Ford, Richard 1944–
Ford, Richard 1944–
PERSONAL: Born February 16, 1944, in Jackson, MS; son of Parker Carrol (in sales) and Edna (Akin) Ford; married Kristina Hensley (a research professor), 1968. Education: Michigan State University, B.A., 1966; attended Washington University Law School, 1967–68; University of California—Irvine, M.F.A., 1970.
ADDRESSES: Agent—Amanda Urban, International Creative Management, 40 West 57th St., New York, NY 10019.
CAREER: Writer, 1976–. University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, lecturer, 1974–76; Williams College, William-stown, MA, assistant professor of English, 1978–79; Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, lecturer, 1979–80; Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, instructor, 1994.
MEMBER: Writers Guild (East), PEN.
AWARDS, HONORS: University of Michigan Society of Fellows, 1971–74; Guggenheim fellow, 1977–78; National Endowment for the Arts fellow, 1979–80, 1985–86; The Sportswriter was chosen one of the five best books of 1986, Time magazine; PEN/Faulkner citation for fiction, 1987, for The Sportswriter; literature award, Mississippi Academy of Arts and Letters, 1987; literature award, American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, 1989; Literary Lion Award, New York Public Library, 1989; Echoing Green Foundation award, 1991; Rea Award for the Short Story, 1995; PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction, Folger Shakespeare Library, and Pulitzer Prize for fiction, Columbia University, both 1996, both for Independence Day.
A Piece of My Heart (novel), Harper (New York, NY), 1976.
The Ultimate Good Luck (novel), Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1981.
The Sportswriter (novel), Vintage (New York, NY), 1986.
Rock Springs: Stories (includes "Children" and "Great Falls"), Atlantic Monthly Press (New York, NY), 1987.
Wildlife (novel), Atlantic Monthly Press (New York, NY), 1990.
Independence Day (novel), Knopf (New York, NY), 1995.
Women with Men: Three Stories, Knopf (New York, NY), 1997.
A Multitude of Sins: Stories, Harvill (London, England), 2001, Knopf (New York, NY), 2002.
Vintage Ford (collected stories), Vintage (New York, NY), 2003.
(With Shannon Ravenel) The Best American Short Stories 1990, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1990.
The Granta Book of the American Short Story, Viking (New York, NY), 1992.
A.J. Liebling, The Fights, photographs by Charles Hoff, Chronicle Books (San Francisco, CA), 1996.
(With Michael Kreyling) Eudora Welty, Complete Novels, Library of America (New York, NY), 1998.
(With Michael Kreyling), Eudora Welty, Stories, Essays, and Memoir, Library of America (New York, NY), 1998.
The Essential Tales of Chekhov, Norton (New York, NY), 1998.
The Best American Sports Writing, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1999.
American Tropical (play), produced in Louisville, KY, 1983.
(Author of introduction) Juke Joint: Photographs by Birney Imes, University Press of Mississippi (Jackson, MS), 1990.
Bright Angel (screenplay; based on Ford's short stories "Children" and "Great Falls"), Hemdale, 1991.
(Author of introduction) Richard Bausch, Aren't You Happy for Me? and Other Stories, Macmillan (London, England), 1995.
(Author of text) Jane Kent, Privacy (etchings), 2000.
(Author of foreword) William Albert Allard, Portraits of America, National Geographic Society (Washington, DC), 2001.
(Translator, with David Satcher) Alejandrina Drew, Abra Cadabra, Patas de Cabra: A Spanish/English Story for Young Readers, Eakin, 2001.
(Author of introduction) Richard Yates, Revolutionary Road, Methuen (London, England), 2001.
Contributor to books, including Fifty Great Years of Esquire Fiction, edited by L. Rust Hills, Viking (New York, NY), 1983; The Great Life: A Man's Guide to Sports, Skills, Fitness, and Serious Fun, Penguin (New York, NY), 2000; and Maine: The Seasons, Knopf, 2001. Contributor of stories and essays to periodicals.
Ford's papers are housed at Michigan State University Libraries, East Lansing, MI.
ADAPTATIONS: Ford's story "Communist" was adapted for the stage and produced in San Francisco, CA, 1999.
