Today is the 141st birthday of writer, critic and publisher Ford Madox Ford. I remember coming across his name back when I was heavy into my Lost Generation phase. I was always so fascinated by the people who supported and promoted the struggling writers of the time. The benefactors. Ford sought out good writers to put in his literary reviews, writers who became friends. He championed their work and was instrumental in their success. I have always found those who take pride in their friend’s success and promote them unselfishly to be the best sort of people. The world is a better place because he was in it and still feels the loss that he has left.
Ford was born to Catherine and Francis Hueffer, the eldest of three; his brother was Oliver Madox Hueffer. His father, who became music critic for The Times, was German and his mother English. His paternal grandfather Johann Hermann Hüffer was first to publish the fellow Westphalian poet and author Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, a Catholic aristocrat. He used the name of Ford Madox Hueffer and in 1919 changed it to Ford Madox Ford (allegedly, in the aftermath of World War I because “Hueffer” sounded too German) in honour of his grandfather, the Pre-Raphaelite painter Ford Madox Brown, whose biography he had written. In 1894 he married his school girlfriend Elsie Martindale and together they had two daughters Christina (born 1897) and Katharine (born 1900). Between 1918 and 1927 he lived with Stella Bowen, an Australian artist twenty years his junior. In 1920 they had a daughter, Julia Madox Ford.
One of his most famous works is The Good Soldier (1915), a novel set just before World War I which chronicles the tragic lives of two “perfect couples” using intricate flashbacks. In the “Dedicatory Letter to Stella Ford”, his wife, that prefaces the novel, Ford reports that a friend pronounced The Good Soldier “the finest French novel in the English language!” Ford pronounced himself a “Tory mad about historic continuity” and believed the novelist’s function was to serve as the historian of his own time.
Ford was involved in British war propaganda after the beginning of World War I. He worked for the War Propaganda Bureau, managed by C. F. G. Masterman, with other writers and scholars who were popular during that time, such as Arnold Bennett, G. K. Chesterton, John Galsworthy, Hilaire Belloc and Gilbert Murray. Ford wrote two propaganda books for Masterman, namely When Blood is Their Argument: An Analysis of Prussian Culture (1915), with the help of Richard Aldington, and Between St Dennis and St George: A Sketch of Three Civilizations (1915).
After writing the two propaganda books, Ford enlisted at 41 years of age into the Welch Regiment on 30 July 1915, and was sent to France, thus ending his cooperation with the War Propaganda Bureau. His combat experiences and his previous propaganda activities inspired his tetralogy Parade’s End (1924–1928), set in England and on the Western Front before, during and after World War I.
Ford also wrote dozens of novels as well as essays, poetry, memoirs and literary criticism, and collaborated with Joseph Conrad on three novels, The Inheritors (1901), Romance (1903) and The Nature of a Crime (1924, although written much earlier). During the three to five years after this direct collaboration, Ford’s best known achievement was The Fifth Queen trilogy (1906–1908), historical novels based on the life of Katharine Howard, which Conrad termed, at the time, “the swan song of historical romance.” His poem, Antwerp (1915), was praised by T.S. Eliot as “the only good poem I have met with on the subject of the war”.
Ford’s novel Ladies Whose Bright Eyes (1911, extensively revised in 1935) is, in a sense, the reverse of Twain’s novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.
In 1908, he founded The English Review, in which he published works by Thomas Hardy, H. G. Wells, Joseph Conrad, Henry James, May Sinclair, John Galsworthy and William Butler Yeats, and gave debuts to Wyndham Lewis, D. H. Lawrence and Norman Douglas. In 1924, he founded The Transatlantic Review, a journal with great influence on modern literature. Staying with the artistic community in the Latin Quarter of Paris, he befriended James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound and Jean Rhys, all of whom he would publish (Ford is the model for the character Braddocks in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises). As a critic, he is known for remarking “Open the book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you.” George Seldes, in his book Witness to a Century describes Ford’s recollection of his writing collaboration with Joseph Conrad, and the lack of acknowledgment by publishers of his status as co-author. Seldes recounts Ford’s disappointment with Hemingway: “‘and he disowns me now that he has become better known than I am.’ Tears now came to Ford’s eyes.” Ford says, “I helped Joseph Conrad, I helped Hemingway. I helped a dozen, a score of writers, and many of them have beaten me. I’m now an old man and I’ll die without making a name like Hemingway.” Seldes observes, “At this climax Ford began to sob. Then he began to cry.”
Hemingway devoted a chapter of his Parisian memoir A Moveable Feast to an encounter with Ford at a café in Paris during the early 1920s.
During a later sojourn in the United States, he was involved with Allen Tate, Caroline Gordon, Katherine Anne Porter and Robert Lowell (who was then a student). Ford was always a champion of new literature and literary experimentation. In 1929, he published The English Novel: From the Earliest Days to the Death of Joseph Conrad, a brisk and accessible overview of the history of English novels. He had an affair with Jean Rhys, which ended acrimoniously.
Ford spent the last years of his life teaching at Olivet College in Michigan, and died in Deauville, France, at the age of 65.