The Conradian: Review

By Gene M. Moore, Universiteit von Amsterdam

Max Saunders, Ford Madox Ford: A Dual Life, Volume I: The World Before the War and Volume II: The After-War World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. Vol. I: xx + 632 pp. Vol. II: xiv + 696 pp.

This monumental labour of love raises Ford studies to an entirely new level of scholarship, and will undoubtedly serve as the biography of first reference for many years to come. In its breadth of cultural reference, its close attention to textual evidence of all kinds, and, most importantly, in its refreshing (and uniquely Fordian) generosity of spirit, it is without precedent and without equal in Ford studies.

Saunders neither patronizes Ford nor apologizes for him; instead, he seeks to appreciate Ford on his own terms as nearly as possible, giving him the maximum benefit of every doubt and then examining the evidence in an unhurried, intelligent, and judicious manner, resuming and revising the work of previous biographers so thoroughly that the reader will often be left wondering what more can possibly be said.

Saunders not only explores Ford's life and works more deeply and conscientiously than ever before; he has, in effect, reinvented Ford as a great writer who deserves the serious attention and respect of scholars. Conrad scholars will find Saunders's detailed account of the relations between the two writers particularly illuminating.

What Saunders calls the '"memorable doubleness" of Ford's adopted name becomes a structural principle for the biographer, who sees Ford's descent into the trenches of the Great War as a form of death and rebirth, and thus a convenient dividing line between the two volumes of his work. This notion of "duality" is truly an artful dodge, for it enables Saunders to explore the anxieties and conflicting loyalties that defined Ford's affairs while at the same time relieving him of the obligation to reconcile them.

Previous critics and biographers, frustrated in their efforts to explain Ford, have often blamed their own failures on Ford's "unreliability." Saunders shows us that the variant versions of many of Ford's stories are to be understood not as symptoms of moral weakness or intellectual confusion, but as the positive and necessary expression of an impressionistic credo that is closely linked with the origins of literary modernism.

Saunders has consulted an immense amount of material, including many unpublished letters and manuscripts. (Items not listed in David Dow Harvey's splendid bibliography of 1962 are helpfully marked with asterisks.) To deal with this profusion of sources, Saunders adopts the convention of gathering references for each paragraph into a single omnibus endnote, leaving the reader to match particular quotes with specific sources.

As he explains, "To avoid cluttering the text with index numbers, I have normally gathered together the references to form one or two footnotes per paragraph" (I, 500). But each paragraph can in fact contain a dozen or more references, and in this profusion of evidence, collective notes can easily obscure the precise links between statements and their sources. One typical example: Ford apparently claimed in a letter that Conrad was "worrying" him to complete The Rescue (I, 230); the endnote for this paragraph leaves the reader uncertain whether the word "worrying" is cited from a letter held at Princeton or at The Huntington Library (I, 546 n23).

It is regrettable that only the first four volumes of Conrad's Collected Letters were available to Saunders by the time his book went to press, and equally regrettable that Frederick R. Karl and Laurence Davies have not enjoyed the benefit of Saunders's expertise in dealing with Ford letters. Saunders sometimes uses his own transcriptions, with texts or dates that differ from those presented by Karl and Davies. For example, in the case of an undated letter from Conrad to Ford written four days after Conrad learned from Elsie Martindale of Fords quarrel with Marwood (CL4, 220-23), Saunders provides a different text and makes a detailed and convincing case for dating the letter a full month earlier than Karl and Davies (I: 269, and 557 n32).

Saunders has an impressive grasp of the implications of his material, combined with a masterful ability to cross-check various literary accounts of the same events. His discussion reflects and expands the current state of our knowledge of Ford's life and works. Saunders also pays tribute to his scholarly predecessors in exemplary fashion, citing them for their insights or faulting them for their lapses in a candid manner always relevant to the point at issue. In more than a thousand pages of dense print and closely reasoned argument, I have found only two significant omissions in Saunders's account of Ford's dual life.

The first concerns the sale of film rights. Saunders mentions Ford's sale of his half of the film rights to Romance in 1919, but he is apparently unaware of an earlier contract in which Fiction Pictures Inc. paid Conrad and Ford $500 for the movie rights to Romance (as recorded in letters from Paul R. Reynolds to Conrad's agent J. B. Pinker of 12 January, 16 March and 19 March 1915, now in The Berg Collection, New York Public Library).

The option expired without the film being made, and in 1919 Pinker re-sold the rights to Romance and four other films to Famous Players-Lasky (later Paramount). Paramount did not release The Road to Romance until 1927, and no copies are known to survive; it now exists only in the form of still photographs and reviews. As Saunders notes, Ford saw some of these photographs on display outside Loew's theatre in New York, and then went into the nearest speakeasy for a strong drink (It Was the Nightingale [Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1933], 145).

The other omission concerns Roger Casement, whose acquaintance with Ford is mentioned only once in passing (II, 250), although the impression Casement left on Ford is recorded unforgettably in a footnote to Solon Beinfeld and Sondra J. Stang's edition of Ford's A History of Our Own Times (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988), in which Ford said: "I have myself seen in the hands of Sir Roger Casement who had smuggled them out of the country, the hands and feet of Congolese children which had been struck off by Free State officials, the parents having failed to bring in their quota of rubber or ivory" (126n).

This eyewitness account is interesting not least because it is totally at odds with Conrad's own letter to Casement of 17 December 1903, in which Conrad claimed that "During my sojourn in the interior, keeping my eyes and ears well open too, I've never heard of the alleged custom of cutting off hands amongst the natives; and I am convinced that no such custom ever existed along the whole course of the main river to which my experience is limited" (CL3 95). Nine days later, Conrad recommended Casement to Cunninghame Graham as someone who "could tell you things! Things I've tried to forget; things I never did know" (CL3 102). It is curious to think that in this one macabre instance, Ford's experience of Congolese atrocities may have equalled Conrad's. Was Ford present at one of Casement's fund-raising lectures on behalf of the Congo Reform Association in 1904?

But such minor gaps as these cannot detract from the great and comprehensive work that Saunders has accomplished. Indeed, future scholars should feel grateful to Saunders for having left at least a few stones unturned. In 1962, David Dow Harvey published a research tool that was much more than a Ford bibliography. Saunders follows in this tradition, and gives us a work that is much more than a critical biography. At last, thanks to Max Saunders, Ford has received the attention and consideration he has long deserved. One can only hope that Ford Madox Ford: A Dual Life will serve to launch a new appreciation of Ford's work, and lead to a new open-mindedness among Conrad scholars about the importance of Ford's friendship and the artistic value of his influence.

© 1998, 2006 Gene M. Moore






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