Ford Madox Ford: A Study of His Novels
Ford Madox Ford’s Novels: A Critical Study
Novelist Of Three Worlds: Ford Madox Ford
From 1927 to the year before his death in 1939 I knew Ford very well, as well as a man so much younger could have known him. I knew him first in New York, where he had for a few months rooms in a brownstone house in Perry Street in which I had a free apartment in exchange for being the janitor. In the winter of 1929, while he was in the United States again, he lent us his flat in Paris at 32 rue de Vaugirard. In the thirties he visited me several times in Tennessee, first at Memphis, and then at my farm near Clarksville where in the summer of 1937 he wrote much of The March of Literature. In that summer he brought with him his wife Janice Biala, the painter, and her sister-in-law, Mrs. Jack Tworkov, his secretary; Robert Lowell lived in a tent on the lawn, where he intoned the Miltonic blank verse that he wrote every morning. My wife Caroline Gordon, with one idiotic servant, ran the precariously balanced menage. Ford could eat French food only, but Ida, with the occasional assistance of her mother Electra, the washerwoman, could not even cook Tennessee, much less French. Ford was unhappy in the 95° F. but every morning he paced the columned gallery—which had nothing but the earth to support it—and dictated to Mrs. Tworkov several pages of The March of Literature. There was a persistent tide that seldom ebbed, of visitors from Nashville, from Louisville, from New York, from Europe. It was a situation perversely planned by fate to expose human weakness. There were no scenes. Were we not, like the Ashburnhams and the Dowells, “quite good people”? Yet much became known to us about one another that we could have written, as “trapped spectators,” of what might have happened but didn’t.
After Ford’s death I began to feel that I had perhaps written a novel that I had put away and all but forgotten: had written it as the trapped spectator John Dowell in The Good Soldier, who “knew Edward very well” but then at last knew nothing at all about him. To this day I know nothing of Ford, except his great kindness to me as a young man. Ford’s biographers at their peril will set up as omniscient narrators: they will have to assume the role of Dowell, the hesitant prober of motive with the intimate but obfuscated view, and through progressions d’effet come out in the end with the image but not the essence of the man. For he was a character in one of his own later novels. Will not his “method” be the best one possible for his biographers? His conversation either illustrated or was the source of his theory of fictional dialogue. Dialogue must never convey information; it may be about nothing at all so long as it is in character. (“Just might do it,” says Ashburnham on a polo field. “Shuttlecocks!” says Nancy Rufford repeatedly.) Ford’s casual observations could be detached from their occasions without loss of meaning, for he always spoke in character.
I remember a fine evening in Paris in the autumn of 1928 when I was walking with him by the Petit Luxembourg, and he suddenly spoke, as if to himself (as Ashburnham seems always to speak): “One might be a peer of the realm or a member of the Académie Francaise. There is nothing else.” It had no “context.” Was it really as fatuous as it sounded? I think not. John Dowell would have let the remark drop casually, but with shocking force, and then through some thirty pages of “time-shifts” show how it came out of the total “affair” which was Ford’s life. We shall never know much more of Ford—however much his biographers may find out about him—than the brief self-revelation which reveals little. Ford, like Ashburnham and Tietjens, will be made “known” to us through the Jamesian-Fordian technique of “gradual revelation” and progression d’effet, by which we will witness the “affair,” the significant action of a given moment of history, and then the pathos which will fall just a little short of tragedy, as The Good Soldier falls short of tragic action. And why should this be so? It is Ford’s great theme that tragic action must be incomplete in a world that does not allow the hero to take the full Oedipean responsibility for the evil that he did not intend but that he has nevertheless done.
What I am trying to say is that Ford’s best biographer will understand at the outset that Ford himself must be approached as a character in a novel, and that novel a novel by Ford. The complaint, often heard today, that James, Conrad and Ford were each in his own degree obsessed by “form” or “method” is of course nonsense; but if it were true, would it be less damaging to the vitality of the novel in our day than the obsession with the expressionistic egotism and disorder of American novelists since the War? Ford was not, in the pejorative sense, a formalist. Ford’s technique is Ford, and he could have had no other. So the biographer must collect and compare the views—as Dowell collects and compares—of Jessie Conrad and Violet Hunt, and attend closely to the correction of these views by Mr. Douglas Goldring, whose two books, South Lodge and Trained for Genius, though necessarily incomplete in documentation, will have to be accepted as the Ford primers by their more scholarly successors. Mr. Goldring knew Ford “well,” but being the younger man could not have been in the action of the novel which was Ford’s life. He will probably remain the best contemporaneous witness.
