Conrad First The Joseph Conrad Periodical Archive

Conrad First in the Classroom

Debra Romanick Baldwin, University of Dallas

© Debra Romanick Baldwin. No part of this text may be reposted or republished without the permission of the author.


My first use of Conrad First in the classroom was unexpected.1 In 2010, I was teaching a graduate seminar on Conrad, and we were discussing “Youth”—in particular, what to make of the way that the narrative is punctuated by the mantra of “Pass the bottle.” What sort of action or pause does it amount to each time, and why is it there? Is the utterance connected with what has just been said in each case, or does it just establish a rhythm in order to convey the retrospective mood and to remind the reader of the narrative context? The students debated these and other alternatives. Then someone connected it with an even stronger break in the narrative: the asterisks near the end of the story. They occur after Marlow has described the departure of the potential rescue steamer, leaving the sailors of the Judea alone with their burning ship, leading the older Marlow to meditate on the metaphor it evoked:

And then I knew that I would see the East first as commander of a small boat. I thought it fine; and the fidelity to the old ship was fine. We should see the last of her. Oh the glamour of youth! Oh the fire of it, more dazzling than the flames of the burning ship, throwing a magic light on the wide earth, leaping audaciously to the sky, presently to be quenched by time, more cruel, more pitiless, more bitter than the sea—and like the flames of the burning ship surrounded by an impenetrable night.

*        *                    *                    *                    *                    *  (Conrad 1984, 30)

Following these asterisks, Marlow resumes his narrative with the captain telling them all to get back to work.
The class observed that this contemplative break and change in tone couldhave been achieved with another “Pass the bottle.” Yet instead, we get a much stronger, distinctive break interrupting not only Marlow’s inner narrative, but, arguably, the frame narrative as well. Another student exclaimed: “And it’s not just threeasterisks—it’s six!” I agreed, since those six appearing in the student’s 1984 Oxford World’s Classics edition accorded with those in my own Doubleday edition. But the rest of the class protested. They were using the Wordsworth Classics edition of selected short stories, which only contains three. So how many are there, they wanted to know?
Not wanting to squander a serendipitous moment of student captivation—imagine a question about variant asterisks on a syllabus!—I felt compelled to take things further. Knowing that neither edition in that classroom was “authoritative,” and not having access to the newly published, authoritative Cambridge edition, which would have settled the matter, I suddenly remembered that we could consult Conrad First to check the form of the original serialization. “Could someone boot up their laptop?” I asked. Usually, I am rather strict about not admitting the potential for any electronic distraction in the classroom, anything that might come between the words and the faces interacting in the classroom. But in this case, it was clear that the technology would not dilute, but would intensify intellectual engagement. In a moment, the dozen or so of us were crowding around page 324 of the September 1898 issue of Blackwood’s Magazine, looking for the passage. Then someone said: “There are no asterisks at all!” In place of the asterisks was a wholly new sentence not in either of the books: “But there we were left alone to see the last of her.”
The students audibly gasped
The episode highlights a number of potential classroom uses for Conrad First. First, although textual variants are easy to find (indeed, inescapable, as one discovers when trying to get students to obtain the editions listed on one’s syllabus), what Conrad Firstprovided here was a textual variant that was significantto the students. It wasn’t just “another” version, or even an “authoritative” version; rather, it offered a historical claim that they found compelling. Of course, they recognized instantly that “historical” was not quite the same as “authoritative”—one one student quickly remarked: “Do you think the magazine editor changed it?,” which led to all sorts of productive queries. Who made the changes? Who left the asterisks out, or put them in, and why? The question of textual variance led to two sorts of questions, one of form and another of process. How does the presence or absence of the asterisks change the effect of the narrative? And who is involved in shaping this effect, and why? Of course, any of these questions could be posed in class on their own. But what was distinctive here was the interest, the significance, the stake which students recognized in engaging the original serialization as a response to seemingly arbitrary alternatives presented by variant modern editions. Interestingly, students sought not a definitive solution, but a more grounded approach  guided by an open-ended interest in historical conditions.
Conrad First offered another benefit, too: conveying the historical place of the serializations had the force of re-introducing the question and problem of authorial intent. Although Conrad First itself is chronologically further from Conrad’s historical moment than earlier print editions, and although the instability of the internet introduces a whole host of epistemological issues—the only way one truly knows that what is online is a faithful copy is by reference to the original—Conrad First’s page images evoke as well as evince a historical moment, allowing students to perceive both artifact and atmosphere. And this combination invites them to imagine the author as an historical individual operating under complex conditions. They can envision the author as a voice both preserved and distorted in the messy context of periodical publication, much as the narrative itself has been edited, filtered, typeset, and embedded amidst competing words and pictures. Indeed, like a crackling recording of Caruso’s voice, the very remoteness conveyed by the medium preserves a heightened sense of a historical individual, made all the more real precisely by its problematical inaccessibility. Perhaps by definition, no “authoritative” edition can quite convey this effect of an author engaging a world in which he is not authoritative, a world in which our own ability to discern intentionality is never an all-or-nothing phenomenon.
In that particular class meeting, we did not go delve further into the Conrad Firstsite. Had we done so, we would have discovered that there are also conflicting serialized versions, such as the American Outlook’sserialization the following month, which, like Blackwood’s, contains a sentence in place of the asterisks, but which also preserves a long passage from the manuscript that was edited out of Blackwoods and later print editions:

