pro-american aristocratic ford madox ford & mystical merrie england’s john cowper powys—fast friends

"Ford seems to have felt that the Wall Street crash of 1929 was symptomatic of what was wrong with the contemporary world, and whilst he clearly maintained his long held belief that the future of English literature was to be found in the United States of America, he became increasingly pessimistic about the nature of American business methods, especially the impact these were having on the conditions of the publication of imaginative literature."

Paris, 1923: Ford Madox Ford, James Joyce, Ezra Pound and John Quinn (likely the monied one)

‘A Royal Personage In Disguise’: A Meeting Between Ford and John Cowper



Stephen Rogers


I felt a curious and quite especial sympathy for him [Ford Madox Ford], the kind of sympathy that a penetrating woman would feel for a royal personage in disguise, out of whose battered skull all the ‘nonsense’ has been knocked by the buffets of fate.

—John Cowper Powys (1934)1


Ford’s contacts with the most eminent of the generation before his own (James, Hardy, Conrad) have been well-documented, as have his associations with writers of younger generations: Wyndham Lewis, Ezra Pound, D. H. Lawrence, Ernest Hemingway, Allen Tate, Basil Bunting, Robert Lowell and others. Yet among the inevitable and often intriguing gaps in the lists of names occurring in Ford’s memoirs and letters are several of his exact contemporaries. One such writer of Ford’s generation was John Cowper Powys (1872-1963), who enjoyed a career as a lecturer in America before embarking on the writing of the novels for which he is now chiefly known.2


Powys may have been close in age to Ford, but the two seem to have had little in common. Powys, although born in Derbyshire, was brought up in Somerset, where his father was vicar of Montacute.3 He attended school at Sherborne, and went on from there to Corpus Christi, Cambridge, before embarking upon his thirty years in the United States. Nonetheless, there is a record of a meeting between the two men that is worth recovering for the insight of Powys’s observation, because it gives usan all too rare glimpse of Ford at an unguarded moment and because the story is told with sympathy. It is also worth quoting for the emblematic picture it offers of Ford in New York during the late 1920s. The meeting must have taken place between 1928 and 1930, when Powys moved from Patchin Place to Hillsdale in New York State, and his account of it emphasizes Ford’s disregard or carelessness for the conventions of the social world of his time, as well as the capacity to inspire a certain openness among his contemporaries:


As a matter of fact, the only person I’ve ever met, except perhaps Cousin Ralph and Cousin Warwick, whose aristocratic manner seemed to me careless and charming instead of a morbid revenge on life, was Ford Madox Ford. I had tea with him once in Patchin Place, and although he is no reader of mine and I am no reader of his, I confess I greatly ‘cottoned’ to his noble, stately, and altogether gallant personality. I felt a curious and quite especial sympathy for him, the kind of sympathy that a penetrating woman would feel for a royal personage in disguise, out of whose battered skull all the ‘nonsense’ has been knocked by the buffets of fate; and I could see that Ford Madox Ford had a real ‘penchant’ for America, just as I have had myself. (Autobiography 547)


Powys here contrasts Ford, as an ‘aristocratic’ type, with the general attitude of Europeans to Americans at that time, which he characterizes as ‘neurotic and testy’ (Autobiography 546). According to Powys, it would seem that Ford was different. Was it that Ford was more of the world? Hardly, one imagines. Indeed, it is the carelessness of his aristocratic manner that Powys stresses. Responding positively to Ford’s personality, he emphasizes that Ford harbours no resentment against the brashness with which the emerging America of the 1920s asserts itself .


Powys was later reminded of this meeting with Ford, by his reading of Douglas Goldring’s memoir, South Lodge: Reminiscences of Violet Hunt, Ford Madox Ford and the English Review Circle (1943). The memory was especially stimulated by the mention that Goldring made of Stephen Reynolds (1881-1919), who had been a friend of Ford’s in the days of The English Review. Reynolds had also been the object of a passion by Powys’s sister, Philippa (1886-1963), who was often known as ‘Katie’, and was the author of a novel and a volume of poems.4 Reynolds had given up a promising scientific career to live with the family of a Sidmouth fisherman, an experience that resulted in his best known book, A Poor Man’s House (1908).5 Memories of these events had prompted John Cowper Powys to write to his sister in 1944 that:


Phyllis & I met Ford Madox Ford in Patchin Place. We liked him & felt great respect and great honour for him. After he’d come to rather a formal tea party there I met him by chance (almost directly after) squatting on one of those high turning stools at an ice-cream counter a very shabby one too & a little one on 6th Ave somewhere but not the great ‘Bigelows’ wh. you will doubtless recall, and there was he – with a very honest & extremely fashionable not very pretty not very young girl in fact honest nice & homely enjoying himself far more than at the rather formal literary tea-party where he had to show off with tales about Henry James.


