- Ford Madox Ford: A Dual Life
When Ford Madox Ford writes, as he does throughout his life and throughout The Good Soldier (1915), “I don’t know what I was: I don’t know what I am,” is he addressing problems in epistemology, or indulging the language of sulky self-pity? Was he, at the helm of the English Review, a great editor or an exasperating incompetent? Did Joseph Conrad have him to thank for much of The Secret Agent and Nostromo, or was their collaboration, as Henry James predicted, “like a bad dream which one relates at breakfast?” (28, 134). Questions like these arise with regard to every moment of Ford’s literary career. They make him hard to place, hard to read, hard to teach—and, therefore, a figure greatly in need of biographical clarification. Anyone who has spent too much time wondering when, how, and even if to take him seriously has been in need of a decisive, judicious, and truly definitive account of Ford’s life. But biography has tended to make the Ford problem worse. Too caught up in the terms of Ford’s own notorious self-fashioning, Ford’s biographers have given us one version of him at the expense of another: sometimes, they take such pains to expose Ford’s faults and lies that they discredit his fictive selves; at other times, they defend his antics so indulgently that no credible literary figure emerges.
Intervening now to solve the Ford problem—to balance indulgence and objectivity, to sort through the baffling array of fabrications and allegations, to prove Ford’s significance—is Max Saunders’s Ford Madox Ford: A Dual Life. Unmistakably definitive, Saunders’s biography is also indispensable, because of the critical formulation through which it makes Ford make sense. Calling his life a “dual” one, Saunders turns confusion into meaningful dramatic tension; “doubly responsible,” he arranges contradictions into a structured interplay of “the factual and the fictive,” so that Ford’s inconsistencies become coherent aspects of a literary life (2). Saunders’s account, that is, sets the record straight wherever possible, but more importantly proves that uncertainty is, after all, Ford’s most valuable legacy. As a lens through which Ford helped to discover the place where fact and fiction meet, Ford’s doubleness is no flaw, but a feature of genius. Biography, lacking critical sensitivity, has seen Ford’s doubleness only as duplicity, but Saunders has discovered that “if one listens closely enough, Ford’s prose tells us another story” (9)—not the old story of a sensational or senseless career, but a story of a visionary thinker, one who has yet to reveal himself as “one of the most fascinating, complex, and entertaining personalities of his age” (vi).
Key to this revaluation is Saunders’s effort to give new critical edge to the view that Ford’s “great [subject] is how literature makes up our world” (14). Significantly, before schools of criticism turned their attention to the narrative basis of thought and action, Ford recognized and [End Page 220] struggled with the primacy of storytelling. He “anticipated modern critical developments” that have been “preoccupied with the elusiveness of ‘meaning,’” expressing critical sophistication (and not just narcissism or arrogance) by making his life a long literary pose and making his fiction reflect the way we narrate reality (14). This implicit comparison to a poststructuralist orientation helps Saunders to recognize in Ford both the phony and the forward-looking philosopher. Now Ford’s tall tales and misbehavior become a way of giving fiction its due respect; and now we can understand, for example, the simultaneity of success and failure in Ford’s handling of the English Review. It was, as Saunders explains, Ford’s chance to play “the role of literature’s betrayed altruist,” and to enact a drama of literary conflict as worthy of fictions as the plots into which he would recycle it (253). Writing this role gave Ford a version of literary success, given his strong narrative bent, and was a moment of apotheosis in his...