SIDELIGHTS: "Writing is the only thing I've done with persistence, except for being married," claimed novelist and short fiction author Richard Ford in an interview with Publishers Weekly, "and yet it's such an inessential thing. Nobody cares if you do it, and nobody cares if you don't." The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the novel Independence Day, Ford undoubtedly believed that statement, yet numerous reviewers have demonstrated how much they do care about Ford's work by lavishing it with praise. He is "a formidably talented novelist" and "one of the best writers of his generation," according to Walter Clemons of Newsweek. He is "the leading short story writer in the United States today," in the opinion of Toronto Globe and Mail contributor Alberto Manguel.
Ford, who was raised in Mississippi and Arkansas and had to overcome dyslexia as a child, turned to fiction-writing after a brief, unsatisfying stint as a law student. He enrolled in the M.F.A. program at the University of California—Irvine, where he studied with such writers as E.L. Doctorow and Oakley Hall. Following his graduation, Ford worked on short stories and his first novel, the latter which was published in 1976 under the title A Piece of My Heart. The book is the tale of an Arkansas drifter and a Chicago law student whose paths cross on an uncharted island deep in the Mississippi delta.
A Piece of My Heart received mixed reviews, although many critics praised Ford for his skillful evocation of the South and its people. "Faulknerian in setting and atmosphere, the novel reveals a writer with his own cadence and tone," observed Nolan Miller in the Antioch Review. Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Larry McMurtry also raised a comparison between Ford and Faulkner, although with a less-laudatory result. "If the vices this novel shares with its many little Southern cousins could be squeezed into one word, the word would be neo-Faulknerism…. Pronouns drifting toward a shore only dimly seen, a constant backward tilt toward a past that hasn't the remotest causal influence on what is actually happening, plus a more or less constant tendency to equate eloquence with significance: these are the familiar qualities in which Mr. Ford's narrative abounds." Still, McMurtry acknowledged that he saw promise in Ford's first novel and concluded that Ford's "minor characters are vividly drawn, and his ear is first-rate. If he can weed his garden of some of the weeds and cockleburrs of his tradition, it might prove very fertile."
Ford himself has expressed frustration with attempts to qualify fiction as "Southern" or any other label. He declared in Harper's : "Categorization (women's writing, gay writing, Illinois writing) inflicts upon art exactly what art strives at its best never to inflict on itself: arbitrary and irrelevant limits, shelter from the widest consideration and judgment, exclusion from general excellence. When writing achieves the level of great literature, of great art (even good art), categories go out the window. William Faulkner, after all, was not a great Southern writer: he was a great writer who wrote about the South."
Ford's second novel, The Ultimate Good Luck, recounts the tale of a Vietnam veteran who, in an attempt to reclaim the affections of his ex-girlfriend, journeys to Mexico to rescue her brother from prison, where he is being held for his part in a drug deal. Gilberto Perez panned the book in the Hudson Review, writing that it "calls to mind a cheap action picture in which hastily collaborating hacks didn't quite manage to put a story together." Newsweek reviewer Walter Clemons had a different assessment, calling The Ultimate Good Luck "a tighter, more efficient book" than A Piece of My Heart, "and a good one." While Clemons did feel Ford has "jimmied himself into the confines of the existentialist thriller with a conspicuous sacrifice of his robust gift for comedy," he wrote that the author has "larger capabilities" than those manifested in this novel and declared that, "sentence by sentence, The Ultimate Good Luck is the work of a formidably talented novelist." Toronto Globe and Mail reviewer Douglas Hill was even more enthusiastic, crediting Ford with creating "a thriller that is also a love story, and at its core a meditation upon the precariousness and impotence of post-Vietnam U.S. values."
Ford's reputation and popularity soared with the publication of his third book, The Sportswriter, which sold more than 60,000 copies. Writing in the London Times, James Wood described it as "a desperately moving and important book, at once tremulous and tough." The Sportswriter is narrated by its protagonist, Frank Bascombe. Bascombe is "deceptively amiable, easygoing and sweet natured," reported Newsweek reviewer Clemons. "As he tells his story in a chipper, uncomplaining tone, we gradually learn that he's a damaged man who's retreated into cushioned, dreamy detachment to evade grief and disappointment." Once a promising novelist and short-story writer, Bascombe has abandoned the difficulties of creating fiction for the simpler, more immediate gratifications of sports reporting and suburban life in New Jersey. The death of his son brings on a spiritual crisis he tries to avoid, and he distracts himself with extramarital affairs which eventually leads his wife to divorce him.
