Utter it softly, but with a few rare exceptions the moral arbiters of our age have still failed to come for that master of realist storytelling tinged with philosophical digression, Joseph Conrad (1857–1924), who died one hundred years ago this August. It may be that Conrad and Evelyn Waugh remain the most accomplished prose writers of the twentieth century to thus far avoid the basilisk stare of the numerically tiny but implacable ranks of those who act as the censors of our modern public discourse.

While Conrad has escaped the sort of bowdlerization that has befallen everyone from Mark Twain to J.K. Rowling, he hasn’t entirely eluded the radar of the world’s grievance class over the years. As far back as 1977 the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, youthful author of the postcolonial satire Things Fall Apart (1958), published a widely circulated essay taking issue with some of the themes at play in Heart of Darkness. According to Achebe’s reading of the book, Conrad was a “talented, tormented man” who had reduced the indigenous characters of his tale to mere “limbs” and “rolling eyes.” He reserved particular opprobrium for a line Conrad had written describing his narrator’s encounter with a wandering native: “A certain enormous buck nigger encountered in Haiti fixed my conception of blind, furious unreasoning rage, as manifested in the human animal to the end of my days.” 

The very core of Conrad’s novel, its mythic descent into illness and disillusion by a white merchant trekking through the Congolese jungle—very much the saga of Conrad’s own experience as a freelance sailor before becoming a writer—is for Achebe a white fantasy in which Africa is a mere backdrop: “Can nobody see the preposterous and perverse arrogance in thus reducing a whole continent to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind?”