Thursday, June 26, 2014

This Day in Literary History (Death of WWI Novelist Ford Madox Ford)

June 26, 1939— The dismissive comment by the attending physician in the clinic where Ford Madox Ford died—“It is obvious that Monsieur has always done whatever he wanted in life”—might have been unkind to a dying man, but it was also true. The 65-year-old British man of letters took little care with his health and even less with his finances—one of the reasons why he died poor, sick and homeless in Deauville, France.

In his last days, Ford—an editor and mentor to writers on both sides of the Atlantic, and a writer of much distinguished fiction and verse of his own--had tried unsuccessfully to interest publishers in a work of his warning against the imminent threats of anti-Semitism and totalitarianism.

He would have been appalled, though hardly surprised, at the notion that the land he was visiting would be overwhelmed by these forces within a year of his death. Those dark forces resulted from a world war even more calamitous than the one in which, a quarter century before, he had sustained grievous physical and emotional wounds, all chronicled in two of the most heralded fictional works of WWI, The Good Soldier and the tetralogy Parade’s End.

When, as an undergrad, I went to interview Frank MacShane concerning his recent book on John O’Hara, he joked about being called “the biographer of the stepchildren of literature.” I knew about his judicious works on O’Hara and Raymond Chandler, but I did not realize that an earlier subject—Ford—might have been even more unjustly maligned by posterity. Few writers have been as prolific—and as at such a frequently accomplished level—as Ford.

I became interested in the life and work of Ford after watching a DVD of a BBC adaptation of Parade’s End by Tom Stoppard (a member of the Ford Madox Ford Society), starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Rebecca Hall as the spectacularly mismatched couple, Christopher and Sylvia Tietjens. While contending with idiotic commanders on the Western front in France, Christopher must also cope with a volatile wife who makes him the subject of much gossip—a situation with some similarities to the author’s tumultuous private life.

A childhood friend with whom he eloped in his late teens, a rumored affair with his sister-in-law, three subsequent women whom he regarded as spouses, and numerous other lovers led many to regard Ford with some disdain, lowering his critical reputation. This was unfortunate, as Ford played a key role in promoting the careers of many he edited, including Henry James, Thomas Hardy, Joseph Conrad, H. G. Wells, Arnold Bennett, Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis, Jean Rhys, and D. H. Lawrence.

One of his discoveries was Ernest Hemingway, hired by Ford, at the suggestion of Pound, as one of his editors on The Transatlantic Review. Soon, the talented young American grew tired at what he regarded as the pretenses of the man 25 years his senior. It wasn’t merely Ford acting as if he was “so goddam involved in being the dregs of an English country gentleman.” No, what galled Hemingway even worse was Ford’s references to his war record. “De Maupassant, Balzac, the Chartreuse de Parme guy [Stendhal], they all made the war, or didn't they,” Hemingway complained to Pound. “In any event they just learned from it. They didn't always go on under the social spell of it. I'm going to start denying I was in the war for fear I will get like Ford to myself about it.”

That didn’t happen. In fact, even before Hemingway ended up back from the Italian front, it hadn’t happened. As I noted in a prior post, by the time he got back home to Oak Park, Ill., the young ambulance-driver volunteer, wounded in a mortar attack, had already exaggerated the real courage he displayed on the front. It was the start of a bent toward fabulism that extended to, but did not end with, the aspiring novelist’s economic background (he was not, as he told third wife Martha Gellhorn, born in a slum) and his athleticism.

Hemingway would include a short, sharp portrait of Ford in The Sun Also Rises in the form of Henry Braddocks, an editor heavily involved in Parisian carousing. Ford was big-hearted enough to overlook that and praise the novel. Hemingway repaid this forgiveness with a positively acid characterization of Ford in A Moveable Feast under his real name.

The future Nobel laureate would have hated the thought of it, but he would have more than a bit in common with the critic who had mentored him in his youth. Among the common threads in their lives:

11)      Both earned a reputation as unreliable memoirists. Ford’s began to develop in earnest as a result of a reminiscence he published about Conrad after the latter’s death in 1924. Conrad’s widow disputed a number of details in it. But Hemingway’s tales in A Moveable Feast were sneakier and more malicious. Not only were several people (e.g., Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein) dead, but nobody else was in earshot of them and Hemingway to contradict what he wrote more than 30 years after the fact.

22)      Both were Roman Catholic converts who did not stay tied to the faith for long. Ford converted at age 19, but practiced the faith only intermittently throughout the rest of his life. Hemingway converted in his late 20s in order to marry his second wife, Pauline. His practice of the faith did not last much beyond his conversion. Nevertheless, faith figures prominently in each novelist’s most important works. Fr. Consett, Sylvia’s confessor in Parade’s End, becomes a martyr to the cause of Irish independence, while Jake Barnes’ quiet but insistent faith in The Sun Also Rises stands in marked contrast to the utter lack of faith in anything among his friends.

33)      Both men were womanizers. There is really only one point to add to the details about Ford’s complicated love life above: despite being considerably overweight (and, if Hemingway is to be believed, smelly), Ford attracted numerous women over the years through his vast erudition and generosity. As part of his legend—one that became suffocating with time—Hemingway carved out an image of himself as a hard-drinking womanizer.

44)      Both created narrators symbolic of a generation or class damaged by WWI. The very first sentence of Parade’s End is heavy with symbolism: “The two young men—they were of the English public official class—sat in the perfectly appointed railway carriage.” These men, born to rule Britannia, will see their world upended, in every conceivable way, by the war. In the case of Tietjens, he will be devastated by shell shock at the front. Lt. Frederic Henry’s wounding in Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms is believed, by most biographers of the novelist, to be an accurate representation of his own experience. Jake Barnes’ genital wound in The Sun Also Rises is even more serious—in fact, emblematic of an entire generation left psychically unmanned by WWI.

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