Although he continually asserts his happiness, Bascombe "asserts so hard that we are made to feel the hollowness," explained Los Angeles Times book critic Richard Eder. "Negation by assertion is the narrative's central device, in fact, giving it a flatness and a dead tone." Eder explained that "the point of The Sportswriter is not the plot, but the quality of thought and feeling with which the narrator assays his life." The reviewer found it to be "a dull point" because, in his opinion, "Bascombe is not very nice and not very interesting." Clemons also thought that Bascombe's behavior is often "less than admirable," but in his view this increases Ford's literary achievement, for "only a scrupulously honest novelist could make us sympathetic to such an unheroic nature. Ford makes us feel we're more like Bascombe than we often care to admit." New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani called the novel "powerful," noting that while Bascombe's monologue is occasionally "long winded and overly meditative … his voice … is so pliant and persuasive that we are insistently drawn into his story…. We come to see Frank not only as he sees himself (hurt, alienated, resigned to a future of diminishing returns) but also as he must appear to others—essentially kind and decent, but also wary, passive and unwilling to embrace the real possibilities for happiness that exist around him."
"The Sportswriter … established a glittering reputation" for Ford, asserted a Time contributor, adding: "The stories in Rock Springs confirm it." Set mostly in Montana, the stories in Rock Springs portray characters in transit, moving from one town or one way of life to another. "If the term 'perfect' still means 'thoroughly accomplished,' then Rock Springs is a perfect book," said Manguel in his Globe and Mail review. New York Times contributor Kakutani also found the collection to be an impressive work. "Ford has managed to find a wholly distinctive narrative voice … a voice that can move effortlessly between neat, staccato descriptions and rich, lyrical passages," Kakutani wrote, adding: His "stories stand as superb examples of the storyteller's craft, providing us with both the pleasures of narrative and the sad wisdom of art." Kakutani pronounced enthusiastically: "This volume should confirm his emergence as one of the most compelling and eloquent storytellers of his generation."
Ford returned to the novel form with 1990's Wildlife. Describing the inner workings of the Brinson family, the novel uses the central metaphor of a raging forest fire to symbolize the uncontrolled forces sweeping through the family. Reviewers were again divided in their assessment of this work. Jonathan Yardley, reviewing Wildlife for the Washington Post, was not pleased with the way the characters smooth "each other's passage through life with pearls of pop-psychological wisdom," or with the abundance of metaphors in the narrative. "Like a puppy with a slipper, Ford sinks his teeth into those metaphors, shakes them all over the place and refuses to let them go," quipped Yardley. Victoria Glendinning commented of Ford in the London Times that "there is something obsessional and over-tidy in the jigsaw neatness of his writing, his interlocking themes and images, his modest conclusions," but she allowed that Wildlife is "beautifully made" and noted: Ford "has far more to teach Europeans about ordinary American life and the American psyche than have the flashier East Coast novelists."
The mixed critical responses to Ford's work stand as proof of its worth, maintained Toronto Globe and Mail contributor Trevor Ferguson, who rated Wildlife "a su-perb novel." Ferguson added that the novel "is also, like its characters and like its vision of America, strangely contradictory—at once affirmative and self-limiting. Applaud or berate him as he assumes a position in the front rank of American letters, Ford and his stylistic decisions deserve heated debate."
Independence Day, Ford's sequel to The Sportswriter, finds protagonist Frank Bascombe "sunk deep into a morass of spiritual lethargy," observed Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times. Much has changed in the years between the two stories. First, Frank is no longer a sportswriter; he is a real estate agent in his hometown in New Jersey. His ex-wife has taken their two living children to her new home and husband in Connecticut. "Frank wryly yet seriously portrays his current life in sharply-observed detail," Merle Rubin wrote in the Christian Science Monitor, adding that "it is Richard Ford's great gift as a novelist that he makes the details matter." Bascombe's experiences reflect those of American society during the late 1980s. As Kakutani wrote, "Not only does Mr. Ford do a finely nuanced job of delineating Frank's state of mind …, but he also moves beyond Frank, to provide a portrait of a time and a place, of a middle-class community caught on the margins of change and reeling, like Frank, from the wages of loss and disappointment and fear."
