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Critical Essays
Ford Madox Ford
Max Saunders & Richard Stang, eds.
Manchester: Carcanet, 2002.
£14.95, 330 pages, ISBN 1-85754-546 (paperback).

Stacy Gillis
University of Exeter

I do not know in what English criticism of the official type really consists. I think you write something about the style, by which you mean the vocabulary—the odd words that a writer uses. Then you say something—a great deal about the subject. Then you enlarge upon the philosophy—oh, you write a great deal about the philosophy and you plank, in the vulgar phrase, your bottom dollar on the moral lessons of the book under consideration. You point out how it is calculated to leave the reader a better and wiser man. When you have written a great many exercises of the sort you are recognized as a Critic […] I think that is the way it goes but I have no means of really knowing. (“Joseph Conrad,” 77)

Ford Madox Ford is often characterised as straddling that gap that is all too easily positioned between modernism and all that had gone before. In Ford Madox Ford: A Dual Life, Saunders sees him as a “a transitional figurea central transforming force of early Modernism” (vi). Ford was certainly admirably placed to dissect the aesthetic arguments of the period and how the varied shiftsincluding Impressionism, Imagism, Vorticism and Modernism (I am deliberately avoiding, as Ford did, the seductive metanarrative of modernism)had an impact on the cultural landscape of the early twentieth century. Homberger argues that Ford’s English Review editorials “brilliantly define the doctrines upon which a modernism could be erected” (66). This collection brings together Ford’s editorials which were engaging with the new aesthetics.

Work already published in other collections is not included and the editors direct those interested to other edited collections on Fordnotably Frank McShane’s Critical Writings of Ford Madox Ford and Sondra Stang’s A Ford Madox Ford Reader. The pieces are arranged chronologically and span nearly thirty years of Ford’s publishing career. Ford reviewed in many of the most influential periodicals of the day and his subject matter reads like a Who’s Who of early twentieth-century literatureMax Beerbohm, Joseph Conrad, Robert Frost, John Galsworthy, Thomas Hardy, James Joyce, Wyndham Lewis, Compton MacKenzie, Virginia Woolf and W. B. Yeats. The pieces also address figures which have fallen out of literary history, such as Charles Doughty, Maurice Hewlett and Amber Reeves. To generalise, all the pieces in the collection focus on technique, style and form as the basis for a new art, one which Ford wished to be widely accessible.

The collection neatly juggles the history of what came to be loosely termed modernism and provides an account of the rifts therein. Ford’s self-promotion as an artist-editor who could mix the past with the present is evident in such pieces as the “Literary Portraits” from The Outlook, particularly in “Les Jeunes and Des Imagistes (Second Notice)” (pp. 154-58). There emerges a picture of a critic who desired for the new aesthetic movements to embrace a social responsibility, working with the lived experience of people.

We have to watch modern life sweeping away the traditions that we love, the places that we considered hallowed; we have to consider that it is blowing away us ourselves as if we were no more than a little dust. And yet, if we have consciences, we must seek to perceive order in this disorder, beauty in what shocks us, and premonitions of immortality in that which sweeps us into forgotten graves. (Hueffer 1911b, 9; n.b. Ford changed his name from Hueffer in 1919)

Ford's reviews and editorials attempt to explore modernity’s impact on art and literature as well as to identify the new kind of writing that was needed to do justice to a transformed world.

Ford embraced this transformation as freeing, like Lytton Strachey and many others of their generation. “Nowadays we have no great figures and I thank heaven for it, because you and I can breathe freely […] you are freed from these burdens which so heavily and for so long hung upon the shoulders of one, and of how many others?” (Hueffer 1911a, xi). The two major contributions to the debates surrounding this transformation can be found in the periodicals which Ford founded: The English Review (founded 1908) which attracted contributors like Hardy, James, Galsworthy and Wells and the transatlantic review (founded 1922), of which Hemingway was deputy editor and which published work by cummings, Joyce, Pound, Rhys and Stein. Many of Ford’s more provocative works from these periodicals are in this collection and they testify to the bold power of Ford’s writing. He was well aware of the implicit authority in his position as reviewer.

[Conrad] has done an immense deal for the Nuvvle in Englandnot so much as I, no doubt, but then that was not his job, and he is of the generation before mine. I learned all I know of Literature from Conradand England has learned all it knows of Literature from me.” (Critical Writings, 99)

Indeed, the editors of the collection argue that Ford is “at his best a reader of other writersresponding to their temperaments, their perceptions, their language, their artrather than as a theorizer” (xii).

Pieces like “Stocktaking: Towards a Revaluation of English Literature” (pp.241-68), originally published in the transatlantic review, provide a stunning account of literature’s responsibility to itself.

During the last century English official criticism has erected as it were a stone-heap, a dead load, of moral qualities: A writer must have optimism, ironybut not mordant or painful irony; a healthy outlook; a middle-class standard of morality; as much religion as, say, St. Paul had; as much Atheism as was possessed by Shelley…and finally, on top of an immense load of self-neutralising moral and social qualities, above all Circumspection! (243)

Ford’s defence of literary impressionism, his work as the editors of the English Review and the transatlantic review place him as a substantial contributor to the development of modernism.

That said, the collection could do with a stronger editorial hand. The Introduction is a cursory five pages and the editorial notes are few and far between. Thus, this collection will be useful for those who already know Ford and the debates within and around modernism, rather than those who need an introduction to both or either. This is a shame as the pieces are extraordinarily vital and written in a solid and straightforward manner. Moreover, the latter is the audience that Ford wished to reach in his editorials and reviews: “I may really say that for a quarter of a century I have kept before me one unflinching aimto register my own times in terms of my own time, and still more to urge those who are better poets and better prose-writers than myself to have the same aim.” (Hueffer 1913, 13)


Hueffer, Ford Madox. Ancient Lights and Certain New Reflections: Being the Memories of a Young Man. London: Chapman and Hall, 1911.

---. The Critical Attitude. London: Duckworth, 1911.

---. Preface. Collected Poems of Ford Madox Hueffer. London: Max Goschen, 1913. 1-15.

Homberger, Eric. “Ford’s English Review: Englishness and its Discontents,” Agenda: Ford Madox Ford Special Double Issue 27:4/28:1 (Winter 1989/Spring 1990): 61-66.

Saunders, Max. Ford Madox Ford: A Dual Life, Vol 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

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