There are now in print three large critical studies of Ford which are the ostensible subject of this article. Mr. Cassell, Mr. Meixner and Mr. Wiley—each has his particular insight; we shall remain permanently in their debt. I must have read The Good Soldier some thirty-five times; I imitated it, in the way Johnson imitated Juvenal in London, in a novel I wrote about twenty-five years ago. My novel might have been better had I understood the construction of The Good Soldier as shrewdly as Mr. Cassell does: that, I think, is Mr. Cassell’s virtue—his grasp of the symmetries and correspondences of form. Mr. Meixner is, I believe, more than his rival colleagues, sensitive to the nuances of Ford’s style: its great flexibility, its tightrope virtuosity which combines colloquial rhythms and idioms with high eloquence. For this reason he understands better than anybody I have read the role of Dowell in The Good Soldier; it is his awareness of what style does in this great novel that enables him to put Mr. Mark Schorer’s Introduction to the Vintage edition out of court. Mr. Schorer suggests that the novel is a comedy of humor, the humor being phlegm, because Dowell is passive and obtuse. I am surprised that a critic of Mr. Schorer’s experience could take a personal narrator at his word; I surmise that he would believe everything that the Governess says about what she thinks is happening in The Turn of the Screw. Through subtle shifts of tone Dowell brings to bear upon the “affair” two points of view, his own and that of Ford, who is standing over his shoulder: the tragic action is delineated by Ford (through Dowell’s eyes); the irony of this action is established by Dowell’s faltering perception of it; and Dowell is the world. It is as if Oedipus Rex were a novel told in the first person by Creon. The action would be the same, but our access to the action would be delayed by Creon’s limited perception. Mr. Wiley’s book is less concerned than the two others with style and form, but his book is nevertheless a valuable addition to our understanding of Ford. His object is to show Ford’s development from the early novels, up to The Good Soldier and through Parade’s End to the decline in a late work like When the Wicked Man: this development is simply an increasing sense of the “affair” most deeply significant of the shift from decadent aristocracy to middle-class liberalism, along with a sharper sense of the fictional techniques best adapted to render the affair in its complete objectivity. All three of our critics agree that The Good Soldier offers us the most nearly perfect fusion of subject and method.
Besides these three books, there is also the formidable bibliography of Ford’s writings and of writings about Ford, by Mr. David Low Harvey. Mr. Harvey lists 1,053 titles beginning with a review of The Brown Owl in the London Times in 1891 and ending with Richard Foster’s essay on Zeppelin Nights in The Minnesota Review of Summer 1962. Since the Second World War the number of articles about Ford has increased yearly at a rate that suggests geometrical progression; and it must also be said that there has been an increase not only in quantity but in the informed intelligence paid him. Recent studies and reviews of Ford, with the exception of the prefaces and articles by Graham Greene and Caroline Gordon, are by younger writers who could not have known Ford en pantouffles and who are not blinded by the fog or war that settled upon his reputation after the affair with Violet Hunt and the attacks upon him for his version of the collaboration with Conrad. If the essays published so far by Richard W. Lid and Richard M. Ludwig are parts of books yet to appear, as I hear they are, there will shortly be five books about Ford since 1961. There is still in manuscript a biography by Frank McShane; and another biography, which I understand will have the full support of Miss Janice Biala, who owns the letters and other private papers, will appear in the next few years from the hand of Mr. Arthur Mizener. If this book comes out, say, by 1966, and Mr. McShane’s not much later than that, there will have been by 1966 seven full-length biographies and critical studies of Ford within five years. The staggering disproportion between the number of books about Ford and the number of his own books that may then be in print will be an anomaly of Anglo-American literary history. It will be easier to read about Ford than to read him.
Is it possible that all these studies will inspire publishers to lose money by getting back into print the minor works, and to sacrifice themselves in an heroic effort to hush up the scandal of this anomaly? Ford knew a great deal about scandal, but this sort never came within his purview. I think that the irony might have pleased him, but he would say, were he alive, as he often said about matters that he didn’t want to discuss, “I am too old and too distinguished to think about it.”
The future of his reputation is further complicated by the critical distinction of the three books so far published. This may trap us in the illusion that there is a Ford revival. There may be one soon, if Mr. Greene’s plan to republish Ford, a few books a year, meets with any success at all. But for the moment only a few scholars and critics will be introduced to Ford, and his old admirers edified, by the three books here under review. It is not likely that the general reader (if he exists) will get further than hearing about them.