Independence Day follows Bascombe during the long Fourth of July weekend of 1988. Frank hopes to reconnect with his troubled fifteen-year-old son through a father-son trip that includes the Basketball Hall of Fame in Massachusetts and the Baseball Hall of Fame in New York. "Displaying again his astonishing mastery of New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New York roadmaps—their physical as well as moral landscapes—Ford sweeps us in a four-day whirl through an election-year America which de Toccqueville foretold—filled with ambitious men but empty of lofty ambitions," Raymond A. Schroth commented in Commonweal. The lasting merit of Independence Day, according to Times Literary Supplement contributor Gordon Burn, comes in Ford's uncommon ability to bring together all of these elements: the man, the family, the society, and the landscape. In Burn's words, "Ford's achievement in Independence Day … is to reclaim the strangeness of a country which he knows is at least as beguiling as it is wretched, and to rescue it from its worst own image. Amazingly, this late in the American century, he gives every impression of cruising through a territory nobody has laid claim to, nailing it with such a devouring—such an undeceived—eye that it begins to seem new again and in need of a writer of Ford's marvelous talents to explain and translate it." Concluded Kakutani, "With Independence Day, Mr. Ford has written a worthy sequel to The Sportswriter and galvanized his reputation as one of his generation's most eloquent voices."
Women with Men is a collection of three short stories—"The Womanizer," "Jealous," and "Occidentals"—that each feature "men pondering their complicated relationships with women," Michael Pearson explained in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Two of the stories take place in Paris and are told from the perspective of mature men, while the third focuses on a seventeen-year-old living in Montana. Still, they all share a certain quality, "a kind of moody but sweet ennui …," in the words of Boston Globe contributor Gail Caldwell, "like being suddenly enveloped in a warm fog on what you believed was a sunny beach. Maybe it will pass in twenty minutes; maybe you won't get out alive." Because of this overall quality, as Pearson noted, "Each of the three principal characters in this new collection is a lost soul."
While conceding Ford's skills as a storyteller, some reviewers concluded that Women with Men does not represent the author's best effort. Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in the New York Times called Ford's characters "not complex enough to hold one's interest," while James Marcus commented in the Village Voice that "Ford never makes [his male protagonists] … into mere whipping boys for an assortment of masculine sins: he has a sneaking sympathy for their foolishness, and for the women they tend to inflict it on." Moreover, in the opinion of Peter S. Prescott of the Wall Street Journal, Ford takes readers "inside the thoughts of two entirely unremarkable men, men who can be defined by their limitations, and made the exercise interesting." David Nicholson, in his review for the Washington Post, faulted the stories in Women with Men for being "slight," although Caldwell offered a different take. Ford "doesn't insist on something happening, even in a short story, since he seems to grasp that most of life is lived in between occurrences," Caldwell noted in the Boston Globe. Pearson found in Women with Men a kinship to Men without Women, a collection of stories by Ernest Hemingway that Ford's fiction invoked for the critic. "Similar to Hemingway's stories," Pearson noted, "Ford's are like the tips of icebergs, only a small portion of the emotion showing and always something chilling beneath the surface."
The 2001 story collection A Multitude of Sins was described by Ford in the Austin American-Statesman as "a group of stories about how people fail each other" and themselves. Of the ten stories—one of which is a novella—William H. Pritchard noted in Commonweal that Ford "defuses the word sin into 'sin,' and since adultery is the condition of or fact behind most of these stories, its sinful nature—or lack of such—is explored rather than assumed." In Maclean's, John Bemrose expanded on Pritchard's observation: "To say that Ford's subject is duplicity is to miss his full achievement. Many of his characters manifest their own kind of integrity and courage in painful situations, such as the narrator in the splendid 'Calling,' who recalls his youth as the son of a selfish, abandoning father." Jenny Shank in the Rocky Mountain News, commented on the same story, "The son narrates all this from many years hence, after his mother and father have died. Reflecting on his father, he makes an observation that encapsulates all the stories in this collection: 'My father did only what pleased him, and believed that doing so permitted others the equal freedom to do what they wanted. Only that isn't how the world works, as my mother's life and mine were living proof. Other people affect you. It's really no more complicated than that.'"
