Richard Ford Essay - Ford, Richard

Ford, Richard

Introduction

Richard Ford 1944-

American short story writer, novelist, and essayist.

The following entry presents an overview of Ford's short fiction career through 2002.

Although Ford is best known as the author of the critically acclaimed novel The Sportswriter (1986) and its equally well-received sequel Independence Day (1995), his short fiction, especially Rock Springs (1987), has also attracted critical attention. Much of Ford's writing deals with the issue of contradiction, as it manifests itself between doing and saying, prescription and symptom, event and its subsequent reporting. This theme very often becomes intertwined with questions about the limits and the efficacy of individualism in contemporary America.

Biographical Information

Ford, the only son of Parker Ford and his wife Edna, was born in Jackson, Mississippi, on February 16, 1944. As a child, Ford and his mother often joined Parker Ford, a traveling starch salesman, on the road. At other times, Edna traveled with her husband, leaving Ford to stay with his maternal grandparents at the Marion Hotel in Little Rock, Arkansas, which was run by his grandfather. In 1962 Ford enrolled at Michigan State University, where he majored in literature and graduated with a B.A. in 1966. After briefly attending law school at Washington University, he enrolled in a creative writing program at the University of California at Irvine, where he studied under E. L. Doctorow and earned a M.F.A. in 1970. In 1968 he married Kristina Hensley, a research professor in the field of urban and regional planning, whom he often refers to as a primary influence on the development of his writing. Ford taught creative writing at the University of Michigan (1974-1976), Williams College (1978-1979), and Princeton University (1979-1980). His first national magazine appearance was in 1976 when “In Desert Waters” was published in Esquire. While Ford published his first novel, A Piece of My Heart, in 1976, he did not receive national recognition until the publication of his third novel, The Sportswriter, in 1986. This breakthrough work followed a brief hiatus from writing. Dissatisfied with his life in New Jersey, disappointed with the reception of his second novel, The Ultimate Good Luck (1981), and, most important, grappling with his mother's terminal illness, Ford gave up writing novels in 1981 and instead wrote articles for the magazine Inside Sports. Since his return to fictional writing, Ford has continued to receive national critical acclaim for his novels and more recently his short stories. He has been the recipient of many honors and grants, a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1977, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in 1978, and a Mississippi Academy of Arts and Letters' Literature Award in 1987 among them.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Rock Springs, a collection of ten short stories, includes some of Ford's most critically acclaimed fiction to date. Set mainly in Montana, these stories take the reader from the civic-minded, suburban milieu of New Jersey to the windswept, bleak, semi-rural, and often extremely limited economic horizons of the American West. Many of the stories in this collection and his two others, Women with Men (1997) and A Multitude of Sins (2001), examine the theme of alienation and impoverishment of human relationships, especially the relationship between men and women, which receives considerable attention in all three collections. Another theme that runs throughout Ford's short fiction is that of rootlessness. The fact that many of his main characters are travelers or wanders who desire or are in search of a home in the world allows Ford to explore the conflicting forces that act on individuals, thus underscoring the inconsistency of American life at the close of the twentieth century.

Critical Reception

Although Ford has been labeled a “Southern” writer, he opposes any attempts to classify his writings. The number of different labels attached to his writing attests to the fact that his writing resists categorization. Since the publication of his first novel, Ford has evoked conflicting critical responses, but has become an increasingly popular writer. One of the criticisms most often made of Ford's writing is that it is hypermasculine. However, many critics also agree that his characters accurately reflect the uncertainty associated with twentieth-century American life. Many reviewers of Ford's last two short fiction collections found them not representative of his best work and suggest that perhaps his strength lies in writing novels. Ford received the Rea Award for his short fiction in 1995. He was also awarded the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1996 for his novel Independence Day.

