- The Myth of the Whole: Ford’s English Review, the Mercure de France, and Early British Modernism
In an undated letter, probably from late 1908 or early 1909, Ford proclaimed to Arnold Bennett, then living in France, “I should like to exchange advertisements with the Mercure de France.” 1 In another letter of December 2, 1908, shortly before the first issue of the English Review came out, he eagerly discussed with a certain “Monsieur et cher Confrère” just such an advertisement: “I am asking the Assistant Editor to communicate at once with M. Vallette,” the editor of the Mercure de France. 2 In this letter Ford also announced his desire to have French “diplomatic contributions” to the English Review, and to make them “as far as possible official.” Ford hoped to bring into English letters not only French literature (for instance, that of Anatole France), but also French political opinion. Moreover, Ford, who was notoriously inept at handling advertising and business affairs, set aside editorial concerns to pursue an advertising exchange with the Mercure de France in particular. 3 His effort underscores the crucial importance of the Mercure to Ford’s thinking about what type of journal the English Review should be.
The English Review was the first journal to bring together the most brilliant of the Edwardian lights—Conrad, Wells, Bennett, Galsworthy and Hudson—with the new talent of young modernist writers such as Pound, Lewis, and Lawrence. By exploring the inspiration that the Mercure de France provided for Ford’s English Review, I wish to clarify an impulse in early British modernism. This impulse was not to create coterie magazines to cater to the exquisite tastes of a small elite (our usual understanding of the purposes of modernist magazines), but rather to enter into what we would now call the public sphere. To many modernist authors, the Edwardian public sphere seemed no longer to be a realm of critical reason; but rather than form a counter-public sphere, the English Review aimed to restore to the dominant public sphere, both political and literary, a critical character.
Jürgen Habermas’s chronicle of the structural transformation of [End Page 513] the eighteenth-century bourgeois public sphere provides the historical context that elucidates the modernists’ attempts to restore a lost public realm of critical reason. Ford’s goal for the English Review was to cleanse the dominant public sphere of two phenomena that Habermas identifies as partly responsible for the fragmentation and transformation of the bourgeois public sphere during the nineteenth century—the undermining of critical deliberation by commercialization in the realm of letters, and the intrusion of competing private interests into the public sphere. The latter involved not only the entrance of the working classes into the public sphere, but also, especially after the first Reform Bill (1832) provided institutional validation for the bourgeoisie in Parliament, the rise in importance of the central party apparatus, and its control of public discourse. 4
I will argue that, in response to these phenomena, Ford attempted to create a discursive space in the English Review that would embody his conception of “disinterestedness”—a term with a long shaky history dating back to the Enlightenment. This effort to imagine disinterestedness was predicated upon Ford’s vision of French letters as an expression of the Enlightenment, and was ultimately in the service of a larger issue both for Ford and for British modernism: the desire for a social and cultural cohesion based neither on middle-class philistinism nor on mass-market taste.
Ford turned to France and to the Mercure de France as his inspiration for a journal that, unlike the dominant English journals, could both be critical and appeal to a broad audience. He saw in the Mercure, the journal that also impressed Ezra Pound and Richard Aldington, an embodiment of the spirit of the Enlightenment, an age during which, Ford felt, rationality and order were spread throughout the populace. 5 The use of a rational, disinterested and centrist tone to incorporate a wide range of experience, from the orthodox to the heterodox, allowed the Mercure to create a sense not only of public space, but also of a cohesive...