Richard Ford Biography
Richard Ford comments:
Nationality: American. Born: Jackson, Mississippi, 16 February1944. Education: Public schools in Jackson, 1950-62; Michigan State University, East Lansing, 1962-66, B.A. 1966; Washington University Law School, St. Louis, 1967-68; University of California, Berkeley, 1968-70, M.A. 1970. Career: Assistant professor of English, Williams College, Williamstown, Massachusetts, 1978-79; lecturer, Princeton University, New Jersey, 1980-81; teacher, Harvard University, 1994. Awards: Guggenheim fellowship, 1977; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1978, 1983; New York Public Library Literary Lion award, 1989; American Academy award, 1989; Echoing Green Foundation award, 1991; Pulitzer Prize for fiction, 1997. Agent: Amanda Urban, International Creative Management, 40 West 57th Street, New York, New York 10023-2031, U.S.A.
A Piece of My Heart. New York, Harper, 1976; London, Collins, 1987.
The Ultimate Good Luck. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1981; London, Collins, 1989.
The Sportswriter. New York, Vintage, and London, Collins, 1986.
Wildlife. New York, Atlantic Monthly Press, and London, Collins, 1990.
Independence Day. New York, Knopf, 1995.
Rock Springs. New York, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1987; London, Collins, 1988.
Women with Men: Three Stories. New York, Knopf, 1997.
Bright Angel, 1991.
Editor, with Shannon Ravenel, The Best American Short Stories 1990. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1990.
Editor, The Granta Book of the American Short Story. London, Granta, 1991.
Editor, The Essential Tales of Chekhov. New York, Ecco Press, 2000.
Perspectives on Richard Ford, edited by Huey Guagliardo. Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 2000; Richard Ford by Elinor Walker. New York, Twayne, 2000.
I'm stymied in an attempt to introduce my work. I wish I could write something about it that would make it seem wonderful and irresistible. My belief is, though, that anybody's work ought to introduce itself from its first moment, and I would prefer to take my chances that way rather than to put on the critic's cap regarding my own efforts or risk confusing my later opinions about my book or my story or my essay with any of their actual effects. Writers, in my experience, often gain very lofty opinions of their oeuvres once their oeuvres are out of writerly control. Any number of wondrous intentions, structures, and philosophical underpinnings can be made to dress up a simple story after the fact. I've probably been guilty of it myself, though it's only human.
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Near the end of The Sportswriter, Frank Bascombe tells a young woman in whom he's interested that he never lets himself feel sorry for anyone he writes about, "since the next person you're liable to feel sorry for is you, and then you're in real trouble." While the settings of Richard Ford's fiction range from Montana to Arkansas to Mexico to New Jersey, his theme seems to remain constant. Emotional entanglements—with others, with the self—are to be avoided.
In A Piece of My Heart, after eight years of marriage to Jackie, Robard Hewes leaves their home in Bishop, California, and drives his truck to the Arkansas bank of the Mississippi River. There, in the sleepy town of Helena, he takes up again with Beuna, with whom he had a brief affair 12 years earlier. He has been led to do this because for a year Beuna, married to an obsessed minor-league pitcher, has been writing him letters persuading him to come see her and renew their affair. Robard, whose own marriage has lost some of its flavor, knows that fooling with another man's wife is risky business. But having made his decision to do it, he is bent on carrying out his mission.
In Arkansas, Robard encounters Sam Newel, just down from Chicago, where he was about to complete his education in the law. The two men end up sharing quarters on an island that is the destination of hunting parties from out of state. Sam has been urged to spend some time on the island by his girlfriend Beebe, who thinks Sam needs to raise his "tolerance for ambiguity" and to learn to keep going "when nothing is very clearly defined," a notion that sounds very much like the poet John Keats's "negative capability."
Although it is obvious that Sam has a precarious hold on life, Robard does not like him or offer him anything resembling pity. Nor does Sam see anything in Robard worthy of his respect. Sam, burdened with intellect and guilt, thinks Robard is an impulsive fool. That Robard is not a reflective person clearly, in the view of the author, is very much to his credit; when called by his instincts, Robard acts. Sam's troubles are due to his willingness to dwell on the same old issues.
A Piece of My Heart is divided into seven parts. The first and last and two parts in the middle are Robard's; three alternate parts in the middle are Sam's. The effect of this path-crossing is that Sam is moved away from his Hamlet-like tendencies and Robard begins to reflect, in particular to realize his mistake in leaving Jackie. His realization, though, comes too late, for he is shot as a trespasser before he can start back to California.