… And then I knew that I would see the East first as commander of a small boat. I thought it fine; and the fidelity to the old ship was fine. We should see the last of her. O the glamour of youth! O the fire of it, more dazzling than the flames of the burning ship, throwing its magic light on the wide earth, leaping audaciously to the sky, presently to the quenched by time, more cruel, more pitiless, more bitter than the sea, and, like the flames of the burning ship, surrounded by the profound night: by the night that waits, by the night that rushes suddenly, and in which we are left to grope in the ashes of our desires, in the ashes of our strength, in the cold ashes of our loves, of our friendships, of our hopes, for some spark of that youth that has been!
But there we were left alone to see the last of her.

In addition to discovering this generous new chunk of text, we would have been tantalized by the indexed list of six subsequent serialized versions bearing the tag “page imagery not yet available”—all of which points to a third benefit of consulting the site at that moment, and perhaps its most important value, in addition to raising the issues above: to pique the curiosity of all in the room, to open and invite students to return and explore this rich reservoir on their own, which some did.
As for our discussion, we returned to the narrative problem of the asterisks, their distinctiveness and effect in the story, and decided that they mark both a contemplative pause and a narrative echo. They provide a breather following Marlow’s most impassioned expression, a meditative space in which to consider Conrad’s elaborate likening of youth to a fire surrounded by impenetrable night. Does the image mark the meaninglessness of the fire, or a material context which grounds and ennobles it? This problem is echoed by the narrative form itself, since the asterisks, in marking a sudden tonal change from the cosmic to the mundane, a prosaic return to practical considerations, mirror the passing of life and the condition of youth itself. But I will spare you our return to “Pass the bottle.”
After that episode, and dwelling on those benefits, I decided to explore integrating Conrad Firstmore formally into a course—this time, into an undergraduate survey on twentieth-century literature. The Secret Agent was on my syllabus, and it seemed to me that a period course (that is, a course premised upon the importance of historical context) would especially benefit from examining the periodical context of the work’s initial publication. So I challenged students to answer the question: “How does the context of its original serialization change how we read The Secret Agent?”.
I deliberately left the assignment broad so as to give the students the most scope. They could, if they chose, simply compare a passage in the serialized version with its appearance in the longer, elaborated version, or they could explore the form of the serialization itself. I gave them no particular instructions on how to navigate the intersection of artifact and narrative, or what to make of seemingly haphazard juxtapositions. They were on their own, invited to explore.
For some, the assignment  entailed comparing two stages of a narrative’s development. Those who took this path tended to notice that the fuller version contained, not more events, but greater psychological depth. Sean Mooney, for example, noticed the difference in endings:

The scene in which Mrs. Verloc murders her husband lasts for approximately two pages in the serialized version, while lasting a full twenty-eight pages in the final version! Remarkably, however, there are no new plot points. The sequence of action remains almost exactly the same. … Most of Conrad’s additions take the form of psychological descriptions of the characters and detailed accounts of the thoughts running through their minds. (Mooney 2012, 1)

Using examples, Mooney concludes that “the final version, by supplying far more insight into the minds of both Mr. and Mrs. Verloc, provides more clearly the crucial distinction between the internal and external aspects of a character” (Mooney 3).
Other students grappled with the periodical paratext, including the advertisements competing for attention with Conrad’s words. Megan Peterson related the fragmented quality of periodical publication to the fragmentation that characterizes the narrative itself. By considering the literal fragments within the story as well as the fragmentation of narrative voice, she described how the “serialized form of the story fits thematically, although ironically, with Conrad’s mission to reveal a deeper meaning amidst fragmented modernity” (Peterson 2).
Other students moved beyond ironic echoes to consider the ways in which serialization itself can shape a narrative itself. Andrea Jáuregui wrote a paper titled “To Be Continued…” in which she considered the striking shifts in section breaks between the serialized installmentsand the later book chapters. Giving interesting examples of divergent pauses, she suggested that the serialization’s cliffhangers illustrate a practical need for a pauses which “create a sense of tension and raise unanswerable questions—until the reader buys the next issue”, while Conrad shifted the chapter breaks for the book edition, in order to allow for a different sort of pause, one which allows readers to reflect back upon what they have just read (Jáuregui 2).
Another facet of the serial breaks was examined by a student interested in the editorial summaries of the action that introduce all but the first installment. Contrasting these summaries with Conrad’s narrative, April Lenaghen observed that their “emphasis on plot, overly simplistic presentation of characters, and misleading headlines put a strain on Conrad’s authorial intent,” and that this tension was less as an indictment of Ridgway’s than an index of “the deficiencies of summaries in general” (Lenaghan 4).
While students generally felt that the visual elements added by the serialization posed a distraction for readers of Conrad’s narrative, one student defended Henry Patrick Raleigh’s illustrations. Challenging previous critical assessments, Anne-Marie Dhooghe observed that in addition to offering other advantages, some of the illustrations anticipated the psychological detail that Conrad was to add to the book version. For example, she juxtaposed the novel’s scene in which Verloc wakes Winnie to complain about Stevie, with its shorter and illustrated version in the serialization, noticing how Raleigh’s initial illustration anticipated some of Conrad’s additions:.The serialized passage, accompanied by the illustration, reads:

… Mrs. Verloc had fallen asleep. But when she understood that her brother was still downstairs, she swung out in one sudden movement and glided from the room.
“I don’t know how to manage him,” Mr. Verloc explained peevishly. “Won’t do to leave him downstairs alone with the lights.”

Figure 1

The elaborated passage of the novel reads:

Mrs. Verloc had fallen asleep with the lamp (no gas was laid upstairs) turned up full on the table by the side of the bed. The light thrown down by the shade fell dazzlingly on the white pillow sunk by the weight of her head reposing with closed eyes and dark hair done up in several plaits for the night. She woke up with th sound of her name in her ears, and saw her husband standing over her.
“Winnie! Winnie!”
At first she did not stir, lying very quiet and looking at the cash-box in Mr. Verloc’s hand. But when she understood that her brother was “capering all over the place down-stairs” she swung out in one sudden movement onto the edge of the bed. Her bare feet, as if poked through the bottom of an unadorned, sleeved calico sack buttoned tightly at the neck and wrists, felt over the rug for the slippers while she looked upward into her husband’s face.
“I don’t know how to manage him,” Mr. Verloc explained peevishly. “Won’t do to leave him downstairs alone with the lights.”
She said nothing, glided across the room swiftly, and the door closed upon her white form. (Conrad 2007, 44–45)

Considering the two together, Dhooge comments,

In addition to giving the basic elements of the scene (e.g. the two characters, the cash-box, etc.), the image reveals the aspect of the couple and assigns the desired mood or feeling to the scene. Mrs. Verloc fidgets with her nightgown buttons as she looks at her husband, who in turn looks downstairs toward the unmanageable Stevie. Verloc’s gaze and his position by the door demonstrate his desire to leave the corrective action (i.e. the management of Stevie) up to his wife. Her aspect conveys an earnest desire to accomplish his request and to keep Stevie from being a nuisance to her husband. Thus, the illustration provides the visual effect and emotional tension which the serialized narrative leaves out and which the later narrative would fill in. (Dhooge 2012, 6–7)

Others students took their analyses in a political direction, and these were divided: either they saw the novel as reflecting the violent political instabilities expressed on the surrounding pages, or they saw the novel as working againstthe oversimplified and politicized expressions on the surrounding pages. An interesting and elegant—if perhaps overstated—essay by Alex Burch made the case that the periodical’s conservative context prevented Conrad from displaying his real sympathy with anarchy:

One can easily see that “Ridgway’s” was politically themed to at least some extent. Its subtitle is: “A Militant Weekly for God and Country” (1.1.1). Its two aims, therefore, are moral and patriotic, representing the primary targets that anarchy seeks to disrupt and destroy. The magazine proceeds to list its contents, placing “good fiction” sixth, with “the significant happenings of the entire country” listed first (1.1.1). Even if the order of this list is inconsequential, the mere inclusion of these two subjects together means that a reader of the magazine should be informed in both. The reader of Conrad’s fiction in “Ridgway’s” is politically interested, and reads the serialized fiction alongside political articles and editorials. Consequently, Conrad could not successfully, popularly, or even safely publish a fiction that promoted the amoral and anti-patriotic themes of anarchy within the context of this magazine. (Burch 2012, 2)

