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Memphis Flyer Noteworthies

Soul mates going for broke.

By Leonard Gill

AUGUST 23, 1999: 

A Literary Friendship: Correspondence Between Caroline Gordon and Ford Madox Ford, edited and with an Introduction by Brita Lindberg-Seyersted (The University of Tennessee Press), 110 pp., $22.50

Ford Madox Ford had behind him the novel The Good Soldier and three of the four novels in his tetralogy Parade's End when he left his native England. The year was 1926, and despite the critical and popular success of these works both home and abroad, recognition and sales couldn't guarantee him an adequate income. Nor could they guarantee him freedom from certain marital difficulties and recurring bouts of bad health. A change of scene was what Ford needed, the New World was where the money was, and a warm welcome by New York's literary lights was what he got. It was here, in an apartment on West 16th Street, that his output picked up in a string of articles, essays, and lectures, and here that he also hired as secretary Caroline Gordon, a 31-year-old writer-to-be with ambition and with an equally struggling husband, the poet Allen Tate. The instant outcome: a mutual admiration that would last Ford and Gordon through the hardships of the 1930s and up to Ford's death in France in 1939. A Literary Friendship is the newly collected letters between Ford and his "soul mate" over the course of these 13 years.

On the evidence of the letters, though, that title is something of a misnomer because the ongoing topic in these pages isn't literature, it's living, and in the Depression years, that meant scrounging even in the case of a writer as masterful as Ford. In the case of Gordon, however, that meant far worse: a stint, following her husband, to the ends, according to her telling, of the earth: the campus of Southwestern at Memphis.

"Memphis is pretty deadly," she writes Ford in a letter dated September 1934. "The niggers here are wonderful, though and that's a help."

"[Memphis] is a dull place and fairly easy to work in," she writes a few months later. "No, we don't like it but we're getting a hell of a lot of debts paid off which helps some. ... [I]t's like living under water."

"A very strange, ragged, rather sinister looking country it is too, quite different from middle Tennessee," we read in March 1935 on the disappointing West Tennessee landscape.

By May, Gordon writes from her "hideous little house" on Forrest Avenue, "We are marking time here -- at least I am. ... I'll certainly be glad to shake the dust of Memphis from my feet."

And she does in the fall of 1936, permanently, in Monteagle, courtesy of a cabin belonging to the family of writer and close friend Andrew Lytle.

(For her part, this book's editor, Brita Lindberg-Seyersted, professor of American literature at the University of Oslo, pipes in by stating that the Tates "stuck it out" at Southwestern for two whole years, "uninspiring as the Memphis milieu was.")

Andrew Lytle is but one of a small cast of writers and publishers who show up here and in some surprising contexts:

As in, Gordon to Ford, 1931: "I'd like to know what you think of William Faulkner's stuff. ... Ernest Hemingway is going to be pretty sick about this boy, is already, no doubt. Faulkner was the only person at the [Southern Writers'] conference who behaved like a real he-writer, reclining soddenly upon his laurels in a room at the hotel most of the time. When he did appear he was dead drunk ...."

Gordon to Ford by way of Janice Biala, his companion, 1932: "Gertrude [Stein] told Allen she was sorry he had given up writing poetry as he seemed to know something about it."

Ford to Gordon, 1933: "[T.S.] Eliot's printing of [Gordon's short story] OLD RED may yet save his soul alive -- or at least in the state of suspended animation that is its peculiar prerogative. I hope he paid decently for it."

Gordon to Biala, 1935: "They say [Maxwell Perkins'] so taken up with Thomas Wolfe's new book these days he hardly knows what he's doing." And to Ford: "I do not know what is the matter with [Perkins] -- unless it is Thomas Wolfe's opus [Of Time and the River] coming out. I've been told that he's been dragging the words out of Wolfe one by one." (In the same letter: "There's a lad at Vanderbilt named [Randall] Jarrell -- Allen, [John Crowe] Ransom and all of them think he's quite extraordinary.")

And on a young poet from New England: The Tates apparently liked "the Lowell boy," who was camping out on the lawn on Gordon's family home in Kentucky, but Allen thought him a "potential nuisance," Ford, an "irritation."

Among lesser observations, we also learn (Gordon to Biala, 1933): "My grandmother has decided that she can't stand Buff Orpington chickens and is switching to Plymouth Rocks."

There's more to the letters between Caroline Gordon and Ford Madox Ford (or Janice Biala) than these quotes suggest, but not by much. When the dramatic highpoint in a correspondence stretching more than a decade is a yard full of mysteriously killed chickens (Gordon to Biala, 1932), be reminded then of another's letters -- those of Gordon's later friend Flannery O'Connor (in The Habit of Being) -- to see what separates the good from the truly great.


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