A weak treatment of Ford Madox Ford's career

March 31, 1991|By Frederick Busch | Frederick Busch,Los Angeles Times

FORD MADOX FORD.

Alan Judd.

Harvard University.

488 pages. $27.50.

Alan Judd's biography of Ford Madox Hueffer, who changed his name to Ford in 1919, is about a man whose life and career were essential to the making of modern literature. Born in 1873, three years after Dickens' death, the grandson of the pre-Raphaelite painter Ford Madox Brown, he was friend, acquaintance or colleague of Henry James, H. G. Wells, Joseph Conrad, Stephen Crane, Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Jean Rhys, D. H. Lawrence and the young Robert Lowell. He served them all, encouraged each, adulated some, and was scorned or betrayed, eventually, by many of them.

Ford's is a story of amplitude not only of the body and its appetites but also of the spirit and the purse. Always poor, he gave what he could not afford to other writers and to the Transatlantic Review, in which he published them. His story is one of bravery in dangerous circumstances and courage in the face of neglect by literary fashion-makers and friends. His is the story of a man obsessed with loving women and securing their love, and it is the story of Ford's longest and most passionate affair -- with writing.

Mr. Judd's study of the man now perhaps best remembered for his 1915 novel "The Good Soldier" is useful in that through it we retrace the wheezing, mumbling, eccentric, inspired and often inspiring journey Ford took through marriage, affairs, public disapproval, nervous breakdowns, collaboration with Conrad, Conrad's perfidies, Ford's service to new writers, his wartime service, his lifelong love of France, his eclipse and then rediscovery (by America), his fear that he would be forgotten as an artist.

This journey is also studied in books by Frank MacShane, Thomas Moser and Arthur Mizener, with whose "The Saddest Story" (1971) Judd's book is a long quarrel. By adding that there are fine treatments of Ford in books by Sondra Stang, Miranda Seymour and Nicholas Delbanco, I am underscoring my belief that Mr. Judd does not break much new ground, though he offers material from the painter Janice Biala, with whom Ford lived happily in his last decade (until 1939).

This book is not footnoted. Ford often lied or told tall tales, believing that impression and not factuality made for artful truth. Mr. Judd imitates Ford's method, he says, because Ford "was never a man to be detained by a footnote or checked by a reference." In fact, there are footnotes. A Rebecca West article -- from the 1915 London Daily News is footnoted, but a brilliant, loving tribute from Stella Bowen, who loved Ford long and well, is not. This determinedly shaggy system, or systemlessness, does little to enhance the book's helpfulness or the cachet of Harvard University Press.

Mr. Judd clearly loves literature. He all but worships his subject. But he doesn't write well about either. Capable of graceful phrases, he is inclined to clumsiness: "But the maternal pressures toward inadequacy were more complicated and perhaps even more telling." His prose falters as his advocacy grows, and he defends Ford from Mizener ("Such a view is unfair" Mr. Judd says, but adds little more in the line of literary argument), from those who may not admire all Ford's poems ("Anyone who doubts should try writing on the same theme"); from Ford's own failure ("Even in these lines the slackness is not so noticeable when the poem is read aloud").

He guesses, and often on authority we can't see: "There is no evidence that he had at this stage been unfaithful to Elsie [his wife, in 1900] but it is likely that he wanted to and knew he couldn't help wanting. . . ." Of his probable affair with Elsie's sister: "No doubt it was exciting." Ford sees a doctor and Mr. Judd must guess that "Perhaps he was working too much. . . . He may also have been worrying about money and perhaps even felt trapped."

Mr. Judd also generalizes, stepping between the reader and Ford to deliver less-than-stunning conclusions: of an affair, "Nor is it unusual for friendships to run their course"; and "It is usually small worries that get to people."

The literary criticism Mr. Judd essays is, to be generous, unconvincing. A phrase is "too obvious," "too button-holing and lapel-clinging." A poem is "strong on psychological truth." Stephen Crane is identified -- for whose sake? -- as the "author of a very successful war novel, 'The Red Badge of Courage.' "

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