The Conradian: Review

By Debra Romanick Baldwin, University of Dallas

The Nigger of the Narcissus” edited by Allan H. Simmons, Cambridge Edition of the Works of Joseph Conrad (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018). lv + 364 pp. £79.99

On account of its racial slang, The Nigger of the Narcissus” has become a problematic title to include on syllabi, and yet, because of its psychological and ethical complexity, its aesthetic power, and its perspectival experimentation, it remains one of Conrad’s greatest works. While the new Cambridge edition of the novella does not engage the political charges that might cause some readers to dismiss the book out of hand, it provides an authoritative scholarly edition for those who already realize the work’s literary merit and are seeking to explore their readings of the novella on a micro level and to learn about its textual variants and complex publication history.

The Nigger of the Narcissus,” like all of Conrad’s works, has had a very complex publication history as it moved from manuscript to typescript to serializations and then to multiple book editions. While Conrad himself went over the original typescript – now only partially preserved – and many of the proofs, at each juncture hands other than his own were also meddling and fussing over the details. Indeed, fallible transmission from manuscript to typescript, the hasty process of serialization, and the pens of intrusive editors on a multitude of proofs, often governed by the rigid dictates of publishers’ house rules, often ran roughshod over what he had put on the page, regularizing and sanitizing his idiosyncratic writing, and making spurious changes that have become enshrined in the editions we have long used. The Cambridge editions attempt to navigate this mire of multiple texts and editorial intervention in order to give us something closer to what Conrad actually wrote – and Allan Simmons’ Cambridge edition of The Nigger of the Narcissus” helps us understand why even the phrase “what Conrad actually wrote” is much more complicated than we might first have thought. With its thorough and thoughtful discussion of publication history, its comprehensive apparatus of emendations and variations, and its transparent account of its own editorial decisions, this edition offers us what no other edition of the novella has provided, but which is crucial for any scholar who cares to pay attention to individual words.

The introductory essay discusses the novella in its biographical, literary, and cultural context, lucidly showing how Conrad’s narrative “articulates many of the dissonant and heterogeneous voices of the century’s closing decades” (xlvi). This historical sensitivity is developed at length in the second, more extensive essay on the texts themselves which meticulously traces the novella’s complex transmission from manuscript to multiple print editions, giving us valuable updated information along the way. For example, it corrects the widespread impression that the novella was first introduced to American audiences under the title Children of the Sea, the title of the first American book edition; in fact, as readers can now also see on, before the American book edition, it had been widely serialized in various American newspapers under its original title. The essay also corrects the date of publication of the first American edition, generally accepted as 30 November 1897, arguing instead that the American public only received the text in the spring of 1898.

But the real treasure of the edition lies in the minute restorations based upon meticulous examination of all the variant texts, beginning with the manuscript. Look, for example, at the third sentence of the Preface, where we have been accustomed to find: “It is an attempt to find in its forms, in its colours, in its light, in its shadows, in the aspects of matter and in the facts of life what of each is fundamental, what is enduring and essential” (Dent edition, vii). Simmons, however, examining the manuscript, discerned a typist’s error mistaking the tail of a “w” for a partially formed “s” – mistaking “shadow” for “shadows” – an error that found its way into print. A minor change, one might think – so minor that the artist himself glossed over it when proofing for more conspicuous errors, and yet the inclusion in the Cambridge edition of the word as Conrad wrote it now reveals a sentence in which “light” and “shadow” are balanced as forces, “light” no longer puzzlingly privileged as a singularity amidst the surrounding particularities of life. Similarly, on the opening page of the narrative itself, in place of “the big tow-rope lay in long bights along one side of the main deck,” we now encounter “the big tow-rope faked in long bights along one side of the main deck” (emphasis mine, 10.24). We can understand why a serial editor might have casually changed the verb so that land-lubbing readers would not presume a false cognate and think that “faking” (arranging a rope in orderly coils) had something to do with deception. Yet Conradians will recognize the value of discerning the author’s initial nautical precision, recalling his praise in The Mirror of the Sea for that “technical language that, created by simple men with keen eyes for the real aspect of the things they see in their trade, achieves the just expression seizing upon the essential, which is the ambition of the artist in words” (Dent, 21). Of course, such precision also distances the common reader from the text, necessitating a note to gloss the term, and the Cambridge edition offers it, explaining both the substance of the nautical term and the rationale for restoring it to the text. Such scrupulous attention to detail, seen throughout the entire apparatus, means that all editorial emendations and variants have been reported. Simmons’s thoroughness throughout the volume has been recognized by the Modern Language Association’s Committee on Scholarly Editing, whose seal of approval is displayed on the copyright page.

