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Ford Madox Ford
Max Saunders & Richard Stang, eds.
Manchester: Carcanet, 2002.
£14.95, 330 pages, ISBN 1-85754-546 (paperback).
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 figure—a central transforming force of
early Modernism” (vi). Ford was certainly admirably placed to dissect
the aesthetic arguments of the period and how the varied shifts—including
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 Ford—notably
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 literature—Max
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 England—not
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
Conrad—and 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 writers—responding to their temperaments,
their perceptions, their language, their art—rather 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, irony—but 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
aim—to 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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