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The South Is My Bailiwick


ISSUE:  Spring 1997
Life and Letters of Jesse Hill Ford: A Southern Writer. By Anne Cheney. Edwin Mellen Press. $120.00, Scholar’s Edition $40.00.

For 22 years the editor Edward Weeks and the novelist Jesse Hill Ford were good friends. Weeks, in his position as an editor of The Atlantic Monthly and Little Brown Press, offered encouragement and publication to Ford, who was 31 years his junior. The two exchanged many letters, and, in the words of Charles Rose, “the symbiotic relationship implied by the Ford/Weeks letters, marked by friendship and mutual regard, is in itself intriguing.” Ford, aware that Weeks helped him earn international fame, was able to say: “Thanks to Edward Weeks and The Atlantic Monthly, I have seen the best of my writings in print.”

The novelist loved to write letters. According to Anne Cheney, “A writing day, for Jesse Hill Ford, almost always goes badly unless he starts with a letter.” In an article entitled “Confessions of a Compulsive Letter Writer,” he blamed many misfortunes in his life—his inability to pay for his home, no savings, his divorce—on his 23 years of constant letter writing: “Everything is all on account of letters. Like an alcoholic and the drug addict, I am hooked.” Though many of the letters are intensely private, they have a charm and felicity of language and demand publication. Cheney, in her remarkable collection and in her biography, which took ten years to complete, brings together 137 of his most revealing letters, all written to Edward Weeks.

The literary accomplishments of Ford are considerable: four novels, a short story collection, a distinguished play, screen scripts, and various articles. One short story, “The Jail,” won an Edgar Award. Three stories—”How the Mountains Are,” “To the Open Water,” and “Bitter Bread”—have been selected for O.Henry Awards. One novel in particular, The Liberation of Lord Byron Jones, was nominated for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, and was made into an impressive motion picture. An important literary figure, Ford has stated: “The South is my bailiwick. I love it and hate it, and despair over it all the time—and I write about it.”

In these letters the reader becomes aware of Ford’s joys, his pains, his comments about the artist at work, and the personalities he knew.

There have been pleasant experiences. An outdoorsman, he believes that there is nothing that can quite equal fishing, hunting, shooting woodchucks and ducks. At a very special moment in his life, he saw ten thousand or more ducks in the marsh; he wanted to quack with his mouth, but was so “enthralled with the great beauty of that cold, clear gathering nightfall that [he] forgot all about making any sound at all.”

A second joy in his life has been his children—four of them: Jay, Charles, Sarah, Elizabeth. He was indeed “blessed” when they were “all under the roof at the same time.” In Norway a great pleasure was taking them “down to the fiord and gathering and chopping up driftwood for stove kindling.”

He often felt that “the happiest time” of his life was his second marriage to Lillian. The two of them had “both come through so much” that they could “appreciate just being at peace.” He became “weepy” when they were together and “Love Walked Right In” was being played on the radio.

Then there was his work. He experienced joy because he “loved [his] work for its own sake.” But he was happy when others noticed it. Once after receiving a check for a story and after yelling a few times, he noted: “It was a moment of confidence, a feeling of victory, and above all a sense of the goodness and lightness of the world.” He was pleased when he impressed others at a lecture: the members of the audience “laughed and wept and hollered.” He was delighted when a group of young writers told him that he had directed them to “literary creations they never dreamed they could produce.”

He made friends along every step of the way. There were Charles Gaines, the screen writer Stirling Silliphant in Hollywood, Charles Lindgren; with the latter he took a course to become Sea Captain in the Coast Guard (and passed), a time in his life when the camaradene was “wonderful.” But of all his friends, Edward Weeks was the most important. Ford was Weeks’ “discovery and no one else’s.” Because of the “magnanimity and charity of heart” of Weeks, Ford was permitted to enjoy “a fulfilled life, instead of a life of frustration.”

But there were also painful experiences. Life, which he once characterized as “a series of losses,” brought on “awful despondency and complacency.” He told Weeks: “I have come terribly close to total eclipse and destruction. I’m a little shy of life, a little whipped, and more than a little bruised.”

