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Camp, Modernism, and Charles Henri Ford

Charles Henri Ford was born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi in 1908 and died in New York City in 2002. Immortalized in paint by his lover Pavel Tchelitchew (fig. 2), the openly queer Ford was America’s first surrealist poet, as well as an important second-generation modernist writer and little magazine editor. Responding positively to camp’s promise of an alternative set of values detached from what Susan Sontag describes as “the good-bad axis of ordinary aesthetic judgment,” Ford sought to rework, subvert, and expose the absurdities, prejudices, and limitations of dominant forms and norms throughout his career (“Notes on ‘Camp,’” 286). Ostentatiously stylish, Ford’s praxis engages with camp and prefigures the emergence of ostensibly postmodern—and equally camp—American cultural formations such as the New York School of poetry and pop art.

The alternative aesthetic standards underpinning camp cultural production appealed to Ford, much as they did to postwar New York School poets such as Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery, because, to borrow Mark Silverberg’s recent formulation, they “put emphasis not on breaking with the past but on remaking it through stylization, exaggeration, and theatricality.”21 Stylization is a topic Ford discusses in his unpublished “From a Record of Myself” (1948). A series of typewritten pages embedded in a section of his journal, this critically neglected document proves important to camp modernism for a number of reasons. For one thing, it represents something approaching a consistent articulation of Ford’s literary and aesthetic position. (Typically Ford rather infuriatingly favors the fragmentary, the provisional, and the unfinished.) In addition, certain sections of Ford’s “Record” [End Page 9] both anticipate and bear out Jack Babuscio’s subsequent critical assertion that camp “emphasizes style as a means of self-projection, a conveyor of meaning, and an expression of emotional tone.”22 Such an emphasis is especially evident when Ford turns his back on the “mere accidental and impersonal thing called form” and instead argues for an expressive and stylized poetics of “personality” and “self-created laws,” one in which “the rules are not invented in advance but seem to be created as the poem forms itself.”23

Fig 2. Pavel Tchelitchew, Portrait of Charles Henri Ford in Poppy Field (1933).<br/><br/>Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.
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Fig 2.

Pavel Tchelitchew, Portrait of Charles Henri Ford in Poppy Field (1933).

Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.

Ford’s suggestions also read as ripostes to the contemporaneous brand of Eliotic impersonality that John Crowe Ransom and the formally conservative New Critics promoted. In The New Criticism (1941), Ransom contends that preexisting formal demands impact poetic creation. In his estimation, “the composition of a poem is an operation in which the argument fights to displace the meter, and the meter fights to displace the argument.”24 According to Ransom, it is the productive tension between meter and argument that ensures the success of a poem, and, in turn, the poet who wrote it. Ford’s conceptualization of poetic composition differs significantly from Ransom’s conflict-driven model. He argues that “form invents new ‘rules’—or better, [that] the rules are not invented in advance but seem to be created as the poem forms itself. In this sense ‘rules’ are not really rules but rather are self-created laws—created from—perhaps even identical with—the sense of form” (“From a Record of Myself,” 139). Ford’s organic conception of self-created form offers an alternative to New Criticism’s [End Page 10] impersonal poetics of paradox. Such a conception of self-created form could not in fact be further from Ransom’s idea of how poems are made.

Ford’s remark not only indicates the extent to which he parted company with the New Critics but also evokes the spirit of literary automatism privileged by André Breton and the surrealists. Ford was an early convert to the surrealist cause, and his interest in the movement is evident in his unpublished “Notes on Neo-Modernism” (ca. 1944). Couched in highly suggestive language, Ford’s fragmentary notes include a “Critique of Pure Surrealism.” In this critique, Ford takes it on himself to bring Breton’s movement “out from [the] underground,” and more fully into the view of the American public. At the same time, Ford proposes a reworking of what he believes to be a conceptually stunted avant-garde approach.25 “Imaginationism” is the so-bad-it’s-almost-good name that Ford gives to his proposed modification of surrealism, and this is where camp’s importance to Ford’s modernist aesthetic comes to the fore.

Ford’s central claim is that “Imaginationism does not reject anything in Surrealism—it merely transforms everything” (“Notes on Neo-Modernism,” n.p.). We should read Ford’s comment alongside Christopher Isherwood’s famous definition of “high camp,” which Chris Freeman invokes elsewhere in this forum. In The World in the Evening (1954), Isherwood suggests that high camp “always has an underlying seriousness. You can’t camp about something you don’t take seriously. You’re not making fun of it; you’re making fun out of it. You’re expressing what’s basically serious to you in terms of fun and artifice and elegance.”26 In the spirit of Isherwood’s thoughts on camp, Ford reveals in his “Imaginationist Manifesto” that he has no interest in rejecting—or simply making fun of—surrealism. Rather, he is interested in making fun out of it.27 Serious about Breton’s avant-garde movement, Ford seeks to transform surrealism by exaggerating its underling absurdities and latently queer quirks. We can get a clear sense of this camp modernist pursuit by considering Ford’s main editorial project of the 1940s. In the pages of his influential periodical View (1940–47), Ford oversaw the dissemination—and camp transformation—of surrealism in the United States. Simultaneously serious and irreverent, View is a prime example of high camp. Commercially inflected, elegantly presented, and replete with discussions of avant-gardism, Ford’s magazine denotes a concerted attempt to make American forms by making fun out of established modes of Continental surrealism.28