More controversial, perhaps, is Simmons’ decision to reject the edits that Conrad himself offered in 1916 for Heinemann’s Collected edition. Many readers might find this an odd choice for an edition attempting to discern and restore the author’s own artistic agency. Simmons does so following the convictions of the Cambridge series itself, as expressed by David Leon Higdon and Floyd Eugene Eddleman when they similarly rejected Conrad’s later edits for the Cambridge edition of Almayer’s Folly. Simmons quotes their rationale that these later edits “reflect a mature artist confidently sophisticating his first novel or an artist exhausted by the years and corrupting his text” (182). Higdon and Eddleman thus privilege the raw and early Conrad over a late Conrad whom they see as having been badgered into regularity, and Simmons shares this assessment, working to restore the “more expansive and free-flowing rhythms of his early prose, untrammelled by ‘correct’ house-styling practices” (183). The superiority of Simmons’s approach, however, is that although he does not incorporate Conrad’s later edits into the text, he does offer them, as Higdon and Eddleman did not, for the reader to decide, in a nine-page Appendix C that scrupulously lists each of Conrad’s edits and offers an extensive discussion both of his own decision and of the hallmarks of Conrad’s earlier style.

Let us look for a moment at Conrad’s 1916 edits for a collected edition. One category of his edits involved his cutting dozens of the added “h’s” originally included in Donkin’s vernacular speech – “h’s” which most of us using Dent’s and Doubleday’s editions have never seen before, but which appeared in the serializations, and which the Cambridge edition now restores. So “look after yer clothes,” for example, turns into “look hafter yer clothes,” and “imposyshun” turns into “himposyshun” (84.29, 30) These newly aspirated individual words simultaneously accentuate Donkin’s comic side and also his otherness. However, when one encounters lines like “They ‘as set me hon, honey to turn against me. Hi ham the honly man ‘ere” (114.11-12) and “I ham a Henglishman, I ham” (16.7), one can understand why an author as aurally sensitive as Conrad might have changed his mind. On linguistic grounds as well, the older Conrad rejected his earlier phonetic rendering of Donkin’s speech as “wrong,” writing to Heinemann’s C. S. Evans that “[a] real cockney drops his aspirates – but he never adds one. . . . But God only knows what Donkin is! It’s too late now to chase all those h’s out of the text, I fear” (September 1920, CLJC 7, 174). So, too, the older Conrad decided to abide by the early advice of professional reader W. H. Chesson to correct his usage of “like” and “as.” In this case, the younger Conrad had also consented to these changes, writing to Chesson on 16 January 1898, “I have also corrected all the like into as in my copy . . . if – in years to come – it ever has [a second edition], the corrections shall be made” (CLJC 2.20) – as they were for the Collected edition. The Cambridge edition reverses these corrections and we now encounter: “There was in it a slimy soft heap of something that smelt like does, at dead low water, a muddy foreshore” (76.1).

But if the phrase “like does” might strike a reader as unduly awkward, other instances of Conrad’s raw use of “like” have an opposite and powerful effect. When Donkin perceives that Jimmy, in a momentary reverie of reminiscence, becomes indifferent to him, the narrator tells us that he “felt this vaguely like a blind man may feel in his darkness the fatal antagonism of all the surrounding existences” (112.27). Here, a more refined usage would silence the salient ambiguity of a blunter usage in which “like” serves both to connect nouns and to introduce phrases. Thus, the sentence first equates Donkin simply and statically with the nominal blind man (Donkin is like a blind man – period) and then moves to focus on the verb (what the blind man feels) – an anacoluthon that has the effect of leaving Donkin as grammatically disjunct as he is humanly in the story.

By giving these divergent examples, I am not arguing that individual interpretative concerns ought to be the basis for editorial decision, only that these small details do have interpretive ramifications, so it is crucial to be aware of the variants that the Cambridge edition makes available, and to think through their competing claims, especially those variants originating with the author himself. In the case of The Nigger of the Narcissus,” discerning which edits are in fact the author’s while working with an incomplete set of texts – including the fragmentary corrected typescript – means that the copy-text for an edition seeking to reflect the author’s choices must itself be necessarily eclectic, and the claims of individual passages necessarily complex. Indeed, that these examples vary so widely depending on their context underscores the very difficult task facing the editor deciding on how to use an eclectic copy text: how to negotiate the tension between consistent principles of editing (including the style sheet to which he himself is bound) and the specific claims of a given passage? And what sorts of claims might allow for an exception?