Bemrose suggested that the subtle themes in A Multitude of Sins offer "some deeper insights into the workings of the American mind…. The adventures of the mad Captain Ahab—the protagonist of … Moby Dick, which chronicles the pursuit of a great white whale—may well have more to say about where the U.S. [middle class] is headed in the long run than the latest bulletin from CNN." Julie Myerson wrote in the London Guardian: "Ford's sheer mastery of the short-story form is jaw-dropping…. Each of these tales boasts the satisfying density of a novel, yet reaches its pay-off in a matter of minutes. Almost every one of his characters is rounded enough to carry 300 pages, yet we usually say goodbye to them after a brisk and dazzling thirty."
Characteristic of critical reaction to Ford's work, some critics were less than enthusiastic in their response to A Multitude of Sins. John de Falbe, writing in the Spectator, questioned: "These stories are not rib-ticklers then, but are they good?… If care were enough to guarantee excellence, then Ford could not be faulted, but it is his extreme care that betrays him. Nobody could accuse him of not thinking through his characters' feelings—he has done so exhaustively, so that one sometimes longs for a clear image in place of half a page of analysis. Yet to criticise him for failing to use images is not quite just because he often uses them well. Too often they seem ponderous or tired, however." New Statesman contributor John Dugdale compared the collection with The Sportswriter and Independence Day, which thrive on "the juggling of passion and profession." In A Multitude of Sins, Dugdale wrote, "this balance has gone askew. Ford sketches what his cheating and cheated figures do from nine to five with tantalising skill, but never shows them doing it…. Ford's couples never discuss politics, current affairs, religion, high and popular culture, celebrities, sport or even sex, focusing myopically on their relationship. No wonder they're fed up with one another. But why isn't Ford bored of writing about them?" Interviewer John Marshall countered in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that "Ford is a fearless explorer of American spaces…. Ambiguity, unease, excess, failings." "Ford enters these shadowy areas in his prize-winning fiction," Marshall added, "then reports back from places where many people would rather not admit they have tread."
Ford commented to Marshall, "Unlike novels, short stories seem perfectible, but getting them perfected is very frustrating. Novels are comfortable, large, forgiving—novels can have all sorts of structural inadequacies, but still be great books. A story with that will be seen as some failed thing…. There is such an economy of gesture in short stories that everything takes on added weight. I constantly find I am asking myself, 'Gee, how do you do this?'"
Returning to the novel form following A Multitude of Sins, Ford featured Frank Bascombe in a third novel, titled The Lay of the Land. Meanwhile, his most popular short fiction was collected and published in 2003 as Vintage Ford.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
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Contemporary Novelists, 6th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.
Folks, Jeffrey J., and James A. Perkins, editors, Southern Writers at Century's End, University Press of Kentucky (Lexington, KY), 1997.
Folks, Jeffrey J., and Nancy Summers Folks, editors, The World Is Our Culture: Society and Culture in Contemporary Southern Writing, University Press of Kentucky (Lexington, KY), 2000.
Guagliardo, Huey, editor, Perspectives on Richard Ford, University Press of Mississippi (Jackson, MS), 2000.
Guagliardo, Huey, editor, Conversations with Richard Ford, University Press of Mississippi (New York, NY), 2001.
Hobson, Fred, The Southern Writer in the Postmodern World, University of Georgia Press, 1991.
Iftekharuddin, Farhat, Mary Rohrberger, and Maurice Lee, editors, Speaking of the Short Story: Interviews with Contemporary Writers, University Press of Mississippi (Jackson, MS), 1997.
Lyons, Bonnie, and Bill Oliver, editors, Passion and Craft: Conversations with Notable Writers, University of Illinois Press (Urbana, IL), 1998.
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BookPage, http://www.bookpage.com/ (February, 2002).
Off Course, http://www.albany.edu/offcourse/ (November, 1998).
Salon.com, http://www.salon.com/ (July 8, 1996), interview with Ford.