Where’s the man to stop the rush of social, democratic ideas? The opportunity and the day have come – and are gone! Believe me: gone for ever! For the sun is set and the last barrier removed. England was the only barrier to the pressure of infernal doctrines born in continental back-slums. Now there is nothing! The destiny of this nation and of all nations is to be accomplished in darkness amidst much weeping and gnashing of teeth, to pass t[h]rough robbery, equality, anarchy and misery under the iron rule of a military despotism. Such is the lesson of history! Such is the lesson of common-sense logic!
Socialism must inevitably end in Cesarism [sic]. –
Forgive me this long disquisition; but your letter – so earnest on the subject is my excuse. I understand you perfectly. You wish to apply remedies to quell the dangerous sy[m]ptoms; you evidently hope yet.
I do so no longer. Truthfully I have ceased to hope a long time ago. We must drift!
The whole herd of idiotic humanity are moving in that direction at the bidding of unscrupulous rascals, and a few sincere but dangerous lunatics. Those things must be. It is a fatality!
I live mostly in the past – and in the future. The present has – you easily understand – but few charms for me. I look with the serenity of despair and the indifference of contempt upon the passing events. Disestablishment, Land Reform, universal brotherhood are but like milestones on the Road to Ruin. The end will be awful – no doubt! Neither you nor I shall live to see the final crash; although we both may turn in our graves when it comes; for we both feel deeply and sincerely. Still there is no earthly remedy for those earthly misfortunes and from above – I fear – we may obtain consolation – but no remedy. ‘All is vanity’!
Descending to common matters of Life I hasten to transmit to your wife and yourself my best wishes for the coming year. May you have the winds fair and the seas smooth in the voyage of life. May the sail be long and pleasant; and if I wish your fine boys to walk straight in the path traced by their parents I can wish them no better – for in the path of rectitude lies the true happiness!
With a hearty shake of the hand believe me my dear Sir and kind friend…”
Born into an impoverished, patriotic Polish noble family, Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski’s father led a failed Polish uprising in Ukraine in 1854, an event that profoundly influenced his son’s political views. At 17, following the death of his parents, Conrad left his native country for a career at sea. He spent the next twenty years as a sailor on French and British ships where he learned French and English. He began writing during this time and his real-life adventures became the source for such novels as Almayer’s Folly (1895), Lord Jim (1900), Typhoon (1903), and numerous short stories and memoirs.
Conrad, who eventually settled in England to pursue a literary career, wrote solely in his second language, English, becoming one of the language’s greatest prose stylists. He brought a new sensibility to modern English literature, one in which the perfection of language – in its meaning and form – remained the author’s highest goal.
Conrad met Kliszczewski, the son of a Polish watchmaker and goldsmith, in Cardiff in 1885, “the only known Polish link Conrad made during his early life in England,” and maintained a long correspondence with him, that includes this letter, written during Conrad’s six-week stay in Calcutta en route home from Singapore, (“The Kliszczewski Document,” The Conradian, Stape). In fact, Conrad’s earliest known English letters were the five he wrote to Kliszczewski during a roundtrip voyage between England and Singapore in 1884-1885, while a second mate on the Tilkhurst. The first two were written from Singapore (September 27 and October 13, 1885) and the final three from Calcutta on the voyage home (November 25, the present example from December 19, 1885, and January 6, 1886).
Conrad remained “sufficiently close [to Kliszczewski] a decade after… meeting for the newly wedded Conrads to spend Christmas 1896 with Spiridion and his family in Wales,” (ibid.). Conrad notably “borrowed elements of the elder Kliszczewski’s life-story when he composed the Stein chapter of Lord Jim, with Kliszczewski’s youthful experiences in Trieste and Algeria recalled in the history of the fictional Stein, whose exile in the wake of the failed revolutionary movement of 1848, as it turns out, mirrors the Polish Insurrection of 1830 and Kliszczewski’s departure from Poland and peregrinations in its wake,” (ibid.).
At the time of this letter, Conrad had just turned 28. He became a British citizen the following year, but his first book would not be published for another ten years. In our letter Conrad rails against the results of Britain’s 1885 General Election, held from November 24-December 18, the first since the Representation of the People Act 1884 and the Redistribution Act of 1885, which equalized voting qualifications between urban and rural residents. It was also the first election in which a socialist party participated that prompted Conrad to predict the advent of authoritarianism (“Caesarism”). In the 1885 election, Liberal politician Joseph Chamberlin (1836-1914), at the time president of the Board of Trade in Gladstone’s government, attempted to gain additional benefits for newly enfranchised agricultural workers.
Conrad’s letter “is a document of considerable importance, since it reveals political and social corners of his mind as he pondered the 1885 General Election from ten thousand miles away. Conrad’s extreme reactionaryism becomes plausible only if we understand his opposition to all plans of social improvement. His suspicion of such idealistic schemes, further, can be traced to his roots in Polish politics, the generations of idealism and romanticism, including his father’s, leading to greater acts of repression by the conquering country,” (Joseph Conrad: The Three Lives, a Biography, Karl).
Published in the first volume of Conrad’s Selected Letters (1861-1897), edited by F.R. Karl and L. Davies (the text taken from Jean-Aubry’s 1927 edition of Conrad’s letters in the absence of the original) and, imperfectly transcribed and incomplete, in the June 1, 1935 issue of the New Statesman with the permission of its owner, Oliver Stillingfleet Locker-Lampson, and the Kliszczewski family, (https://www.newstatesman.com/long-reads/2020/08/ns-archive-we-must-drift-letter-joseph-conrad).
Prior to the letters to Kliszczewski, the Selected Letters includes one written in 1861 from the five-year-old Conrad to his father and one from 1883 also in Polish making this the sixth earliest known Conrad letter and the fourth earliest written in English. This is the only example of Conrad’s earliest letters still in private hands and therefore the earliest Conrad letter obtainable. (See Karl and Davies for the institutional location of the others.) With a one-inch closed tear in a vertical fold, light wear at a horizontal fold, and several tiny pinholes (mostly marginal, but one touching a letter). In fine condition and of great rarity.