Principal Works

Rock Springs: Stories 1987

Women with Men: Three Stories 1997

A Multitude of Sins 2001

A Piece of My Heart (novel) 1976

The Ultimate Good Luck (novel) 1981

The Sportswriter (novel) 1986

Wildlife (novel) 1990

Independence Day (novel) 1995

Criticism

David Crouse (essay date autumn 1995)

SOURCE: Crouse, David. “Resisting Reduction: Closure in Richard Ford's Rock Springs and Alice Munro's Friend of My Youth.Canadian Literature 146 (autumn 1995): 51-64.

[In the following essay, Crouse examines the role of epiphany in Richard Ford's Rock Springs and Alice Munro's Friend of My Youth.]

The writer of the realistic short story has two primary aims: first, to create a vivid and lifelike world, something that approximates the reader's idea of the way the world really works, and secondly, to create characters who move and change. These principles are taught in almost every beginning fiction class. But every beginning writer eventually becomes aware that these two aims are often in conflict, and especially so in the context of the short story, which because of its condensed form naturally lends itself to a kind of neatness which might not ring true to both writer and reader. For instance, the traditional epiphany of Joyce or Proust, with its stressing of a single clear moment of revelation, may seem forced to today's audience.

This is not to say these realizations do not exist in the real world. People do learn things they may label as truths and experience sharp moments of clarity. However, the power of these realizations may be lessened for today's audience: the moment of insight at the end of Joyce's “The Dead” may be less pointedly instructive than the omniscient-narrator-as-teacher in a novel such as, say, Henry Fielding, but epiphany still implies a set of fixed values, a single correct way to see the world.

Of course, all literature is instructive; people learn from any and all sensory information. The mere placement of words on a page implies a set of fixed values, the assumption that ideas can be communicated through language, for instance. But just as the story-with-epiphany showed strong doubt in the reliability of an omniscient narrator, much contemporary literature calls into question the authority of the epiphany. It's a complex world, both audience and writer announce, and moments of clarity may be attractive half-truths when viewed in hindsight.

The evasiveness of truth is no new idea, of course. Each generation of writers deals with this quandary in a new way. Epiphany itself can be seen as an attempt to escape the story as simple moral lesson: an effort to make the fictional world more complex while also showing how characters can move and change over the course of a condensed number of pages. Shifts in aesthetics and styles can be seen as developing new partial-solutions to the same old problems.

Two contemporary writers from somewhat different perspectives handle this particular problem as well as anyone: Alice Munro, who is almost exclusively a writer of short fiction, and Richard Ford, who is primarily a novelist, but who has published one collection of short fiction, Rock Springs, in 1987. They are writers from very different backgrounds. Ford is an American Midwesterner whose terse style is sometimes compared favourably to Hemingway's. Munro's stories usually focus on the small patch of Canadian ground where she lives. At first glance their work is as different as the regions they call home.

In their best work, however, from Ford's Rock Springs to Munro's The Progress of Love to what might be her strongest collection, Friend of My Youth, both writers can be seen confronting the problem of realistic closure and character growth in the short-story form. To do this, they manipulate time in a variety of ways, extending or expanding a series of events so that any one moment becomes less and less definitive. Their fictional worlds are complex to the point of confusion.

Again, it is important to understand that Ford and Munro are not really reacting against the traditional epiphany of Woolf, Proust and Joyce; Ford and Munro are a segment of a larger movement of which traditional epiphanic techniques and their newer techniques are both a part. Stephen Dedalus staring at letters scratched in a desk in Portrait of an Artist and Anita continuing her conversation with Margot in Munro's “Wigtime” should be seen as extensions of the same line of thought, not as fundamentally bipolar techniques. In general, this movement focuses on small moments and moves away from explanation on the part of the writer.

Placing thoughts in the mind of a character or recasting them as images and locating them symbolically in the landscape can be seen as a way of opening up interpretation relative to previous, more narrator-dominated, techniques, just as Munro's and Ford's techniques open up interpretation relative to Joyce, Proust and Woolf; because of this, collections like Friend of My Youth and Rock Springs require more effort on the part of the reader as far as interpretation is concerned.

