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.