The nature and extent of Conrad’s affinity with anarchy—as well as attention to his ironic method—require more attention than the scope of the assignment allowed, but Burch’s sensitivity to the politicized context nonetheless opened the larger and invaluable question for an artist of just what one can say to whom.
Those students who saw an affinity between the politics of Conrad’s narrative and the surrounding accounts of contemporary events of his time tended not to venture beyond the general observation that international tension and labor unrest were a topic of bothThey could point to the major news story of October 1906, the American occupation of Cuba, or an immanent strike of the International Order of Machinists, or an editorial entitled, “No Laws to Prevent Wholesale spying in the United States by Foreign Powers”, or the political machinations of Hearstian journalism—each of which suggested the sheer contemporary relevance of Conrad’s observations. But occasionally, a student noticed a more specific narrative echo, as when Alex Lebl connected Verloc’s mental pronouncement in the first installment that “[a]ll these people had to be protected” to William H. Brill (“Ridgway’s Special Correspondent at Havana”) announcing that “[t]he American government, for the protection of the life and property of its citizens, has intervened” in Cuba (Lebl 2012, 3)(See here and here). But even less specific echoes noted  had the virtue of fostering students’ curiosity about the events themselves, if  only to wander over to Wikipedia in order to learn more about William Randoph Hearst or Cuban-American relations in 1906.
Wikipedia—one might object that the sort of historical venturing fostered by the assignment poses the danger of inviting bad history. And I am embarrassed to report that there were some students who persisted in referring to Conrad as having had to “trim” his novel for the serialization; evidently, I had not effectively conveyed to those students that the longer novel came later. Graver mistakes, perhaps, would surely involve claims with higher political stakes. But that danger is an argument for a more closely guided assignment mindful of what responsible historical claim entails.
My own concern lay in the other direction—that the assignment might distract students from studying the depths and larger structure of the narrative itself, by distracting them with tangential comparisons or amusing advertisements whose very purpose had been to compete for attention with the other pieces on the page. Yet the class discussion of the novel and its characters was enriched, not impeded, by the assignment. Far from reducing the novel to its historical context, the assignment and the layers of composition and publication it revealed served ultimately to throw Conrad’s words into relief, making students appreciate the novel’s complexity, freshness, and enduring relevance all the more.
The students concurred, I think. I handed out evaluations for the assignment, to be completed anonymously. In addition to the word “interesting” which recurred throughout, there was comment that struck and gratified me most of all: “I found the use of Conrad Firstto be interesting because it’s a way I never would have thought of writing a paper. When I read the assignment, I was worried it would become too historical and non-literary. In the end, though, it actually helped me discover a literary interpretation of the novel that I might not have arrived at otherwise.”



1. This essay could not have been written without the cooperation, effort, and generosity of the students in two courses, a graduate seminar on Conrad and an undergraduate seminar on twentieth-century literature, which I taught at the University of Dallas in the fall of 2010 and 2012. It was a privilege and a pleasure to teach these students, and I owe them deep thanks, especially those who have generously agreed to have their essays reproduced here.


Works Cited

Baldwin, Debra Romanick. “ENG 4362: Twentieth Century Literature Course Syllabus.” Department of English, University of Dallas, Fall 2012.

Burch, Alex. 2012. “The Human Ideal of Anarchy: Sympathy for Anarchy in Joseph Conrad’s Editorial Alterations of The Secret Agent.” The University of Dallas. TS.

Conrad, Joseph. 2007. The Secret Agent. Edited and introduced by Michael Newton. London: Penguin. Print.

-----. Selected Short Stories. 1997. Introduced by Keith Carabine. London: Wordsworth. Print.

-----. Youth, Heart of Darkness, End of the Tether. 2010. Edited by Owen Knowles. Cambridge Edition of the Works of Joseph Conrad. Cambridge: Cambridge UP. Print.

-----. Youth, Heart of Darkness, End of the Tether. 1984. Edited and introduced by Robert Kimbrough. Oxford: Oxford UP. Print.

Dhooghe, Anne-Marie. 2012. “What the Story Doesn’t Say: Illustration as a Completion in the Serialization of The Secret Agent” The University of Dallas. TS.

Jáuregui, Andrea. 2012. “To Be Continued…” The University of Dallas. TS.

Lebl, Alex. 2012. “Contextual Implications of The Secret Agent.” The University of Dallas. TS

Lenaghen, April. “The Effect of Summarization on Authorial Intent: Ridgway’s Serialization of Conrad’s The Secret Agent.” The University of Dallas. TS.

Mooney, Sean. 2012. “Communication and Self-Understanding in The Secret Agent.” The University of Dallas. TS.

Peterson, Megan. 2012. “Fragmentation and The Secret Agent: The Whole and the Sum of its Parts.” The University of Dallas. TS.


Debra Romanick Baldwin is Associate Professor of English at the University of Dallas, where she teaches the Western literary tradition from Homer, Dante, and Milton, to Conrad, Woolf, and Bellow.  She also directs the University of Dallas Writing Program and currently serves as President of the Joseph Conrad Society of America. She has published essays and articles on Conrad, St. Augustine, Flannery O’Connor, and Primo Levi, and she is presently completing a book that explores how Conrad’s use of narrative solidarity and his quest for tentative universals engage the classic quarrel between the poets and the philosophers. 


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