When the big picture is viewed, it becomes a question of methods, not aims. Ford and Munro, continuing, not abandoning, the Joycean aesthetic, put more and more responsibility for interpretation on the shoulders of the reader. Anything like this requires the use of all sorts of apparatus, of which clear epiphany is one, to make, paradoxically, the writer more invisible. Ford and Munro favour alternative apparatus, such as multiple epiphanies, time jumps, and reordering of chronology to make their stories more complicated machines; these pieces often move in more directions, present more interpretive options, and consist of more component parts than typical short fiction.

Because of this change in technique, raising questions, not answering them, becomes the central concern. The reader substitutes her own thoughts into the spaces previously occupied by clear epiphanic moments. In the ongoing redistribution of power, and the consequent movement away from clear epiphany, the questions themselves become more and more the focus. This is not just a side-effect of technique, but one of Munro's and Ford's central concerns, and should be seen as an extension of epiphanic techniques, not a reversal of them.

In Ford's “Optimists,” the young narrator relates a singular event, his father killing a man, and transforms this into a reflection on his parents' relationship. In Munro's “Friend of My Youth,” the narrator compares the mother of her childhood to the woman she later became, but the analysis produces many images, none definitive. These stories differ from stories like James Joyce's “Araby” in that closure opens up instead of closing down possibilities; of course, no closure can empty a story of possibilities, but the difference between “Araby” and “Friend of My Youth” or “Optimists” is one of degree.

This is also not to say epiphany is completely absent in the work of either Ford or Munro. Ford's “Communist,” for example, does contain multiple and possibly contradictory epiphanies, as well as falling action which signals the story's close. The story, similar to “Optimists,” revolves around a single event, the shooting of some geese, but rather than ending with the event, Ford continues for three more pages, moving ahead in time, layering small additional events (all much less completely drawn than the central scene) over the main event, making the central scene seem muddier, although also more complex.

The narrator, a man named Les, looking back at an event in his youth, continually says things which work against clear epiphany: “I don't know what makes people do what they do, or call themselves what they call themselves, only that you have to live someone's life to be the expert” (232-233). We, as readers, can apply this to Glen Baxter, or, removing it from context, the narrator's mother, or even further, the narrator himself; we are left with the knowledge of the limitations of knowledge, how difficult it is to definitively know anything (the narrator, like ourselves, expends considerable effort in this area).

The last scene ends with the young Les on the porch with his mother. They exchange words, experiencing a moment of closeness, and although the story could end at that moment, Les continues, saying, “I tried to think of something else then and did not hear what my mother said after that” (235). Even this scene is not conclusive.

The last paragraph moves forward further in time, twenty-five years, adding another layer, muddying the situation even further by working against the closeness Les and his mother have established in the previous scene. He says, “I think about that time without regret, though my mother and I never talked in that way again, and I have not heard her voice now in a long, long time” (235). Each movement forward acts as a different perspective on the major scene, the shooting of the geese, and no single jump in time can be said to offer a definitive epiphanic moment. The juxtaposition of the contrary information produces question after question in the mind of the reader, and that is what we are left with at the story's closing.

“Great Falls” uses the central incident of a husband confronting his wife's lover at gunpoint. The scene is observed by the son, Jackie, then a young man, although many years have passed since the confrontation. After the lover drives away into the night, Jackie wonders about the conversation his parents had: “Did she say, I love you? Did she say, this is not what I expected to happen? Did she say, This is what I've wanted all along? And did she say, I'm sorry for all of this, or I'm glad, or none of this matters to me?” (44); this series of questions, not rhetorical in that they require some kind of response on the part of the reader, works to resist closure. The reader must ask herself these questions as Jackie does, and look for information in the main incident to reinforce her conclusions, which, in the end, are really just hunches. As Jackie points out, “These are not the kind of things you can know if you were not there” (44). The story could have been concluded at this point and still would have resisted closure. Instead, Ford pushes the envelope a bit more by tacking on two more sections relating the events of the next day, when Jackie talks with his mother. This raises more questions while answering none of the previous ones. For instance, is Jackie's father lying when he says that Jackie's mother has been married previously? Is his mother lying when she tells Jackie that she hasn't?

