Heavy tasks undertaken with little likelihood of commensurate reward move me to admiration; the work of careerists – never. One such hero is Ford Madox Ford. He published more than eighty books, yes, and never had enough money, but in his final project he exceeded previous accomplishments. When Ford started work on The March of Literature in 1937, he was sixty-three, overweight and still feeling the effects of having been gassed twenty years earlier, during World I. He had rheumatism and, since 1929, had suffered several heart attacks. Ford spent eight months as writer in residence (then a novel concept) at Olivet College in Michigan, giving him time to read, research and write.
I read Nicholas Delbanco’s Group Portrait: Joseph Conrad, Stephen Crane, Ford Madox Ford, Henry James and H.G. Wells when it was published in 1982. He chronicles the time at the turn of the twentieth century when those six writers were neighbors, friends and sometimes collaborators in East Sussex and Kent. In “An Old Man Mad About Writing” (Anywhere Out of the World: Essays on Travel, Writing, Death, 2005), Delbanco returns to Ford. He tells us his earlier book “was in large part powered by a desire to celebrate” the author of Parade’s End, whom he portrays as a one-man literary catalyst.
The March of Literature is no dry textbook. It’s inimitably Ford’s work, as personal as DNA. Delbanco says, “There’s an intimate wrangling discursiveness here, as though the host of a party has buttonholed guests, and it’s of no real consequence if they are distant or dead.” It ought to be academic but reads like inspired conversation. Delbanco seems to be repaying a debt. He writes:
“On the forced march to completion, Ford started work at five in the morning and finished at seven at night. Years before, he had transcribed spoken utterance from Conrad, and Henry James made of dictation a routine procedure, yet it still beggars the imagination—beggars mine, at any rate—to think of anyone producing so much scholarship so fast.”
Ford had spent a lifetime internalizing literature. It was never merely a job. He published his 900-page March of Literature in 1938 and died the following year, the task of a lifetime completed. In conclusion, Delbanco writes of Ford: “He read and wrote and read. He wrote and read and wrote.”