The Life and Work of Ford Madox Ford
Letters of Ford Madox Ford
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.
In 1894 Ford married the seventeen-year-old Elsa Martindale and tried the cloistered rural life as an impecunious gentleman of literature. In spite of visits with the Garnetts, Stephen Crane, and Joseph Conrad—himself a solitary—and epistolary friendships with H. G. Wells, Galsworthy, and W. H. Hudson, he grew weary of kitchen gardening, the mire and rural rain while diagramming fiction. Ben Jonson in sixteenth-century London might pretend “I’ll purchase Devonshire and Cornwall and make them perfect Indies,” but Ford could not. Already tired of planting potatoes in the English marshes he wanted to be a Cadmus who sowed letters in the Bohemian quarters of great cities. His life was in all respects a paradox. When he dwelt in a literary metropolis he pined to be a novelist-farmer in Provence or to be with the Tates in Tennessee. As MacShane has it: “…In his Women and Men…as in Provence and Great Trade Route…he pitted the natural goodness of the simple agricultural class against the avarice and inhumanity of the financiers of Birmingham and London.”
Although he saw that “gas and water socialism” was pseudo-utopianism, he founded the English Review which he regarded as a socialistic undertaking. Above all he loathed what was mediocre—the Meynell family of poetasters, and Tennyson Victorianism. This was, in great measure, the reason for the existence of his English Review.
The august headquarters of this international periodical was a cock-loft above a fish-monger’s shop; there he discovered and published Thomas Hardy, Joseph Conrad, H. G. Wells, D. H. Lawrence, Wyndham Lewis, and Norman Douglas. Many of those he befriended have left us rancid gammons of words about the young Ford. Garnett remembered him as having skin “the color of raw veal” and “rabbit teeth.” Wyndham Lewis called him a “flabby lemon,” and Richard Aldington who vilified everybody he knew, said Ford spoke under his breath to compel his word-apprentices to listen to him. As I knew him many years later he was a pink Nordic, with a steep, sloping forehead, tender azury eyes, and the sagging nether lip of a Silenus.
Ford published his first book at eighteen and by the time he had arrived, and experimentalist that he was he was always arriving, he knew the full, heady ripeness of disappointment. Of his trade he said it was “un metier de chien,” and added in a letter: “And all the time you will know fasting and cold nights for lack of covers, bitter viands and sleep tormented by regrets.”
Pound claimed that Ford had “wasted 40 novels in which there are excellent parts merely buried in writing done at his second best.” Then who has forty immortal books in his shoaly soul? Having said farewell to the Elizabethans, what else was left but a perverse credo which has to be the mosaic law for later writers. Ford had expunged more than a moiety of English poetry and suggested that modern slang was the manna of literature. As a result of his influence upon bookish men one is now considered an anti-quarian if one mentions any writer who lived before the time of Henry James. Pound, his acolyte, had a craw for all the gravely dicta Ford could pour down it. Pound dismissed “The old crusted lice and advocates of corpse language.”
According to Ford the Elizabethans were, with the exception of Shakespeare, a gaggle of turgid poeticules. “O, Lord! What a single one of them, except Shakspeare, cd. express a clear thought clearly?” When I knew Ford in 1937 or 38 he informed me that aside from Timon of Athens and Lear all of Shakespeare’s plays were potboilers. Hamlet was just a piece of jobbing. Ford could say, forget the old diction, never mind your predecessors—and at the same time have his hero, Christopher Tietjens, in his novel Some Do Not, state that all that was good in English literature ended with the seventeenth century. But since life is senseless, and art is supposed to have the logic it lacks, I felt Ford had a monarch’s privilege to behead what he believed was the flummery of the great poets. Besides, it does not matter what the writer says but what his books are that counts.
I can make nothing of his bizarre dogma: “Education Sentimentale is Stonechenge; but What Maisie Knew is certainly Stratford-on-Avon,” and I allege that jargon, the howl of Lucifer, cannot quicken the pulses as Gavin Douglas, Ben Jonson, and Webster do—but take or leave it. All creeds are hemlock to the author, and any canon narrowly followed is likely to result in trumpery verse.
The mot juste, which Ford took from Flaubert as the magic and receipt for any good book, is often an accident. Ford exchanged one shibboleth for another, which did not bother the bourgeoisie who seldom read him. However, he also began to change women, and that was quite another matter. After Ford divorced his wife, Henry James, who relished a cuckold or adultery on his own pages but who could neither be the one nor commit the other, viewed Ford’s misdemeanor with very English bowler and umbrella hauteur. Ford wrote to the young Herbert Read warning him about his own native Yorkshiremen who “conceal the Venus of Milo, as she used to be concealed in Leeds Art Gallery, behind Aspidistras!” By 1911, as MacShane tells us, “his reputation was ruined.” Except for sporadic successes, he was a congenital failure.
But Ford knew how to come out of the dumps; again he leaned upon Flaubert’s counsel, which Ford passed on to me: “After all work is still the best means of getting the better of life.” He created another belles-lettres magazine Transatlantic Review, and issued his usual manifestos from Bedlam grounded upon the vernacular, and bade farewell to the demigods of the past. But, of course, after twelve issues, including the works of Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Hemingway, Paul Valéry, Djuna Barnes and William Carlos Williams, the Transatlantic expired.