The last section involves even more movement in time, with the Jackie of the present commenting on what has happened in the years since the incident:

In five years my father had gone off to Ely, Nevada to ride out the oil strike there, and been killed by accident. And in the years since then I have seen my mother from time to time, in one place or another, with one man or another, and I can say, at least, that we know each other. But I have never known the answers to these questions, have never asked anyone their answers.

(49)

Ford's attitudes seem to be plainly evident in the statement that opens one of the stacked sections: “Things seldom end in one event” (44). This sentiment is echoed later in the narrative when Jackie remarks, “I know now that the whole truth of anything is an idea that stops existing finally” (47). Ford offers partial truths, like his conjecture at the end of the story, but for the most part the clear, direct truth of epiphany is something that escapes his characters, and in this way, his stories are as much about not knowing as about knowing.

The techniques behind “Great Falls,” “Optimists” and “Communist” are somewhat similar to Munro's “Goodness and Mercy,” although Munro, in keeping with her nature, complicates matters even more. “Goodness and Mercy” is a story within a story.

The place where traditional epiphany most obviously would be placed would be at the end of the captain's story, when Averill appropriates it as her own. She, as well as the reader, realizes something hinted at throughout the story, that she harbours a secret wish for Bugs' death: “Believing that such a thing could happen made her feel weightless and distinct and glowing, like a fish up in the water” (178). All the traditional techniques are evident, the self-awareness, the masking of the realization in metaphoric language.

But Munro does not stop there. Four brief paragraphs, about a half-page, describe how Bugs actually does die, two weeks later. The reader naturally compares this actual death to the death in the captain's story, both for similarities and differences. In the manner of “Communist,” another jump is then made, larger, spending another half-page on Averill's subsequent marriages. This information is inconclusive as well, ending with her pregnant, hoping for a girl. She “never saw again, or heard from, any of the people who were on the boat” (179).

The third and last section is very short, two brief paragraphs, and focuses on the captain and Averill, possibly in a kind of imagined state. They “bid each other good night. They touch hands ceremoniously. The skin of their hands is flickering in the touch” (179). These sections, especially the last, work against what has come before, opening the possibilities the traditionally-styled epiphany had closed. Does Averill pine for the captain, feel guilt over Bugs' death, or a sense of release? Is she trapped in a bad marriage, or has she escaped a bad one into a good one?

The answer...

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Jeffrey J. Folks (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Folks, Jeffrey J. “Richard Ford's Postmodern Cowboys.” In Perspectives on Richard Ford, edited by Huey Guagliardo, pp. 141-56. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2000.

[In the following essay, Folks argues that although Ford draws upon the recognizable figure of the drifter or outlaw, he is able to undercut the western myth by setting stories in different geographical locations and addressing non-localized American social and economic issues, which results in postmodern westerns with postmodern cowboys.]

Richard Ford approached the mythology and literary conventions of western fiction from the perspective of a native southerner who has spent most of...

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Brian Henry (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Henry, Brian. “Richard Ford.” In American Writers: A Collection of Literary Biographies, edited by Jay Parini, pp. 57-75. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 2000.

[In the following excerpt, Henry provides an overview of Ford's short fiction.]

FORD'S MONTANA: ROCK SPRINGS AND WILDLIFE

Ford's short stories differ from his novels primarily in length. The protagonists and narrators in his stories, as in his novels, are male. They have problems with women and infidelity, with work and money, with alcohol and responsibility and violence. They tend to brood on their pasts, they have bad luck, and they lack a sense of purpose....

