrad's constant pessimism, reverses itself and turns into hope. As a Pole writing in English, he was one of the first people to shed light on the Polish identity in the western world. Although they endured much hardship, there would be a day when Poles would thrive within their own borders.
Dyboski, Roman. "Joseph Conrad", Great Men and Women of Poland. New York, NY, 1943.
Mamatey, V.S., The United States and East Europe. Princeton, NJ, 1957.