It’s hard to know what to say about Ford Madox Ford. Robert Lowell (whose mentor Ford was) has already done a much better job of eulogizing him than I could hope to:
the lies that made the great your equals. Ford,
you were a kind man and you died in want.
These, the closing lines of Lowell’s “Ford Madox Ford,” probably would have offended Ford’s ambitions, which were
consuming. They also would have gratified his perversity. I mean no offense to him
by calling him perverse; he was something of a pathological liar and a
compulsive philanderer, and a confirmed contrarian. It is quite
impossible to find any literary work of his time, and on his subjects, that
resembles remotely the four novels (Some Do Not…, No More Parades,
A Man Could Stand Up, and The Last Post) that comprise Parade’s
Ford was a great encourager — he founded the Transatlantic Review, was the first to publish Joyce and Hemingway, and survived to help Robert Lowell become Robert Lowell. Like most encouragers, he is forgotten. Who remembers the Schlegel brothers, and the Athenaum review? Who remembers Mencken, really? Unlike most encouragers, he was not a mediocrity, as the Schlegels and Mencken, sadly, were. His talent may have been peculiar. We may even accuse him of belonging too much to his time, as we are wont to do to writers who never became major stars in the constellation of their particular movement. But Parade’s End and The Good Soldier, which was Ford’s own candidate for his finest book, remain fresher, and indeed more modern, than anything Virginia Woolf or E.M. Forster, who are perhaps the only authors at all stylistically comparable to him, ever wrote. (Poetry is another matter — Ford has a much closer compatriot in David Jones, in my opinion.) Ford wrote more than thirty novels. I have not read any of them except The Good Soldier and the four that comprise Parade’s End. This removes much weight from my praise for him. Yet it seems doubtful to me that, even if his remaining corpus should constitute the most offensively minor and second-rate body of work in twentieth century fiction, it would outweigh or overwhelm the merits of the two mentioned above.
I have no doubt that Ford has been seized upon by some desperate Ph.D. candidate in English literature— he is exactly the kind of writer, at first glance, that attracts such people. He is obscure, and difficult, with has a huge and largely unknown body of work. But, I think, they would be surprised when they read The Good Soldier and Parade’s End. It is difficult to think of two books less deserving of being treated in a doctoral thesis.