Ford Madox Ford: A Dual Life
The back cover of the old Fifties Vintage paperback of Ford’s The Good Soldier has always made poignant reading. “Fifteen distinguished critics,” it begins, “have subscribed to a single statement concerning this remarkable novel.” Next comes the statement: “Ford’s The Good Soldier is one of the fifteen or twenty greatest novels produced in English in our century.” And then the names, from Leon Edel to Graham Greene, Jean Stafford to William Carlos Williams.
There is something both heroic and hopeless about this, as there was much that was heroic and hopeless about Ford himself. Fifteen critics ought to be better than five, but somehow the number overpleads. Then there is the statement itself. “One of the fifteen or twenty” simply can’t make up its mind—again, a very Fordian vacillation, but one which weakens rather than strengthens the claim: ah, so Joseph Henry Jackson thinks it’s in the top fifteen, but Willard Thorp only ranks it in the top twenty? “Produced in English” could have been suppressed; while “in our century” must have looked less than granitically certain when that century still had more than four decades to run.
Yet the statement remains poignant because you can hear the literary virtue behind it: look, we know this guy is good, so will you please, please read him? Ford has never lacked supporters, but has always lacked readers. In 1929 Hugh Walpole wrote that “there is no greater literary neglect of our time in England than the novels and poems of Ford,” to which Ford replied, “It is just that the public will not read me.” There are various overlapping reasons for this. He presents no usefully crisp literary profile: he wrote too much, and in too many literary genres; he fails to fit easily into university courses. He seems to fall down a hole between late Victorianism and modernism, between a childhood of being dandled by Liszt and seeing Swinburne gambol, to a later career as avuncular facilitator of Pound, Hemingway, and Lawrence. He also presented himself as an elderly party fading out before this new generation, which was probably a bad tactical move. In his 1927 preface to The Good Soldier, he writes of himself as an “extinct volcano,” someone “prepared to stand aside” in favor of the “clamorous young writers,” an old bird who had laid a Great Auk’s egg in the form of The Good Soldier and was happy to leave it at that. Yet 1927 was the year between the publication of the third and fourth volumes of his other masterpiece, Parade’s End. His bufferish pose was too convincing: Graham Greene wrote that “The death of Ford Madox Ford was like the obscure death of a veteran—an impossibly Napoleonic veteran, say, whose immense memory spanned the period from Jena to Sedan.” Today, Greene seems the more old-fashioned writer of the two. If ambitious novelists should all study…
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