Meantime he had composed verses, as Frank MacShane divulges, which were loosely based on Pope’s Dunciad. Although Ford claimed he detested rhymed verse, offering as an example Greenwich and spinach, this did not prevent him from ending one line of a poem with drain and the next cellophane. Always a droll, Christopher Tietjens makes sonnets.
By 1930 Ford was once more a celebrated obscurian. When I had the honor of knowing him it seemed to me he was writing posthumously. He felt that the greatest portion of his sublunar existence was spent “in a dismal world of falling leaves.”
Ford’s last five books, according to his biographer, had disappointing sales, and no publisher was eager to buy another. By the time he began The March of Literature, his ultimate book, he had scrabbled off well over seventy volumes. This is a tome of more than eight hundred huffing, wheezy pages, one half of which is eccentric and iconoclastic and the other part bread and butter gossip. MacShane says: “Ford’s work was uneven and his conception of his subject rarely lived up to the technical brilliance of his writing.” But Ford, to use his own phrase, was a “professional prosateur”: he was sure to offer enough rashers of edible ideas to gratify a reader hungry for literature. The book will vex you, raise your curiosity, and never wholly appease your intellect, but one can cite many sound and absolutely right judgments that should placate the avenging muses.
Ford was good and also froward to the end. Anti-academic, he took the position of the pedantic philister maintaining that most of Shakespeare’s plays were written for money. Of course, he employed all the draff of Shakespearean apocrypha to prove his point; nevertheless, what Ford said makes the mob elocutions Shakespeare composed for the pit clearer.
How much Ford read to garner up all these bibliographical sources for his March of Literature would be hard to guess. His scanty remarks about Langland’s Piers Plowman he could have gotten from an easy perusal of Skeat’s Introduction and the Prologue to the Vision. Often Ford rants like Pound dismissing Virgil as “the good, upper middle class townsman.” Again he is the mediocre text-book pedagogue in his description of Tacitus who “marshals his facts” in an “impeccable manner.” And then who wants his maudlin trash about Heine’s “Du bist wie eine Blume“? But rail at him as much as you like, call his work a jumble of antique curios, you are certain to come upon a truth you will always hoard.
Ford asked: “Where would English prose be without Walton’s Compleat Angler, White’s Natural History of Selborne.” I suppose it is of niggling consequence to remind his hearers of the stale sophisms of his earlier days by quoting the following: “Without any Shakespeare at all, Elizabethan-Jacobean England would still have a great literature.” Since everybody is unreasonable, including a great man like Ford, it would be cant to expect him to be other than be was.
After struggling for decades to bring the poems and novels of obscure practitioners of letters to the attention of the public Ford hardly notices them at all in this prodigious volume. There is no mention of D. H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classical American Literature, which had been graved for seventeen years, or of William Carlos Williams’s In the American Grain, also cast into limbo since 1925. In an epistle which I have taken from The Letters edited by Richard M. Ludwig, he spoke of “The Mediterranean,” and several other poems Tate had sent him, as having a “lapidary sureness and hardness that puts you…alone among the poets.” But Allen Tate too is omitted. There is not even a fugaceous allusion to Herbert Read’s almost faultless pastoral Annals of Innocence, to Robert Lowell, or Josephine Herbst, one of whose novels he had gotten published.
Was Ford crafty, a clandestine admirer of literary goods for which there were then no customers? He had said nearly all writers from the eighteenth century to our own times were Lilliputian hacks. Was he larding the oblivion of writers he had so furiously defended? After the March of Literature appeared, Ford and I organized the Society of Friends of William Carlos Williams. A moribund “old man mad about writing,” he secured publication of Williams’s The White Mule in England, and hardly able to breathe he read my ms., Can These Bones Live, and offered to write the Introduction to it, but he died in Deauville.
Ford Madox Ford was the ridiculous man of passion whom Stendhal thought could not exist in the northern countries. An elegant, impecunious gourmet of letters and cuisine who but Ford, as e. e. cummings remarked, could “find an urinoir in a bank on Fifth Avenue and have the courage to use it without having an account there.” In another epistle culled from Ludwig’s volume, Ford, quoting a Chinese proverb, wrote, “It is hypocritical to seek for the person of the Sacred Emperor in a low tea-house.” I respect everything about Ford Madox Ford, for all his days he browsed among the asphodels looking for a novelist or a poet, a legend or a book, that would increase the republic of literature.
The Letters of Ford Madox Ford reveal his nature and also show that he was not just another proser of our century. Nobody can understand our age without a knowledge of Ford Madox Ford. Moreover I think Joseph Conrad: A Personal Remembrance, Portraits From Life, and even Return to Yesterday, amorphous reminiscences about Oscar Wilde and Stephen Crane, are enchanting. I can think of no remarkable memorabilia of a noble figure so faithful to its hero as Gilchrist’s book on William Blake, and now Frank MacShane’s The Life and Work of Ford Madox Ford.
Ford’s English Usage October 28, 1965