Literature Among the Ruins

"Mon cher, c'est notre métier, le vrai métier de chien . . . Vous écrivez et vous écrivez . . . et personne, personne au monde ne comprendra." Joseph Conrad's complaint to his young collaborator, Ford Madox Hueffer, might have been put on Ford's tombstone, when he died in 1939. You write, and you write, and no one in the world understands. Although the popular reputation of Ford Madox Ford (as he later called himself) now rests primarily on one book, The Good Soldier, his career is emblematic of 20th-century literature, its grandiose ambitions and its humiliating failures.

In his life Ford seems to have known nearly every writer worth knowing. Through his grandfather, the painter Madox Brown, and his uncle William Rossetti, he was connected to the Pre-Raphaelites. He knew Meredith and Hardy in his youth and came to be an intimate of Henry James and Joseph Conrad, with whom he collaborated on several novels; after the Great War, in which he served as a man in his 40's, he worked closely with Pound, and as founding editor of the Transatlantic Review he published the best of his contemporaries. He was the rarest of critics, who could appreciate the talents of the two great literary antagonists of the early 20th century, James and Wells, and many a younger writer (Lawrence, for example) owed his start to Ford's encouragements. The only writer, in his...

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