The story begins with a great moment in literary autobiography – well, fine, let’s go ahead and say its one of the great moments in the history of literature itself. I have a personal story 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, says Ford, he 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 wagons. 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.”
Great editor encounters a passage from a new, unknown writer. And what was his response?
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.
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 wrote the passage?” he asked. “Anyone here recognize the style of writing?”
The grand professor looked around the room. As he expected, there was no response. But as it happened, I had read that book just a few weeks before. It was an incredible coincidence, one of the few times that something like that has ever worked out for me. It was far more typical for me to forget an answer, or to not know, than it was to have something so arcane right at my fingertips. But this time I did.
I hardly knew what to do. On the other hand, I didn’t need to do much.
“D.H. Lawrence,” I said.
To the professor’s credit, he was not disappointed by this shift in his plans.
Huh. Didn’t think anyone would know. Well, good for you. And now it’s time to return to our regularly scheduled programming, in which I tell you things I assume you don’t know, and you listen to them, because I am a genius like Ford Madox Ford, and I’ve discovered D.H. Lawrences in the past, but I don’t think we have any here, alas, not this time, poor you, I pity you all…
For a moment I had broken through, although “broken through” is probably an overstatement. I had earned 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 someone who viewed himself as a fan of literature if not exactly a scholar, I felt a spark of pride. It seemed like the kind of thing that I should know. At some point, I would be given a test, and if I knew things like this, I would pass it.
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 that 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 passage in Ford’s autobiography was not merely that one great author had discovered another. It was something more. 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. And we were here, now, sorting out the differences.
Had Ford himself experienced that feeling of deeply not knowing? 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 eyes bright, their hands dark and glinty with the dust of what they’d seen down below.
That’s my story of how a discovery of literary greatness helped me discover the greatness of literature.
And while my discovery was certainly not as important to the world as Ford’s discovery of Lawrence, to me it felt – and still feels! – no less momentous.
Short and sweet! Well, maybe we needed it to get that ghastly shriek out of our heads. Other coming-of-age moments in #21 – The Speed Trap and #1 – The Padlock and #16 – The Laundry. Love of literature (and a misguided attempt to invent a philosophy) turns up in #19 – My Roommate’s Books. All the 100 Objects are at the main page.
What other news? Well, of course, my books The Race and The Promotion are still available. The e-book version of The Promotion is now on sale for just ninety-nine cents. Ninety-nine! Sounds like a big number to a three-year-old, but you and I know differently, don’t we, reader?
Okay, those links are to the Amazon page, but really, wouldn’t you rather have a free copy? I’m happy to send you one in exchange for an honest review, which you can leave on your blog, or at Amazon, or Facebook or Goodreads or wherever else you call virtual home–
Aha, I hear you say. I’m onto your tricks, Jacke! You’re enticing me with free merchandise simply to burden me with the task of writing a review and publicizing the product. And if I buy the book, for a mere five dollars (three for an e-version) I can be free of this burden! The choice seems clear, Mr. Wilson! Five dollars is a small price to pay for the option to review or not to review!
Readers, I don’t know what to say: you’ve outwitted me again! Onward and upward!
Image Credit: marketmybook.in
Excerpt: Ford Madox Ford, Portraits from Life (Boston, 1937), 70-71.)