To begin with, there was trouble in the first marriage. He felt that his wife, Sally, was brooding and sulking and “for every sweet day there [would be] a month of sour ones.” The divorce was extremely unpleasant.

Then there was the matter of money. He reported to Weeks at one time that he had no “money at all—just prospects that [might or might not] turn out.” He was able to pay interest on his country mansion, Canterfield, but unfortunately “interest is a hydraheaded monster that eats up everything before it.” He received an advance of $25,000 from Putnam’s for a Reconstruction novel, but when his new editor did not approve of the work, she wanted the money returned. Canterfield became a burden; it was “a prison for a writer or anybody else of limited means.” His resolution was: “If ever I get out of debt, which is doubtful, I will never again borrow.”

His greatest pain gave him notoriety. On the night of November 16, 1970, he accidentally killed Private George H.Doaks, Jr., a black soldier who was AWOL from the Army base in Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, and who was trespassing on the grounds of Canterfield. Cheney quite correctly begins her book with this sensational event of “high drama.” Her Introduction has subdivisions entitled “The Killing,” “The Trial,” “After the Trial,” “The Press,” and “The Town.” The shooting accident “had the result of taking everything [he] had in the successful effort to defend [himself] against an unwarranted charge of first degree murder.” The “scars” will always be there, and he has always felt that he has never “been able successfully to work through the psychic trauma of the accident.”

One way to supplement his meager income was to be a writer-inresidence at a university or college. But here there was also that joy-pain relationship. At the University of Rochester, he had “good friends, intelligent students, true ‘ladies and gentlemen’ of the faculty,” an “outstanding intellectual home.” But such was not always the case. For instance, when he went on one interview, “every last man” of the English Department was present; “they struck [him] as either lazy or ready for retirement or in one case just confused.”

Ford’s comments about his own craft are of interest. He “studied and practiced to be a writer and prayed and worked and sweated blood to write.” Revision is crucial if an author is to write well; his own work “which has succeeded was done slowly, deliberately.” He would select and reject “thread upon thread until [he] got the right one.” In summary, he has stated: “I am convinced that one must grow as one writes and one should search for the sweetest essence of sincere honesty. This is all that makes life in the least worthwhile.”

Various personalities of note appear in the letters, such as the agent Audrey Wood and the novelist Marion Montgomery. Donald Davidson, who gave him an extraordinary amount of time when he was a student at Vanderbilt, told Ford that “writing was a coldblooded business”; but Davidson did declare that The Conversion of Buster Drumwright was “the best example of the three-act television play ever written.”

It is Andrew Lytle who emerges most vividly. Lytle, Ford’s “old writing master from Florida,” once told the young man that he “was the only student he had ever had who possessed all the earmarks of developing into a major novelist.” Lytle was “utterly charming in company, full of a thousand wonderful tales about the contemporary society” he knew so well. But he was cruel to Ford: he was angered when Ford in a short story inadvertently called an unsavory character Lilly, the name of Lytle’s mother; he refused to publish Ford’s stories in the Sewanee Review; while he discouraged Ford in his writing ambitions, he saw to it that “other students of his, the lazy ones, were getting fellowships so they could go to Key West or Mexico and laze around and write.” Ford concluded: “Obviously, he didn’t think I had talent worth a damn.”

Tragically, Ford killed himself on June 1, 1996 in Nashville. In April 1996 he had open-heart surgery, and a side-effect of his strong medicine was that he underwent a serious spell of depression. According to his obituary by Robert McG. Thomas, Jr., in The New York Times of June 5, 1996, Ford “seemed destined to take his place among the pantheon of Southern writers.”

At one time Ford said that he had given up the idea of writing his autobiography. He believed “it is probably more fun to live your life without undertaking the burden of having to write about it.” Furthermore, he concluded that his letters constitute “the most important written sources of [his] development as a writer.” Cheney has come to his aid with an impressive biography, handsomely bound with 13 attractive photographs. Recognizing the importance of his letters, she has carefully selected those that show the full man—his moments of happiness, his frustrations—and with extraordinary skill has weaved them into a compelling, seamless narrative. This brilliantly conceived book is one that belongs in every major library and in the library of every serious student of Southern literature.

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