Ford Madox Ford
An Immodest Violet: The Life of Violet Hunt
In his 1937 memoir Blasting and Bombardiering, Wyndham Lewis—writer, painter, founder of Vorticism, and survivor of the Great War—looked back on the prewar years of British Modernism, between around 1910 and 1914, when, he said, a spirit of extraordinary and golden promise filled the air: “Europe was full of titanic stirrings and snortings—a new art coming into flower to celebrate or to announce a ‘new age.’ ” London became a cosmopolitan capital; exhibitions of Cubist paintings transformed aesthetic attitudes; an avant garde flourished, started new magazines and new movements. A great new school was in formation, which would, said Lewis, make future critics rub their eyes. It will all appear “an island of incomparable bliss, dwelt by strange shapes labelled ‘Pound,’ ‘Joyce,’ ‘Weaver,’ ‘Hulme’…. What energy!—what impossible spartan standards, men will exclaim!… We are the first men of a future that had not materialized!”
Now among the strange shapes who populated Lewis’s prewar wonderland, there can be little doubt that one of the strangest and most elusive was the one then labeled “Hueffer”—though, because he changed his name in 1919, we now know him better as Ford Madox Ford. “Fordie,” who died just over fifty years ago, was a crucial energizer of this prewar scene, along with Pound and Lewis himself. In fact he discovered both of them during his brilliant editorship of The English Review, which Pound called “the EVENT of 1909–10.” Lewis captures Ford as odd and chubby, “a flabby lemon and pink giant, who hung his mouth open as though he were an animal at the Zoo inviting buns—especially when ladies were present.”
Ladies usually were present; love and money were two of Hueffer’s biggest troubles. Rebecca West (another young writer he helped a little later) saw him as “stout, gangling, albinoish,” and said an embrace from him (as a woman you would likely get one) made you feel “like being the toast under a poached egg.” Ernest Hemingway (yet another young writer Ford encouraged when he moved to Paris in the Twenties) called him, in a stupidly cruel passage in A Moveable Feast, a “heavy, wheezing, ignoble presence,” and said he smelled. Robert Lowell (who knew and admired Ford when he taught in American universities in the late 1930s) saw him empty an auditorium of three thousand people as he “exquisitely, ludicrously, and inaudibly imitated the elaborate periphrastic style of Henry James. They could neither hear nor sympathize.”1
Fordie did much to guide, support, and encourage the work-in-progress of many of the greatest writers during his long writing life, and at times he achieved their standard. He was squirearchical, corpulent, breathless, social, amorous, formal, a gentleman bohemian with a wet, nicotined moustache and endless money troubles. In a phrase he used to characterize his hero Tietjens in his masterpiece about wartime, Parade’s End, he was a “mealsack elephant,” and, like Tietjens, he looked quite different according to which way you turned him. As his double name suggests, there usually seemed to be two…
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