The Presence of Ford Madox Ford

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

To do justice by Ford Madox Ford—that has been a chief obligation of literary critics since 1939, when the author died largely ignored by scholars and the reading public alike. As early as 1939, Granville Hicks in Bookman had described Ford as “a neglected contemporary.” For the next two decades his reputation as a major figure among twentieth century English novelists languished, except for an occasional reevaluation in the journals. Not until 1951, with the impetus of Mark Schorer’s perceptive Introduction to The Good Soldier in a paperback reprint, would Ford’s position among his distinguished contemporaries move forward, perhaps slightly back of the frontline of James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, and Joseph Conrad, but certainly to the fore of other English writers whose reputations had been established before the 1930’s. To compensate for his long period of neglect, critics by the score—Richard A. Cassell, John A. Meixner, Paul Wiley, Kenneth Young, to mention several prominent names—have since examined in meticulous detail the complexities of Ford’s fiction, and several fine biographies, most notably Arthur Mizener’s and Frank MacShane’s, have attempted to adjust in a proper perspective the difficult psychological questions concerning Ford’s life. Through this considerable critical industry on a twentieth century writer one central theme may be understood: to separate from his perceived psychological and moral limitations as a human being Ford’s genius as a man of letters.

In The Presence of Ford Madox Ford, Sondra J. Stang has addressed this problem directly. Most of the critical essays that she has collected for the volume and, above all, the memoirs she has commissioned from intimates of Ford, attempt to capture the elusive “presence” of the man. The most valuable of these pieces, brief appreciations by Jenny Bradley, Caroline Gordon, Julia M. Loewe, Robert Lowell, Mary McIntosh, Wally Tworkov, and Janice Biala, examine Ford’s character from a variety of subjective points of view, so that a reader’s impressions of the writer are bound to be influenced favorably.

Why should any present-day admirer of Ford, the author of masterworks such as The Good Soldier (1915) and the four-volume Parade’s End (1924-1928), the editor of Transatlantic Review, the discoverer and promoter of many literary talents, need to recapture the artist’s presence? Or put another way: what aspects of his presence have not already been defined by Ford’s autobiography It Was the Nightingale (1933) or by the more recent exhaustive biographies?

The answer to the first question is that justice to Ford demands a closer look at the writer’s alleged psychological deficiencies. By his contemporaries, Ford was often perceived as a superior artist but a dangerous friend: a liar, backbiter, megalomaniac, betrayer. These charges are serious, mostly false, and terribly demeaning. In a more relaxed age of literary nitpicking, other prominent Edwardian writers squabbled publicly with certain of their contemporaries. Somerset Maugham travestied Hugh Walpole (Cakes and Ale, 1930); Frank Harris, Arnold Bennett, and George Moore wrote and spoke unkindly about fellow writers. The tone of their quoted remarks or published memoirs was generally peevish rather than truly malicious, gossipy instead of mean-spirited. Compared to these and other indiscreet Edwardians, Ford perhaps stood out as especially offensive because his pronouncements were often theatrical; he loved an audience, loved to play the role of literary master hectoring dim-witted neophytes, and above all he loved to turn a clever or...

(The entire section is 1512 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVI, May 17, 1981, p. 11.

Times Literary Supplement. December 25, 1981, p. 1504.