Ford's most accomplished novel, the Good Soldier, was published when he was forty-two. This famous work features a first person narrative and tells the story of two couples, the English Ashburnhams and the American Dowells. John Dowell is the narrator, through whom we learn of Florence and Edward Ashburnham's affair, which culminates in the suicide of the former, John's wife (Edward is the "good soldier" of the title.) it is through the rambling, textured narration of John that the author attempts to forge a literary corollary to actual thought - quite similar, actually, to the Impressionist painters' experiments with capturing nature on their canvases:
You may well ask why I write. And yet my reasons are quite many. For it is not unusual in human beings who have witnessed for the sack of a city or the falling to pieces of a people to desire to set down what they have witnessed for the benefit of unknown heirs or of generation infinitely remote; or, if you please, jut to get the sight out of their heads (Ford 1962).
Samuel Beckett would later deploy this literary technique in such works as Molloy, as well as J.M. Coetzee, in the Heart of the Country. Ford regarded the Good Soldier as the best of his early novels - a position to which most critics tend to concede.
During the First World War, Ford enlisted as a lieutenant in the Welch Regiment. It was during his time in the service that he composed "Antwerp," a poem that would later be commended by T.S. Eliot as the only good war poem he had ever read. Ford was shell-shocked in 1916 in the Battle of the Somme; the following year, he would be sent home as an invalid. Many of Ford's poems were directly inspired by his experiences of World War I.
Ford spent the years following the war recovering in the country. He soon grew bored with the slow pace of rural life, however, and moved to Paris with the painter Stella Bowen. He then launched the Transatlantic Review, a magazine that featured the writing of some of the leading literary personalities of that era, including Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, e.e. cummings, and Jean Rhys. It was in 1919 that Ford changed his name to Ford Madox Ford (his real name was Ford Madox Hueffer.) Six years later, Ford would put through legal measures to legally restrain Violet Hunt from describing herself as the wife of Ford.
No more hope, no more glory, not for the nation, not for the world I dare say, no more parades," Ford famously wrote in his 1925 novel No More Parades, which was part of the tetralogy Parade's End. The four volumes of this work appeared between the years of 1924 and 1928. It was undoubtedly Ford's most ambitious work to date - if not the most ambitious work of his entire career. This work was lauded by such luminaries as W.H. Auden, among others. The main character of the work is Christopher Tietjens. Ford employs his impressionistic technique to masterful effect in his depiction of Tietjens' struggle to survive in a harsh, cruel world. Ford has Tietjens become the victim of any number of harshnesses - his wife cheats on him with another man, his friends betray him, and everything he values most in life is threatened at some point throughout the four novels. In the last two books, a Man Could Stand Up and Last Post, Tietjens succeeds in freeing himself from the ethical values that made up English life of old. At this point, he attempts to make peace with the new world that surrounds him.
In addition to being one of the pivotal authors of Modernism and literary Impressionism, Ford was also associated with the Imagist movement. He appeared in the Imagist anthology, which was published in 1930. Ford's ideas on Impressionism in literature were to have a strong influence on the work of Ezra Pound, who was a key member of the Imagist circle.
Ford spent the last few years of his life in the United States and the south of France, much of that time spent with a young American artist, Janice Biala. In 1937-1938, he accepted a post as visiting lecturer in literature in Michigan at Olivet College. This is where he began working on his last great work, the March of Literature, which appeared in 1939, the year of his death. The March of Literature was a work intended for the general reader. It explored the works of ancient Egypt and China, continuing up to the modern era.
Ford had long been known for his sharp, unconventional views of literature. As he stated early on in his monograph on Joseph Conrad, "Only two classes of books are of universal appeal: the very best and the very worst." The March of Literature consisted of a series of at time startling conclusions; he refers to Defoe as "an utterly humdrum writer." Dostoevsky "has the aspect of greatness of an enormously enlarged but misty statue of Sophocles," while the pleasure of reading Joyce consists "entirely from his skill in juggling words as a juggler." Ford had very little patience for literary critics, which is perhaps why he intended this book to be for the general reader; in his words,
But for the judging of contemporary literature the only test is one's personal taste. If you much like a new book, you must call it literature even though you find no other soul to agree with you, and if you dislike a book you must declare that it is not literature though a million voices should shout you that you are wrong. The ultimate decision will be made by Time.
The first half of the March of Literature was composed in Michigan in the summer of 1937 while he was staying with his friends Caroline and Allen Tate. He continued to work on the book in Paris, returning to Michigan the following spring, whereupon he finished the work. The March of Literature would appear in the year of Ford's death; he passed away on the 26th of June 1939 in Deauville, France.
Ford is typically remembered today as being a great editor who discovered many of the leading names of literary Modernism. Today, it is only a small audience that recognizes the fact that his finest achievements are in his novels. Ford was perhaps cognizant of his post-mortem destiny near the end of his life, when he assessed his career as follows:
have written at least fifty-two books, of which a couple might stand; I have dug, hoed, pruned, and sometimes even harvested twenty-six kitchen gardens that I can remember... And thirteen times I have travelled the round that goes from London to New York, New Orleans, the Azores, Gibraltar, Marseilles, Paris, London... If I had not so constantly travelled, I should have reaped better harvests and written more and better books; if I weren't, when travelling, constantly impeded by the desire to settle down somewhere and start something growing and write something, I should have travelled more happily and farther. And if suddenly, when dunging or irrigating in... Provence... I hadn't been filled with the itch to be walking across Sheridan Square... And if I hadn't incontinently gone and done it all - I should have eaten many more cabbages, oranges, and ears of corn of my own growing (Mizener xiv-xv).
Most biographers and critics agree that Ford was a deeply divided individual - and that this division within him had an effect on his work. While he was known for being a strongly opinionated critic, as well as a vain writer who wanted to be admired more than anything, he was not the greatest writer of his generation. Still, he is one of the most accomplished. Mizener has attributed the rift that exists in Ford's work to this division within the man himself:
Most of Ford's astonishing quantity of work was produced by the writer of talent in him, the skillful craftsman with his irrepressible delight in his metier. But somewhere inside him, apparently beyond the control of his conscious will, there was another self in Ford, what he called in his novels "the under self." This under self is the source of his best work. Its voice can be heard from time to time in his early books, but it is clearest in the Good Soldier and Parade's End. It fades out in his later work, for much as he longed to be a part of the new literary world that he, as an Edwardian rebel, had helped to make possible, his under self remained an old Bolshevik. It is a false ascription of motive but a fair judgment of the fiction Ford wrote in his last years to say, as Ambrose Gordon, Jr., does, that "for his last ten years [Ford] subsided into the novelistic equivalent of anagrams of…