Novelist of the sea Joseph Conrad exerts an enduring influence on mariners

Joseph Conrad’s writing called upon his 20 years of experience as a mariner. (Joseph Conrad Society of America)

“There was the strong bond of the sea, and also the fellowship of the craft, which no amount of enthusiasm for yachting and cruising and so on can give … One is only the amusement of life … the other is life itself.”

From Youth, Joseph Conrad, 1902

These words have stayed with Stevens Bunker for the past 50 years. Bunker, whose father was a chief engineer whose career reached back to the last days of the square-riggers, first read Conrad as a scrawny wiper, not more than a ship’s boy.

Though Bunker’s mariner life is now but a memory, the idea that going to sea is a vocation in the religious sense remains with him to this day.

“Conrad’s saying that the sea means something different to men in the merchant service,” said Bunker, 61, proprietor of the China Sea Marine Trading Company in Portland, Maine. “You immediately know that he knows what he’s talking about.”

As well he should.

Born Jozef Konrad Korzeniowski in 1857 — the son of Polish aristocrats living in a part of the Ukraine controlled by Russia — Conrad was orphaned as a boy. At 16, he fled to Marseilles to avoid conscription in the Russian army. There, his shipboard apprenticeship began in the French merchant fleet.

Conrad would rise to master in the British merchant service (though he only commanded one vessel), and sailed for some 20 years before coming ashore for good in 1894, settling in England to write full time. He died in 1924 at age 67.

His life at sea — recounted in the 1906 autobiography Mirror of the Sea, as well as in a new biography, Joseph Conrad: Master Mariner by Peter Villiers — inspired the bulk of his work.

“He assumes you into that world,” said Bunker, again using the language as a theologian might: taking someone from one place and transporting him to another.

No small trick for any writer, much less an expatriate writing in a language he didn’t handle well until his early 20s.

Through Heart of Darkness — said to be the most widely read short novel in English — Lord Jim, The Nigger of the Narcissus, The Secret Sharer and Nostromo, as well as scores of short stories, Conrad became the great patriarch of modern fiction.

He emboldened many giants who came after him — pens as disparate as those of V.S. Naipaul, William Faulkner and Jorge Luis Borges — and he has been enshrined as the sire of the psychological novel, the political novel and the intellectual mystery tale. (During the filming of 1979’s Apocalypse Now in the Philippines, director Francis Ford Coppola was rarely without his battered copy of Heart of Darkness, on which the film was based.)

In Conrad, said H.L. Mencken, not known for tossing platitudes, there is “something of the vastness of a natural phenomenon.”

As vast as the sea itself.

Yet, for all of this, does Conrad remain relevant to the modern sailor a century later?

Mariners familiar with him and academics devoted to him say yes. In Narcissus, Conrad gives a detailed portrait of the demands faced by the captain of a full-rigged ship, which are still used for training merchant service officers around the world.

But the relevance depends on who still reads Conrad in an age dominated by short attention spans and the moving image. Indeed, finding anyone in the general population who reads Conrad — exempting ninth graders assigned Heart of Darkness — is no easy thing.

Stevens Bunker outside his store in Maine that sells traditional marine gear. The son of a chief engineer, Bunker became a devoted reader of Conrad when he went to sea as a young man. (John Gormley)

Reading habits may have devolved, said Villiers, Conrad’s biographer. “The sea does not change. Nor the challenges of loneliness, monotony and occasional danger, which it presents to those who serve upon it.”

When Capt. Paul Caubo first went to sea after his graduation from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, he was not only reminded of Youth, by Conrad, but felt like a character in the story.

“What hooked me was it was about a young man star struck by the industry, and a hundred years later it could have been my story,” said Caubo, now a Chesapeake Bay pilot.

“To Bangkok! Magic name, blessed name … remember I was twenty and it was my first second-mate’s billet,” said the narrator Marlow of Youth. “The East was waiting for me.”

Just as the East awaited the rookie mariner Caubo aboard the military sealift ship USNS Harkness, embarking on a voyage of oceanographic research in the Indian Ocean.

“I sailed as third mate on the most atrocious vessel with the most atrocious contract and a crew of punks and borderline criminals,” said Caubo of the trip. “But there is something powerful and romantic about this profession, and when you’re young and first at sea you overlook a lot.

“I stood my watch and thought, ‘Here I am! A third officer at sea!’ I thought it was all wonderful.”

Such improbable joy connected Caubo to the equally green Marlow attempting to save his own wretched vessel — this one in flames off the coast of Australia.

“The whole crew ends up in lifeboats, and he winds up commanding one of the lifeboats, thinking to himself happily, ‘Here I am, the master of my own lifeboat!’” said Caubo.