This same tension is evident in the matter of capitalization. Simmons writes that “Conrad’s use of upper-case letters was often irregular and even slapdash” (194), leading him to consider passages individually, rather than following a rigid rule. Thus, he concurs with the majority of previous editors in rejecting as “inappropriate” Conrad’s manuscript capitalizations of “Latitudes” in “the softly luminous sky of low latitudes” (41.31), and “Watch” in “Keep handy, the watch” (43.30-31). However, he diverges from other editors by accepting the manuscript’s capitalization of “Sleep” at 25.2, explaining that, unlike the other instances, this one deliberately invokes allegory (194). I think a case could be made for letting Conrad’s other capitalizations stand as well. True, the capitalized “Latitudes” indeed seems inappropriate by introducing a proper name for a general noun; but on the other hand, capitalizing “Latitudes” makes sense indicating one of the essentials for a seaman – an ironically fixed, if invisible, entity at the onset of this chapter on the violence of the storm. The explicit onset of “bad weather” similarly elevates the importance, a couple of pages later, of the “Watch” – a fixed duty, invisibly essential to the order of the ship (43.30).

The Cambridge edition also occasionally adds capitalization, as Simmons notes in his discussion of “Silent Emendations”: “necessary capitals have been supplied for a nationality or place name, as in ‘Arab’ [27.29] (196) – a fastidious example, since the word had appeared capitalized from the serialization onwards. It is only in the manuscript that “the pointed sail of an arab dhow running for Bombay” displays the initial ‘a’ as a round lower-case letter, very slightly higher than the “r,” but certainly not the emphatic, triangular upper-case “A” that begins the sentence before it. Was this the result of a hasty hand, an unconscious habit influenced by the French and Polish custom of not capitalizing adjectives of nationality, or a deliberate aesthetic choice in this moment of the narrative to deemphasize the upper-case importance of nationality in favour of a lower-case tone of description? And to what extent is an editor’s decision to capitalize it or not governed by fidelity to Conrad’s art or to standardized rules beyond it?

These dilemmas point to the fact that even the editor of the Cambridge edition cannot escape some of the very publication constraints from which he seeks to recover Conrad’s text – as encapsulated in the very typography of the title. Now one might think that a ship and its title should not present any particular difficulties. Does a ship’s name go in quotation marks, or italics, or neither? And is this text a long short story (whose title belongs in quotation marks) or a short novel (whose title belongs in italics)? But the various texts of the novella offer a bewildering array of alternatives. In the manuscript and typescript, the ship’s name “Narcissus” is always in quotation marks (understandably, given that italics are difficult to achieve by hand or typewriter). In the New Review serialization, the ship’s name appears in quotation marks in the title, in italics in the text itself, and in italics and quotation marks in the running heads. The book editions compound such inconsistency with their added title pages and spines, and perusing five editions reveals five different configurations of internally inconsistent typography, even from the same publisher. In the 1922 leather Doubleday edition, the ship’s name appears in quotation marks in the body of the narrative, and in regular font (without quotation marks or italics) for the titles, spine and running heads. In the 1924 Doubleday Canterbury edition, the ship’s name appears in italics in the narrative, in quotation marks on the spine, running heads, and first page title, and in regular font on the other title pages. The 1950 Dent edition is the same, but uses quotation marks on all the title pages. The 1988 Penguin edition italicizes the whole title on its title page, including quotation marks around the ship’s name, while also reproducing the title page of the first British edition, with quotation marks, but no italics save the epigram. The Cambridge edition italicizes the ship’s name on the title pages and body of the text, but uses quotation marks on the running heads and spine. This variety is not due to the whims of each editor; it is rather the result of house style sheets and precedents inherited from the series of which the texts are a part. Yet the sheer multiplicity of these forms is perhaps also a helpful reminder not to seek a false unity for this text which, true to the view of the world set forth in its Preface, must necessarily be as “manifold” as it is “one.”

The achievement of the Cambridge Nigger of the Narcissus,” then, lies less in offering a single final text that some readers might hope for than in showing us – through Simmons’s meticulous discussion of multiple texts and his excellent apparatus of variations, emendations, accidentals, and notes – not only why such a text would be impossible, but what we should consider as we navigate the interpretive possibilities. 

© 2018 Debra Romanick Baldwin

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