Sixty-five years ago, Robert Penn Warren and Albert Erskine compiled an anthology, Short Story Masterpieces, three dozen examples of great short fiction in English from the previous sixty or so years. Authors included ranged from Stephen Crane and Henry James to Ernest Hemingway and Eudora Welty. Among them was Joseph Conrad’s tale from 1897, “An Outpost of Progress.”
In their Introduction, Warren and Erskine noted that Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” (1899) was too long to put in this collection. Since it was shorter and dealt with similar themes and the same locale, “An Outpost of Progress” took its place. In the decades following Short Story Masterpieces, “Heart of Darkness,” a hundred pages of a sailor named Marlow sitting with friends and telling an Important Story, became a bane of high school English students.
Even in Conrad’s day, critics doubted anyone would sit still for Marlow droning on for hours, criticism Conrad rejected. He used the same narrative device in his novel Lord Jim, written around the same time as “Heart of Darkness,” and more than one reader new to Conrad has breathed a sigh of relief at the end of Chapter 35, when Marlow finally shuts up. With some dismay, the unwary reader realizes that ten more chapters loom ahead.
Still, there is sardonic suspense when Chapter 36 begins more than two years later with a man receiving a thick packet from Marlow. Imagine his apprehension as he opens it, finding in it a sheaf of papers resuming Marlow’s story. The man puts it down and stares out the window, and the scene is one of Conrad’s most evocative sketches of a rainy day in London: “His rooms were in the highest flat of a lofty building, and his glance could travel afar beyond the clear panes of glass” and “the slopes of the roofs glistened, the dark broken ridges succeeding each other without end like sombre, uncrested waves.”
It is that cityscape of wet slate grey, what in The Secret Agent (1907) Conrad described as “a slimy aquarium from which the water had been run off,” that Conrad’s characters leave behind for the tropics. Lord Jim puts us in Borneo, and both “Heart of Darkness” and “An Outpost of Progress” take us deep into the Congo. While Morton Dauwen Zabel may be right that in “An Outpost of Progress” Conrad “resorts to too heavily underlined an irony,” it is a good way to ease into Conrad’s world, preparing one for the challenging and rewarding masterpieces that are “Heart of Darkness” and Lord Jim, helping one appreciate why, on his many travels across “desert, marsh, and mountain,” Wilfred Thesiger took along volumes of Conrad.
Originally, Conrad called this story “A Victim of Progress,” but really the story has numerous victims, not least being the African natives who are bartered into slavery for a pile of elephant tusks. That bartering occurs through the conniving of another native, an employee of the two Europeans who run the story’s outpost. Those two hapless functionaries replaced another European, now dead and buried but once in charge of that remote colonial outpost, a couple of reed and thatch structures and a wooden dock three hundred miles from the nearest trading post. They all live under the shadow of the tall cross atop that earlier man’s grave, and the native employee, eager literally to sell his fellow man down the river, provides what can pass for institutional continuity.
Kayerts and Carlier are the Europeans out of their depth. Kayerts had grown portly serving seventeen years in the Administration of Telegraphs; Carlier was lean and long-legged, once a non-commissioned officer of “cavalry in an army guaranteed from harm by several European powers.” Men of minor roles now in middle age, they are an unlikely pair in an unlikely setting.
When a director of the Great Trading Company that has hired them as colonial agents drops them off at the outpost, he waits until his river boat is steaming back down stream to mutter his misgivings. He refers to those men as “imbeciles” and predicts they will manage to accomplish not even the simple, civilizing tasks he has assigned them, such as planting a vegetable garden and building a fence. Conrad as storyteller summed them up with eloquent bluntness.
“They were two perfectly insignificant and incapable individuals,” observed Conrad, “whose existence is only rendered possible through the high organization of civilized crowds.” Both men were used to following routines, either in an office or in a barracks. “Few men realize,” added Conrad, “that their life, the very essence of their character, their capabilities and their audacities, are only the expression of their belief in the safety of their surroundings.” Nothing in the backgrounds of Kayerts and Carlier trained them for being alone in a jungle.
For entertainment they have a few early nineteenth-century novels left by their deceased predecessor; significantly, one of them is James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans. Unlike Hawk-eye, Kayerts and Carlier are daunted by isolation on a wild frontier. Understandably, they become frightened.
Just as frightened is Gobila, chief of a local tribe that trades at the outpost. Gobila hopes that these wicked white men will go away, yet even were they to leave, says Conrad, “fear remains.” He elaborated: “Fear always remains,” since “a man may destroy everything within himself, love and hate and belief, and even doubt; but as long as he clings to life, he cannot destroy fear.”
Conrad made the same point in Chapter 16 of Lord Jim. There, Marlow says, “While there’s life there is hope, truly; but there is fear, too.” A few paragraphs later we encounter lines that form part of the epigraph to John Stape’s The Several Lives of Joseph Conrad (2007): “It is when we try to grapple with another man’s intimate need that we perceive how incomprehensible, wavering, and misty are the beings that share with us the sight of the stars and the warmth of the sun.”
In the last chapter of The Last of the Mohicans, Hawk-eye says to a Lenape chief, “The gifts of our colors may be different, but God has so placed us as to journey in the same path.” That path in “An Outpost of Progress” is in the end covered by wavering mist, fog and fear coming together, obscuring the abuse befalling the outpost’s cross.