The closest Joel Hawtof gets to a seaman’s life these days is kayaking past ships in Baltimore Harbor. An electrical engineer who spent a year working as a deck hand on the tug Athena along the Delaware River, Hawtof said Conrad speaks to him not as a sailor or an electrician, or even as a man.

The author, whose masterpiece Nostromo is imbued with an insecurity so profound it has come to represent the spirit of the modern age, addresses the reader as simply human.

“There have been moments when reading Conrad has helped calm my anxiety, has made me feel more connected to everything,” said Hawtof, explaining why Conrad endures in a way that other writers do not.

Perhaps, said Hawtof, Conrad resonates so strongly with him “because of not being proud of everything one has done in life, even when you try to do the right thing.”

“Reading about Conrad’s flawed protagonists in all these backwater 19th century ports,” he said, “affirms that we are not alone.”

None more flawed, perhaps, than the central character of the Far East tale Lord Jim. This is the story of a young sailor whose momentary misgivings — in a word, cowardice — hound him for the rest of his life.

Jim is a young first mate accused of abandoning an imperiled steamship carrying 800 Muslims on a pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina. Perhaps more deeply than in any of his other books, through Jim, Conrad scrutinizes his lifelong obsession with guilt and the possibility of redemption. Nothing else by Conrad, said the Rev. Sinclair Oubre, a Roman Catholic priest and able seaman based in Port Arthur, Texas, has moved him quite so powerfully.

“What struck me was Conrad’s courage in addressing the issue of innocent guilt,” said Oubre, explaining that while Jim appears to be the only officer with integrity, he is the one assigned blame. “In light of the recent case of Capt. (Wolfgang) Schroder in Mobile and the criminalization of seafarers in general, it has become an even more timely novel.”

Schroder, a German national, was convicted in October 2006 of negligence in the death of a Mobile, Ala., crane operator, who was fatally injured when Schroder’s ship, Zim Mexico III, struck the crane. After serving four months while awaiting sentencing, Schroder was released in February of this year and told to leave the United States or be deported. (See PM 104, Page 19.)

As timely as this morning’s headlines — immortal work never fades — but without impact unless Conrad is being read.

“Sailors still love a good story,” said Dan Elwood, a deep-sea deck hand and tugboat mate turned hospital nurse in Baltimore. “I think any seaman would love to have someone like Marlow telling them stories as long as they could have a beer while he talked.”

But groups of seamen simply don’t sit around and yak — good fiction being the great lie that reveals a greater truth — as they once did.

Oubre, who also serves as president of the Apostleship of the Sea U.S.A., a seafarers’ advocacy group, blamed the reduction of crew sizes, “the ravenous desire for overtime” and a ban on smoking in common areas for estranging seamen from one another at sea.
The end of toleration for alcohol on ships, TVs in the forecastle and quick turn-arounds in port don’t help, he said.

“It’s not like you get to stay in Africa for three weeks because they’re unloading grain with shovels,” said Elwood. “Sometimes you don’t even get to go ashore. And anyway, what’s left on the planet that’s still exotic? There’s not much that hasn’t been ruined.”

A curious seafarer could watch the 1965 film adaptation of Lord Jim starring Peter O’Toole, but “the chance of handed-down sea stories becoming great books by men like Conrad and Melville is becoming extinct,” said Oubre.

And then, he added: “The great maritime tales will be lost forever, and we’re all going to die of loneliness.”

Like many an old man on the bridge, irritability was one of Conrad’s main characteristics. The gout he began experiencing as a young seaman in the Malay Archipelago did not help. He was known to pretend not to be able to hear when certain subjects were brought up in conversation.

Despite his literary accomplishments — he was offered British knighthood in 1923 and turned it down, perhaps in deference to the Polish coat-of-arms to which he was heir — Conrad seemed forever uncomfortable in a world that had not been very kind to him.

According to the Spanish novelist Jose Marias, who included a chapter on Conrad in an anthology of authors called Written Lives, the exiled Pole “lived “in a (near) permanent state of extreme tension.”

Conrad died suddenly at home on Aug. 3, 1924, falling out of his chair and to the floor. His books have never tumbled.

“Conrad’s still out there,” said Bunker. “And he’ll always be out there, because he speaks to us.”

He speaks to us about “the nature of the soul, the human heart — those things will live forever,” said Thomas Batt, who teaches composition and the humanities at Maine Maritime Academy in Castine.

Repeating the famous final words of Heart of Darkness, Batt cried, “The horror! The horror!

“If that’s not pertinent to today’s world, I don’t know what is.”

Rafael Alvarez is a short story writer based in Baltimore and Los Angeles. The son of a chief engineer, he sometimes works as an ordinary seaman. He can be reached at

By Professional Mariner Staff