This story starts with a great moment in literary autobiography – well, fine, let’s go ahead and say it has a claim to being one of the great moments in the history of literature. I have a personal story of my own to throw in at the end. But the story begins here, in the famous passage in which Ford Madox Ford recounts his discovery of a then-unknown writer:
In the year when my eyes first fell on words written by Norman Douglas, G. H. Tomlinson, Wyndham Lewis, Ezra Pound, and others . . . — upon a day I received a letter from a young schoolteacher in Nottingham. I can still see the handwriting—as if drawn with sepia rather than written in ink, on grey-blue notepaper. It said that the writer knew a young man who wrote, as she thought, admirably but was too shy to send his work to editors. Would I care to see some of his writing?
In that way I came to read the first words of a new author:
“The small locomotive engine, Number 4, came clanking, stumbling down from Selston with seven full waggons. It appeared round the corner with loud threats of speed but the colt that it startled from among the gorse which still flickered indistinctly in the raw afternoon, outdistanced it in a canter. A woman walking up the railway line to Underwood, held her basket aside and watched the footplate of the engine advancing.”
I was reading in the twilight in the long eighteenth-century room that was at once the office of the English Review and my drawing-room. My eyes were tired; I had been reading all day so I did not go any further with the story…. I laid it in the basket for accepted manuscripts. My secretary looked up and said: ‘You’ve got another genius?’ I answered: ‘It’s a big one this time,’ and went upstairs to dress. (Ford Madox Ford, Portraits from Life (Boston, 1937), 70-71.)
Years ago I was taking a course co-taught by two professors, one charming and voluble, the other quiet and wise. The charming professor read the passage without revealing the ending. “Can anyone guess who Ford Madox Ford was describing?” he asked.
Incredibly, I had read that book just weeks before, and I happened to know the answer. “D.H. Lawrence,” I said.
This earned me an approving nod from the charming professor. That was as far as it went, or at least as far as I took it: sort of the equivalent of answering a Trivial Pursuit question. Answer correctly, receive pat on the head and another triangle to wedge into your game piece. As a student of literature, I was proud of myself. It seemed I was On My Way.
It was left to the wise professor to provide the comment that took me into a whole new world of literary possibility. Not, in other words, literature as what-have-you-read-I’ve read-that-too. Not lists and check boxes. Something else.
“I was just thinking,” he said after the charming professor, having noticed his colleague was looking particularly thoughtful, asked him what was on his mind, “how interesting that passage is, considering that Ford’s greatest work is about not knowing.”
And there it was: the door opened.
I’m not sure I can put it into words, except I knew that the power of the story was not just that one great author had discovered another. It was that Ford, who as an editor was so self-assured, so supremely confident in his skills and judgment, had also written that wonderful book The Good Soldier, which is all about the deception (and self-deception) of the narrator. The same man who could judge the greatness of an author from a single paragraph had also written a novel in which he conveyed the experience of being left completely in the dark. Had Ford himself experienced that condition? Had he merely imagined its awesome, awful power? It didn’t matter. A life filled with certainty suddenly clashes with a horrible awareness of uncertainty: what does that do to a person? In The Good Soldier, Ford gave us one answer. In the classroom, I embraced the mind-expanding power of the question.
From that day forward literature, for me at least, was not about scorecards and best-of lists. It was about engaging with the ideas within – the great minds of Chekhov and Lawrence and Baldwin and Porter and Tolstoy and O’Connor and Welty and Austen and Homer and everyone else who tried their hardest to look deep within humans – soul miners, all of them – who emerged with their hands full of the dark and glinty news of what they’d seen.
That’s my story about how the discovery of literary greatness helped me discover the greatness of literature. And while my discovery was not as significant to the world as Ford’s, to me it felt – and still feels! – no less momentous.
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