"NOSTROMO" is the most anxiously meditated of the longer novels which belong
to the period following upon the publication of the "Typhoon" volume of short
I don't mean to say that I became then conscious of any impending change in my
mentality and in my attitude towards the tasks of my writing life. And perhaps
there was never any change, except in that mysterious, extraneous thing which
has nothing to do with the theories of art; a subtle change in the nature of the
inspiration; a phenomenon for which I can not in any way be held responsible.
What, however, did cause me some concern was that after finishing the last story
of the "Typhoon" volume it seemed somehow that there was nothing more in the
world to write about.
This so strangely negative but disturbing mood lasted some little time; and then,
as with many of my longer stories, the first hint for "Nostromo" came to me in the
shape of a vagrant anecdote completely destitute of valuable details.
As a matter of fact in 1875 or '6, when very young, in the West Indies or rather in
the Gulf of Mexico, for my contacts with land were short, few, and fleeting, I
heard the story of some man who was supposed to have stolen single-handed a
whole lighter-full of silver, somewhere on the Tierra Firme seaboard during the
troubles of a revolution.
On the face of it this was something of a feat. But I heard no details, and having
no particular interest in crime qua crime I was not likely to keep that one in my
mind. And I forgot it till twenty-six or seven years afterwards I came upon the
very thing in a shabby volume picked up outside a second-hand book-shop. It
was the life story of an American seaman written by himself with the assistance
of a journalist. In the course of his wanderings that American sailor worked for
some months on board a schooner, the master and owner of which was the thief
of whom I had heard in my very young days. I have no doubt of that because
there could hardly have been two exploits of that peculiar kind in the same part of
the world and both connected with a South American revolution.
The fellow had actually managed to steal a lighter with silver, and this, it seems,
only because he was implicitly trusted by his employers, who must have been
singularly poor judges of character. In the sailor's story he is represented as an
unmitigated rascal, a small cheat, stupidly ferocious, morose, of mean
appearance, and altogether unworthy of the greatness this opportunity had thrust
upon him. What was interesting was that he would boast of it openly.
He used to say: "People think I make a lot of money in this schooner of mine. But
that is nothing. I don't care for that. Now and then I go away quietly and lift a bar
of silver. I must get rich slowly--you understand."
There was also another curious point about the man. Once in the course of some
quarrel the sailor threatened him: "What's to prevent me reporting ashore what
you have told me about that silver?"
The cynical ruffian was not alarmed in the least. He actually laughed. "You fool, if
you dare talk like that on shore about me you will get a knife stuck in your back.