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Priscilla Leder (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Leder, Priscilla. “Men with Women: Gender Relations in Richard Ford's Rock Springs.” In Perspectives on Richard Ford, edited by Huey Guagliardo, pp. 97-120. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2000.

[In the following essay, Leder investigates notions of gender in Ford's Rock Springs, paying particular attention to the concept of voice.]

But I did not, as I waited, want to think about only myself. I realized that was all I had ever really done, and that possibly it was all you could ever do, and that it would make you bitter and lonesome and useless. So I tried to think instead about [her].

...

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Elinor Ann Walker (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Walker, Elinor Ann. “Crossing the Divide in Women with Men.” In Richard Ford, pp. 177-200. New York: Twayne Publishers, 2000.

[In the following essay, Walker explores the ways in which the three stories included in Women with Men incorporate as a theme the condition of loneliness and its perpetuation.]

Richard Ford's Women with Men (1997) is a collection of three long stories: “The Womanizer,” first published in Granta in 1990; “Jealous,” first published in the New Yorker in 1992; and “Occidentals.” It is Ford's first collection of work since the publication of Rock Springs in 1987. Like those earlier...

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Elinor Ann Walker (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Walker, Elinor Ann. “Infinite Remoteness in Rock Springs.” In Richard Ford, pp. 118-32. New York: Twayne Publishers, 2000.

[In the following essay, Walker elucidates how images of loneliness and vast space allow for an exploration of human fallibility and connection in Ford's Rock Springs.]

Richard Ford's Rock Springs (1987) includes stories published in magazines and journals between 1982 and 1987. A bleak and uncompromising look at lives changed by choice and circumstance, the collection features many first-person male voices whose stories evoke themes present in Ford's other works. For example, Russ, the narrator of “Sweethearts,”...

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Elinor Ann Walker (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Walker, Elinor Ann. “Redeeming Loneliness in Richard Ford's ‘Great Falls’ and Wildlife.” In Perspectives on Richard Ford, edited by Huey Guagliardo, pp. 121-39. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2000.

[In the following essay, Walker offers a Sartrean analysis of the story “Great Falls” and the novel Wildlife.]

Several of Richard Ford's works are classic coming-of-age tales in which a teenage boy must witness a parental failure, experience sexual desire and disappointment, pose questions that have no obvious answers, and, like William Faulkner's Sarty or the narrator of James Joyce's “Araby,” choose justice over kin or feel his...

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Richard Ford with Jennifer Levasseur and Kevin Rabalais (interview date 2001)

SOURCE: Ford, Richard, with Jennifer Levasseur and Kevin Rabalais. “Invitation to the Story: An Interview with Richard Ford.” Kenyon Review 23, no. 3-4 (2001): 123-43.

[In the following essay, Levasseur and Rabalais discuss Ford's fictional work, paying particular attention to the difference between writing novels and writing short stories.]

Richard Ford's novels include A Piece of My Heart, The Ultimate Good Luck, The Sportswriter, Wildlife, and Independence Day, which won the Pulitzer Prize and PEN/Faulkner Award in 1996. He has written two collections of stories, Rock Springs and Women with Men. He has edited The Granta Book of the...

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Larry D. Griffin (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: Griffin, Larry D. “Richard Ford.” In A Reader's Companion to the Short Story in English, edited by Erin Fallon, R. C. Feddersen, James Kurtzleben, Maurice A. Lee, and Susan Rochette-Crawley, pp. 156-60. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2001.

[In the following essay, Griffin provides an overview of the criticism on Ford's short stories and provides his own analysis of them.]

BIOGRAPHY

Richard Ford was born on February 16, 1944, in Jackson, Mississippi, the only son of Parker Ford, a traveling salesman, and his wife, Edna, a homemaker. Ford grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, and Little Rock, Arkansas, then attended Michigan State...

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