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.
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.
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.
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
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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...
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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 his life in the South and the East, and, following the publication of Rock Springs and Wildlife, he has not returned to the western subject. As Russell Martin puts it, in explaining Ford's absence from his 1992 anthology of contemporary western writing, Ford is among those “writers with strong connections to this Western country whose lives and work are now focused elsewhere” (xxii). But why should Ford have decided to write about the West at all? Why, one must ask, should a native southerner, educated in the Midwest and resident more recently at Chicago and Princeton, elect to devote a substantial portion of his creative life to an alien and marginal culture?
As a writer from outside who briefly entered...
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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. They have seen opportunity diminish to the point of vanishment.
Yet they survive. The most striking aspect of Ford's short stories is how they illuminate the human capacity for survival. Despite the threads of desperation and alienation that run throughout Rock Springs, Ford's primary achievement in these stories is allowing his characters a small measure of hope in the face of hardship and ruin.
Given its brevity, the short story provides a formal challenge that novels, with their sprawl and depth, cannot offer. Ford, though, views the short story less as a formal alternative than as an economical complement to the novel. He claims not to assign much weight to the short story form; for him,...
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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].
In a New York Times Book Review article, Vivian Gornick identifies Richard Ford as a creator of the latest version of “a certain kind of American story that is characterized by a laconic surface and a tight-lipped speaking voice.” Like Hemingway fifty years ago, Ford employs narrators who “[have] been made inarticulate by modern life” (1) to express the isolation and loneliness of modern experience. Relationships between men and women serve to dramatize this experience for Ford, as they did for Hemingway. According to Gornick, though Ford has replaced Hemingway's “allegorical” women characters with characters who are men's “fellow victims,” his depictions of relations...
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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 stories, these works target their subjects unflinchingly, bringing into sharp focus the moments when the lived life seems most diffuse. Appropriately, the characters profiled in these stories seem poised between past and future at some pivotal time when their decisions assume great significance. These choices, however, often fail to render their lives into greater relief or make their existences and circumstances seem any clearer to them. In at least two of these works, Ford leaves the characters entrenched in some confusion even as he allows his reader to see their predicaments with clarity.
Ford assumes a distant third-person narrative voice in the two stories that act as bookends for the collection, “The Womanizer”...
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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,” acknowledges another character's empty moment (see chapter 4 on The Sportswriter) and discusses how words may fail (see chapters 4 and 5 on “Great Falls” and Wildlife). Though certainly not in any kind of southern literary sense, place exerts some influence here; the wildness of the physical landscape corresponds to the unwieldy lives of the characters. Cars, trains, and other means of transit figure prominently in these narratives set in the western part of the United States, often in Montana. By traveling, the characters seek to escape the poor decisions they've made in the past, but often they find themselves stuck in the same predicaments that they flee, if only because of their own repeated mistakes. They do not adopt...
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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 eyes burn with anguish and shame. Ford's male narrators in the short story “Great Falls” (included in Rock Springs ) and the novel Wildlife (1990) experience loneliness that accompanies self-knowledge gained despite, or perhaps because of, the inscrutableness of others. Although Ford leaves his narrators in isolation at each narrative's end, he reveals the heightened awareness that has projected them into the act of observation. Told in the past tense, each text is narrated by an adult speaker who structures his story carefully, editorializing and revising the incidents that changed the course of his teenage years and shaped his attitudes toward others. Significantly, this mature perspective confirms each speaker's...
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SOURCE: de Falbe, John. “Crafted with Too Much Care.” The Spectator 287, no. 9039 (3 November 2001): 57-8.
[In the following review, de Falbe negatively reviews A Multitude of Sins.]
I am told that Richard Ford describes the stories in the long-awaited A Multitude of Sins, as ‘little Valentines from hell’. The phrase is apt: a rough count yields four sour, damaging extra-marital affairs and five collapsing marriages, detailed with dour intensity. ‘Calling’ tells of an adolescent being taken on a duck shoot by his father, who recently abandoned his wife and law firm for an older man. The cast of ‘Creche’ consists of two kids and their frightful father, their maternal aunt and grandmother: they have gathered at Christmas for some Fordian cosiness in a Michigan ski resort while Mum, who absconded with Vince because of his big dick, is in rehab. In ‘Under the Radar’ a young couple are driving to dinner in Connecticut. On the way, Marjorie tells Steven that she had an affair with their prospective host. The longest story, ‘Abyss’, is about two champion estate agents who have an affair and quickly come to despise one another on an illicit, fatal trip to the Grand Canyon. My own favourite is almost the shortest, ‘Reunion’. Here, the narrator comes face to face at Grand Central Station with the man who hit him for screwing his wife a year ago; the man is waiting for his...
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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 American Short Story, The Granta Book of the American Long Story, and The Essential Tales of Chekhov. Jennifer Levasseur and Kevin Rabalais interviewed Mr. Ford at his home in New Orleans on June 3, 1998. Kevin Rabalais met with him again on December 4, 1998.
[Levasseur/Rabalais]: It has been more than twenty years since the publication of your first novel, A Piece of My Heart. How do you look back on your body of published work, particularly the early novels?
[Ford]: I don't think about it unless somebody comes along and makes me think about it. My idea about those books is that I like them, and I feel about them today exactly the way I felt about them the day they...
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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.]
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 University as an undergraduate. He studied law at Washington University in St. Louis, served briefly in the U.S. Marine Corps, and in 1970 received his M.F.A. from the University of California at Irvine, where he studied under E. L. Doctorow. In 1968, Ford married Kristina Hensley, who had a Ph.D. in city planning. During the 1970s he taught creative writing at Princeton, Williams College, and the University of Michigan. In 1977, he received a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship followed in 1978. In 1987, he received the Mississippi Academy of Arts and Letters' Literature Award.
Several of Ford's stories in Rock Springs (1987) as well as the novel Wildlife (1990) are set in...
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