“Old Man Mad About Writing”

The Life and Work of Ford Madox Ford

by Frank MacShane
Horizon Press, 298 pp., $6.50

Letters of Ford Madox Ford

edited by Richard M. Ludwig
Princeton, 335 pp., $8.50

In the last few years it has been the custom of Yahoo biographers to vilify the heroes of literature. Hardly one nineteenth-century author has been spared by the Cerberuses who bay the moon and bark at the shades they pretend to commemorate. This screed of vulgarity has dominated the English reviewers who lick up the dregs of man’s worst traits while neglecting his contribution to the commonwealth. We are told that Coleridge was inert and lumpish and hated to write, but the same was true of Dr. Johnson, who was a fat better talker than an author. That Walter Savage Landor threw his cook out of the window because he fried a Hecate’s supper, and not that he wrote the Imaginary Conversations, is important. We are advised that Oliver Goldsmith was a scantling for not supporting his nephew, and that Ruskin was immoral because he was impotent. Recently Mr. Swanberg has disclosed that Theodore Dreiser was a swindler and an implacable philanderer, and he has given us such a repulsive portrait that he has very likely buried Dreiser’s works for a half century.

Frank MacShane in his Life and Work of Ford Madox Ford, however, has shown us a quixote of letters whose kindness to obscare or apprentice writers was a visionary madness. His book is a festival of Ford’s life. MacShane’s memoir is a Herculean labor; he is more familiar with Ford than any of that author’s friends. This life is a parcel of literary history few of the elders of letters know, and it is almost entirely obscure to the weanlings of our century.

It was said that Ford was the last of the Pre-Raphaelites, but Ford denied this, claiming that Joseph Conrad and he were the first Impressionists. Dante Gabriel and Christina expected every Rosetti and Hueffer to be bred up as an artist. It might appear marvelous to have had such savants as relations, but since everyone’s childhood is his Nemesis, Ford was most anxious to get out of the museum of geniuses his family had created. Ford wrote: “To me life was simply not worth living because of the existence of Carlyle, of Mr. Ruskin, of Mr. Holman Hunt, of Mr. Browning…”

Early in his career he had to change his teutonic surname of Heuffer to Ford. Though his tradition and sympathies were devoutly English—when he had a seizure of despondency George Herbert was his only balm—the scavengers of the patriotic philistia were at his heels because he had a Germanic name. Ford enlisted in the army, was wounded on the Somme, gassed at Armentières, and was to be plagued for the rest of his life by the damage done him in the first World War.

As a callow author he had been the friend of Henry James, whose bourgeois high tea style of prose haunted many of his novels. Ford, as Merton Densher in Wings of the Dove, is “longish, leanish and fairish.” As MacShane observes, Ford wrote a number of pseudo-Jamesian novels.


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