Ford achieved these aims in different ways (some of which were more fun than others). For instance, consider how Ford and his contributors dealt with the displaced leader of “pure” surrealism in the various issues of View. Expressing genuine admiration and enthusiasm for Breton’s work, Ford moved to publish the self-styled magus of surrealism in View soon after the elder writer arrived in New York.29 As well as granting Breton his first interview in the United States, Ford afforded him significant room in which to promote his avant-garde movement and to celebrate the artistic successes of his close colleagues.30 We see this in Breton’s essay on Marcel Duchamp, which appeared in the March 1945 issue of View. Effusive in his praise, Breton asserts here that the singular Duchamp is “the only one of all his contemporaries who is in no way inclined to grow older.”31 Equating Duchamp’s aesthetic with the surrealist desire to [End Page 11] fuse together the rational and irrational, Breton cleaves to the official party line in this article. He suggests that his colleague’s aesthetic output “determines a fundamental crisis of painting and sculpture which reactionary manoeuvres and stock-exchange brokerages will not be able to conceal much longer” (“The Point of View,” 122). None of this should come as a surprise. Given such an opportunity, Breton was always going to sing the praises of an artist whose achievements reflected positively on the avantgarde organization that he had worked so tirelessly to establish.

Ford evidently had no problem ceding space to Breton in the pages of View, for he clearly had no intention of letting this notoriously controlling émigré have things all his own way. Reading View, one often gets the impression that Ford and a number of his contributors are taking humorous swipes at surrealism’s draconian founder. Take the following account of Breton’s Young Cherry Trees Secured against Hares, which Ford’s longtime supporter William Carlos Williams published in the October 1946 edition of View. “The Genius of France” opens on an approving note, with Williams singling out Breton’s poetic technique for praise. Williams argues that “there is no looseness in Breton’s work, it is all calculated, the tight plot precedes all composition, a coralization microscopic in the detail of its vastness.”32 Yet this approval is far from unequivocal. Williams is of the opinion that “everything” Breton writes “is completely predictable and is thus reassuring to schoolmistresses and the young who need the support of the master” (240). Williams then turns his attention to artwork adorning the dust jacket. Designed by Duchamp, the cover of Young Cherry Trees features Breton’s stern, paternalistic visage superimposed over a full-length image, flowing robes and all, of the Statue of Liberty. Essentially a depiction of Breton in drag, Duchamp’s palpably camp cover design would have both amused and delighted Ford: it was a perfect fit for his camp remit. That is, it complemented his desire to make fun out of what was, in Ford’s eyes, a restrictively gendered version of surrealism.

But this is not all. We can contrast the high camp of Ford’s View with the markedly different sort of camp featured in his seminal text of camp modernism, The Young and Evil (1933). Coauthored with the poet Parker Tyler, Ford’s experimental novel takes place in the historically queer enclave of Greenwich Village. Juan A. Suárez points out that “the episodic storyline, the numerous elisions” and “constant wavering between modernism and camp” fragment the text; yet the novel also engages divergent modes of camp.33 Significantly, The Young and Evil mixes a “high camp” formalism with forays into “low camp.” As a rather reserved Isherwood describes in somewhat prudish fashion, “low camp” is “a swishy little boy with peroxided hair, dressed in a picture hat and a feather boa, pretending to be Marlene Dietrich” (The World in the Evening, 110). Unlike Isherwood, Ford has absolutely no reservations about low camp. The Young and Evil celebrates effeminacy and revels in vulgarity in an anarchic, quasi-Rabelaisian, and brazenly queer fashion. In the words of Joseph Allen Boone, this novel “links configurations of urban space to the marginalized sexual identities and the practices that such sites engender” (Libidinal Currents, 257).34 We get a sense of this dynamic in the following extract, which foregrounds low camp while simultaneously drawing [End Page 12] attention to some of the varied nonnormative practices and marginalized identities privileged in the novel’s pages:

baggage grand cocksuckerfascinated by fairies of the BetterClass chronicliar fairyherself sexualestimate crooning I’M A CAMPfire girl35

Given over to innumerable depictions of figures dolled-up in drag and “camp[ing] like mad” in historically nonnormative urban enclaves such as Greenwich Village and Harlem, The Young and Evil deploys textual tactics such as parody while simultaneously eschewing fixed conceptions of character (165). In this manner, the various nonnormative figures populating the textual fringes of The Young and Evil anticipate Moe Meyer’s later proposition that “identity is self-reflexively constituted” by highly theatrical, visual acts of gendered performativity—a concept indebted to Judith Butler (introduction to The Politics and Poetics of Camp, 4).36

Ford also seeks to break away from earlier, predominantly heteronormative conceptions of modernism in his camp novel. As Allan Pero argues elsewhere in this forum, “camp is one of modernism’s others.” Bearing this proposition in mind, I close by suggesting that The Young and Evil clears room for constructing an important camp aesthetic, one that gives voice to hitherto marginalized “others” and that is conducive to the articulation of polymorphous, queer desire in modernist literature and aesthetics. [End Page 13]

Alexander Howard

Alexander Howard is an Associate Lecturer in modernism studies at the University of New South Wales. He is the author of Charles Henri Ford: Between Modernism and Postmodernism (forthcoming, 2016). He is currently working on a manuscript entitled “A Secret History of Camp Modernism” and is editing a collection of commentaries on Ezra Pound’s Thrones for the journal Glossator.