Richard Ford 1944-
American novelist, short story writer, essayist, playwright, screenwriter, and editor.
The following entry presents an overview of Ford's career through 2002. For additional information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 46 and 99.
Considered one of the finest fiction writers of his generation, Ford is best known for his novel The Sportswriter (1986) and its sequel Independence Day (1995). Ford was the first author to receive both the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award for the same novel, Independence Day. He is celebrated for his portrayal of everyday contemporary middle-class American life. His central thematic concerns include loneliness, alienation, male-female relationships, family life, the yearning for human connection, and a sense of disappointment in the American dream. His protagonists are restless, alienated, unremarkable men, incapable of sustaining emotional commitments to women. While troubled and deeply flawed, Ford's characters are ultimately both sympathetic and optimistic. Ford has been compared to Ernest Hemingway for his laconic, masculine prose, to Walker Percy as a Southern writer, and to Raymond Carver for his minimalism and style of “dirty realism.”
Ford was born in Jackson, Mississippi, on February 16, 1944, and grew up directly across the street from the celebrated Southern writer Eudora Welty. Ford and his mother often accompanied his father, a traveling salesman, on his many road trips. When not taken on these trips with his parents, Ford stayed with his maternal grandparents at a hotel they owned in Little Rock, Arkansas. This sense of itinerancy has influenced Ford's fiction in the creation of characters who are psychologically and culturally, as well as geographically, rootless. When Ford was sixteen years old, his father died of a heart attack, a crisis to which Ford responded by developing a strong sense of personal responsibility for his life. This sense of the importance of accepting accountability for one's life choices became a central theme of his fiction. Ford attended Michigan State University, graduating with a B.A. in literature in 1966. He was briefly enrolled in law school at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, but decided to pursue a writing career instead. In 1968, he married Kristina Hensley, whom he has credited as a major influence on his development as a writer. Ford studied creative writing at the University of California at Irvine, earning an M.F.A. in 1970. He subsequently taught creative writing at the University of Michigan from 1974 to 1976, Williams College from 1978 to 1979, and Princeton University from 1979 to 1980. Although most of his early stories were rejected by literary magazines, Ford persisted in working on a novel. This six-year effort, A Piece of My Heart, was published in 1976. After poor reviews of his second novel, The Ultimate Good Luck (1981), Ford took a break from fiction-writing to contribute articles to a magazine called Inside Sports. After the magazine folded, Ford's wife suggested he write a novel about a man who is happy, thus inspiring him to write The Sportswriter. With the publication of this third novel, Ford established himself as a critically acclaimed, best-selling author.
A Piece of My Heart is set on an isolated island in the Mississippi delta, between Arkansas and Mississippi, during one week of an annual turkey-hunt season. Sam Newel, a Chicago law student, and Robard Hewes, an itinerant construction worker, meet by chance on the island. Each section of A Piece of My Heart alternates narration between the third-person-limited point of view of these men, as each grapples with his own personal demons. Sam and Robard emerge as mirror images of one another, one an intellectual and the other a sensualist. While Robard has left his wife and family in Arkansas in order to pursue an ill-fated affair with his married cousin, Sam struggles with the existential angst of an intellectual alienated from the world around him. The Ultimate Good Luck has been described as a crime thriller. The story concerns Harry Quinn, a Vietnam War veteran who tries to assist his ex-lover Rae in releasing her brother from a prison in Oaxaca, Mexico, where he is being held for drug trafficking. Their efforts result in a bloodbath, in which Harry kills three people but fails to free Rae's brother. Harry's existential struggles and his sense of disaffection with American culture represent the sense of disorientation felt by the generation that lived through the Vietnam War. The Sportswriter concerns the internal life of Frank Bascombe, a 38-year-old sports journalist whose marriage has collapsed after the death of his nine-year-old son, Ralph. The story takes place over the course of an Easter weekend. Throughout the novel, Frank engages in contemplative reveries—meditations on marriage, sports, life in suburban New Jersey, and the art of storytelling. Frank's self-reflections reveal that his extramarital affairs in the aftermath of his son's death are what ultimately destroyed his marriage. His decision to abandon his early writing ambitions are also a central topic of his personal musings. Ford's fourth novel, Wildlife (1990), is set in 1960, in Great Falls, Montana, where a raging forest fire functions as an extended metaphor for family crisis. Wildlife is narrated from the perspective of Joe Brison, looking back over a distance of thirty years to the events of a three-day period when he was sixteen years old. Joe examines the impact on himself and his family of his mother's extramarital affair, conducted while his father was away working as a firefighter in the distant mountains. Independence Day, the sequel to The Sportswriter, picks up Frank Bascombe's life at a point when he has quit working as a sportswriter to become a real estate agent in New Jersey. His ex-wife has moved with their two remaining children to the home of her new husband in Connecticut. The events of Independence Day take place over the course of the long Fourth of July holiday weekend, during which Frank attempts to reconnect with his fifteen-year-old son by taking him on a road trip that includes stops at the Basketball Hall of Fame in Massachusetts and the Baseball Hall of Fame in New York.
Ford has published three volumes of short fiction. Rock Springs (1987) was his first collection of short stories, most of them set in Montana and concerning characters in transition. Women with Men (1997) is comprised of three novellas, The Womanizer, Jealous, and Occidentals, in each of which a man contemplates his relationship with a woman. A Multitude of Sins (2001) includes ten short stories, most of them concerning characters engaged in extramarital affairs.
Ford has garnered widespread critical acclaim for his portraits of middle-class American life. John Bemrose, for instance, in a review of A Multitude of Sins, commented that Ford's fiction “dissects the vexed heart of the middle class” in America. Douglas Kennedy similarly observed in a review of Independence Day, “I cannot think of another contemporary writer who has his finger so firmly on the jittery, apprehensive pulse of the American middle classes, and who so understands their search for grace in a society that has lost its way.” Ford has been further praised for his portrayal of modern lives characterized by loneliness, alienation, and the yearning for connection. As Huey Guagliardo opined, Ford's “project as a fiction writer might be viewed as a search for the healing words that offer a kind of secular redemption from human loneliness and alienation.” Reviewers have admired Ford's well-crafted prose, rich with descriptive detail and a strong sense of place, and have commended him for a fresh perspective, skillful storytelling, effective use of first-person narrative voice, and accurate rendering of American vernacular speech. A number of critics have discussed Ford as a Southern writer, comparing him to William Faulkner, Walker Percy, and Barry Hannah. Ford himself, however, has stated that he does not like to be categorized as a Southern writer. He has sometimes been accused of creating superficial, emotionally flat characters lacking depth, and some reviewers have criticized his portrayal of women, claiming that his perspective is essentially masculinist. Others, however, have defended his representation of female characters, arguing that the women in his fictions are usually stronger and more self-assured than the men.