Ford's second novel, The Ultimate Good Luck, is about 31-year-old Harry Quinn's adventures in Oaxaca, Mexico, where he is trying to gain the release from prison of a young American drug smuggler. Quinn is a more thoughtful Robard. Just as Robard left Jackie, Quinn too let a good woman get away from him. But he is given a chance to get Rae back when she writes and asks whether he would be interested in helping to get her brother out of a Mexican prison. As a former Marine helicopter pilot in Vietnam, Quinn has the skills and cast of mind needed for dealing with corrupt prison officials and the Mexican underworld.
Unlike Sam Newel, Quinn, despite the horrors of Vietnam, will not let the past take hold of him. He is determined to live in the present, free of anxiety. Quinn is convinced that the ultimate good luck comes only to those who live in the present. What Quinn learns, though, is that even living in the present is not sufficient for outrunning loneliness. Thus he is glad for the opportunity to win Rae back.
Quinn, whose language is spare and hardboiled, is a typical Ford protagonist. In language and temperament, Quinn is very much a descendent of Ernest Hemingway's heroes. Near the beginning of this novel is one of the best pieces of descriptive prose to be found in all of Ford's writing, and it too is reminiscent of Hemingway. It is a description of two teenage Mexican boys boxing. At first they haven't the heart to hit each other, but the bout ends with one boy poking the other's eyeball out of its socket.
The Sportswriter is Ford's best-known novel. His protagonist, Frank Bascombe, has a Hemingway-esque attraction to contests of strength and skill. But while Hemingway's characters enlist in wars and gather at bullfights, Bascombe is drawn to the safer, relatively antiseptic world of sports. After the death of his young son, Bascombe quits writing fiction (where clearly the more rigorous existential challenges lie) for sports writing because sports teach that there are "no transcendent themes in life": "When a contest is over, it's over, finished. That's the way life is, and any other view is a lie. Athletes are completely happy living in the present."
Though these thoughts echo Quinn's desires to live only in the present, Bascombe is more reminiscent of T. S. Eliot's Prufrock, or Mary McCarthy's Peter Levi, than a Hemingway protagonist. Bascombe thinks and observes but cannot act. When an acquaintance who clearly is suicidal reaches out to him after they have been on a fishing trip off the Jersey coast, Bascombe responds with anything but compassion. His only action is non-action: constant internal philosophizing that helps him maintain his emotional distance but accomplishes little else. He knows that "for your life to be worth anything you must sooner or later face the possibility of terrible, searing regret. Though you must also manage to avoid it or your life will be ruined."
Bascombe returns in Independence Day, the sequel to The Sportswriter. He has changed careers again—he's now a real estate agent—and moved into his ex-wife's house in the fictional town of Haddam, New Jersey. His investment in "homes" suggests a yearning for attachment. Independence Day indeed portrays Bascombe's shift from what he calls his "Existence Period"—detached bachelorhood without crisis—to his consideration of "The Permanent Period" of marriage and a deeper commitment to fatherhood. "Independence" here represents the freedom to move toward such intimacy. But in the end, "The Permanent Period" remains a concept. Like Prufrock pondering the peach, Bascombe does not act. Watching the Fourth of July Parade in the closing scene of the book, he only feels "the push, pull, the wave and sway of others" from a distance.
In Women with Men, a collection of three novellas, Ford's protagonists continue to wallow in these cerebral epiphanies. They think themselves to the truth, or at least to deeper insight, but they either do not act at all, or their actions degenerate into aimlessness. The fruitlessness of his characters' contemplations begs the question: What is the value of epiphany without action?
In "The Womanizer," Austin, a happily married man, leaves his wife to take up with a French divorcee. Certainly this is an action, a way of seizing control of one's romantic fate, of turning decisively away from commitment. Yet this pursuit fails terribly. On an outing, Austin loses sight of his lover's young son. The boy is molested, and Austin's affair ends bitterly as a result. Austin blames himself, then sinks into self-centered rumination: "How could you regulate life, do little harm and still be attached to others?" He might as well be asking, "How do you get everything you want without consequences or mistakes?"—more a childish plaint than a serious existential query.
Ironically, his much younger teenage protagonist in "Jealous" seems more willing to accept limits of desire. He yearns for his flirty Aunt Doris, and even gets close enough to think "she was going to kiss" him. His heart-pounding panic when she doesn't, though, is short-lived. He tells himself: "it's you who's causing it, and you who has to stop it." He lets himself revel in the closeness she does allow him, a moment of contentment before the selfish hungers of adulthood get a chance to overtake him.
Adult responsibility, in Ford's world, is usually up to female characters. Men leave their children for new lives. Women reject lovers who cannot protect their children. Even when children are not in the picture, women are able to take control in a way Ford's men can only sadly marvel at. Helen in "Occidentals" insists on being responsible for the terms of her life and her death. Matthews is awed by her actions, but, like so many of Ford's male characters, can only ponder what is missing in his own life: the "spiritual component she'd wanted," the dignity and status of a man committed to something beyond himself.
—Paul Marx, updated by
Lisa A. Phillips
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