December 17 marks British author, editor, and all-around literary iconFord Madox Ford’s 141st birthday. To celebrate the occasion, I explored his writings in the Rare Book Division—and found some fascinating glimpses into his life and work.
Today, Ford is best known for The Good Soldier and his World War I tetralogy Parade’s End. (To learn more about the war and its reception in America, be sure to check out NYPL’s current exhibition Over Here: World War I and the Fight for the American Mind!) But the author was extremely prolific, writing books, editing literary journals the English Review and the transatlantic review, and mentoring younger artists such as Ernest Hemingway. Readers of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises might recognize Ford as the inspiration for the not-altogether-complimentary character of Henry Braddocks. He began writing as Ford Madox Hueffer, but in 1919 changed his surname to Ford.
His earliest work in our collection is a children’s book, The Queen Who Flew, a Fairy Tale, written when Ford was twenty-one. Decorating the frontispiece is an illustration by celebrated Pre-Raphaelite artist Sir Edward Burne-Jones. Burne-Jones was a contemporary of Ford’s grandfather and namesake, the painter Ford Madox Brown.
The frontispiece for The Queen Who Flew, an illustration by Edward Burne-Jones
While still a young writer, Ford began a professional collaboration with none other than Joseph Conrad. Neither artist had yet reached the height of his literary accomplishment — Ford had years before Parade’s End, and Conrad was still conceptualizing Lord Jim. The collaboration was ultimately contentious, both for the authors and for later critics trying to pin down exactly who contributed what to each book. But before it fell apart, Ford and Conrad co-authored three novels, and we have the first two in our collection: The Inheritors and Romance.
Ford Madox Ford and Joseph Conrad’s The Inheritors, in its original publishers' cloth binding
The great thing about this copy of The Inheritors is its publishers' cloth binding. This is a term for the ready-made covers manufactured in bulk by publishers for entire editions of a book—previously, owners would buy their books unbound and then pay for custom, one-of-a-kind bindings. The Inheritors was published in 1901 when publishers' cloth bindings were at a design high-point, and before they were gradually replaced by dust jackets. You can see the multiple colors, commercial illustration, and gilding that makes this binding both beautiful and modern. I can picture it looking right at home on a bookstore shelf today.
Romance’s binding is more restrained, but its real gem lies within the covers: its flyleaf bears the signatures of both Ford and Conrad. And while Ford’s inscription is a simple “with affection,” Conrad takes the opportunity to hash out exactly what he added to the novel:
“In this book I have done my share of writing. Most of the characters (with the exception of Mrs. Williams, Sebright and the seaman) were introduced by Hueffer and developed then in my own way with, of course, his consent and collaboration. The last part is (like the first) the work of Hueffer except a few pars [paragraphs] written by me. Part second is actually joint work. Parts 3 & 4 are my writing with here and there a sentence by Hueffer.”
Ford Madox Ford and Joseph Conrad’s inscriptions in Romance
In addition to being a novelist, Ford was also a published poet and essayist. These two aspects of his creative output are represented in our Division by From Inland, and Other Poems and New York Essays. In the latter, written between October 1926 and March 1927, Ford expounds on contemporary authors, food, and his travels in New York City. He meets a women en route to catching rattlesnakes for the Bronx Park Zoo and recounts a harrowing and surreal trip to Coney Island that ends with Ford in a ballroom, empty except for a man slowly turning in circles and firing a six-shooter with each hand. Despite, or because of, these adventures, Ford was taken with the city, calling it “my beloved Gotham” and ending his first essay with these words:
“Well, one hears eternally that New York is not America; it obviously is not Europe [...] Perhaps, the one here overlapping the other, it is really the beginning of the World.”
From Inland and Other Poems, in its fragile, original paper wrappers
By the time of New York Essays, Ford had shed “Hueffer” and was writing and signing as “Ford Madox Ford”