Stanford, Near Hythe,
12. Nov. 1900.
You are great and good.
Yes! you've put your finger on the plague spot. The division of the book* into two parts which is the basis of your criticism demonstrates to me once more your amazing insight; and your analysis of the effect of the book puts into words precisely and suggestively the dumb thoughts of every reader--and my own.
Such is indeed the effect of the book; the effect which you can name and others can only feel. I admit I stood for a great triumph and I have only succeeded in giving myself utterly away. Nobody'll see it, but you have detected me falling back into my lump of clay I had been lugging up from the bottom of the pit, with the idea of breathing big life into it. And all I have done was to let it fall with a silly crash.
For what is fundamentally wrong with the book--the cause and the effect--is want of power. I do not mean the 'power' of reviewers' jargon. I mean the want of illuminating imagination. I wanted to obtain a sort of lurid light out (of) the very events. You know what I have done--alas! I haven't been strong enough to breathe the right sort of life into my clay--the revealing life.
I've been satanically ambitious, but there's nothing of a devil in me, worse luck. The Outcast is a heap of sand, the Nigger a splash of water, Jim a lump of clay. A stone, I suppose will be my next gift to the impatient mankind--before I get drowned in mud to which even my supreme struggles won't give a simulacrum of life. Poor mankind! Drop a tear for it--but look how infinitely more pathetic I am! This pathos is a kind of triumph no criticism can touch. Like the philosopher who crowed at the Universe I shall know when I am utterly squashed. This time I am only very bruised, very sore, very humiliated.
This is the effect of the book upon me; the intimate and personal effect. Humiliation. Not extinction. Not yet. All of you stand by me so nobly that I must still exist. There is You, always, and never dismayed I had an amazing note from Lucas. Amazing! This morning a letter came from Henry James. Ah! You rub in the balm till every sore smarts--therefore I exist. The time will come when you shall get tired of tending true and most well-intentioned sham--and then the end'll come too.
But keep up! keep up! Let me exhort you earnestly to keep up! as long as you can.
I send you the H J. letter. A draught from the Fountain of Eternal Youth. Wouldn't you think a boy had written it? Such enthusiasm! Wonderful old man, with his record of wonderful work! It is, I believe, seriously intended (the latter) as confidential. And to you alone I show it--keep his secret for us both. No more now. I've read Petersburg tales** Phew! That is something! That is many things and the only thing it is written! It is. That work is genuine, undeniable, constructed and inhabited. It hath foundation and life. I hope the writer will deign to recognize my most fraternal welcome!
PS Pray send the James autograph back--registered. Our great love to you three. We must meet soon.
**Petersburg Tales, by Olive Garnett (Heinemann, 1900.)
-from Letters from Joseph Conrad 1895-1924 edited with introduction and notes by Edward Garnett (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill) p.171-73.