It made me feel such a rush of sympathy for him – that the second the party was over & he had made his getaway with a good literary quip he should bolt into a tiny drug-store and treat his girl who had not been at the party to an ice-cream or one of those ‘Sundays’ they eat out of Straws! and share it with great joy – which I could not see dear old Master Henry James doing or Conrad either!6


It is undoubtedly difficult to see Henry James, or Conrad, perching on a high swivel stool at an ice-cream counter! Indeed, James’s complicated and self-consciously refined response to modern New York was explored in ‘The Jolly Corner’, a story that Ford published in The English Review in December 1908.7 What is clear from what Powys records is that Ford was a participant in the recognizable modernity of New York, and whatever his discomfort in that environment might have been, he seems to have reacted not with pomposity but rather with a realistic sense of the limits of the individual to both see and understand.


Powys’s enthusiasm for Dickens, Wordsworth, Milton, Rabelais, Dostoievsky, Whitman, Cervantes, Melville and Poe, marks out a very different temperament from Ford’s. The example of Walt Whitman is perhaps particularly instructive. Whitman was undoubtedly one of the most cherished of Powys’s literary influences, and it is telling that he should write to Philippa, ‘I think you will like my Rabelais Book Best of all my Books for it is far the most of all under the influence of Walt Whitman’.8 Ford, on the other hand, was critical of Whitman, whilst admitting that he was a great poet, stating that he nonetheless assumed ‘prophetic mantles and beards’, and chose to use ‘round-mouthed rhetoric’ for his poetry (ML 776). Whitman may have loomed rather larger in Ford’s youth. William Michael Rossetti had been the first to introduce Whitman to England, when he edited a selection of the poet’s work in 1868, and Whitman remained a favourite among the Pre-Raphaelites and their circle, including Swinburne. More significantly, perhaps, is Ford’s comparison of Hardy and Whitman:


Beside him, Whitman was a hysteric. He was not wise. The essential townsman can never be wise because he cannot see life for the buildings. Whitman saw factories rise and was excited over the future of the race. Hardy saw factories smudge his rural scene, and was merely depressed. He knew that the human heart remained the essential stamping ground of the poet. (ML 777)


Powys had met Thomas Hardy, was influenced by him and regarded him as one of the great writers.9 The point here is one of relative emphasis. Indeed, Powys would not have made the particular distinction that Ford made, because, steeped in a pantheistic conception of the world, owing much to the ancient landscapes of Sussex, Dorset and Somerset, he saw Whitman in essentially the same tradition. Powys was, moreover, as he stated in his Autobiography, ‘for all my Derbyshire rusticity and Welsh “elementalism”, as neurotic as D. H. Lawrence’ (Autobiography 546). Powys’s ‘major phase’ as a writer coincided with the end of what is generally considered to be Ford’s most significant period as a novelist. Retired from the extension lecture circuit, he began writing the first of the novels for which he is now chiefly remembered, Wolf Solent (1929). It is tempting to speculate upon the changing cultural circumstances that might have been responsible for this shift in fortunes and aesthetic ideals. It does seem that the sense of crisis occasioned a desire in the public consciousness for prophetic and didactic literature. Powys’s analysis of the qualities that he found in the works of Dorothy Richardson, perhaps were relevant in this context. He noticed her ability to ‘retain her strong, fresh, exuberant, childlike zest for the old simple great things in philosophy and literature’.10 Such a comment probably reveals as much about Powys’s state of mind as about that of the author whom he is discussing and suggests the direction he was to take in his own novels.


Ford seems to have felt that the Wall Street crash of 1929 was symptomatic of what was wrong with the contemporary world, and whilst he clearly maintained his long held belief that the future of English literature was to be found in the United States of America, he became increasingly pessimistic about the nature of American business methods, especially the impact these were having on the conditions of the publication of imaginative literature.11 Indeed, in A History of Our Own Times, Ford specifically places the arts in opposition to the prevailing materialism: ‘The Arts have bulked always so little in the public lives of Anglo-Saxondom of either branch [the United States and England] that to mention them in any History of either of the two great materialistic peoples is almost certainly to incur a suspicion, if not a charge, of frivolity’.12 So much of Ford’s career was, in spite of this awareness, an attempt to place the arts at the centre of consciousness in a public social context, and to educate the public about the importance of aesthetics. He had criticized, in The Critical Attitude (1911), the old nineteenth century Goethe-inspired novel for its concern with the solitary hero:


For, when every novel had its hero, and every picture its heroic figures, then every man was led to believe himself supported by Providence, the centre of the particular affair with which he was concerned. Such a doctrine may lead to boldness in the presence of dangers; it may confer good consciences and directness to the glance; but it takes away fortitude in the time of protracted trial.13


It was just such a fortitude that Ford felt was lacking in the early 1930s. It is significant that his artistic response to this worldwide depression and consequent failure of courage should be a novel like The Rash Act (1933), which Anthony Burgess noted, in a provocative review in 1982, was ‘so patently what fictional modernism is, or was, about’.14 Burgess’s definition of fictional modernism focuses on the problems entailed by selecting a point of view and the advantages offered by the incorporation of multiple perspectives. As a novelist, John Cowper Powys was not the type of conscious craftsman that Ford famously admired, concerned with the precise techniques and fictional devices necessary for a truthful rendering of his world; rather he was a writer who recreated it in terms of his own instinctive and intelligent imagination. It is Ford’s handling of subjective impressions and recollections that marks him out as an artist of the highest order. Between the wars, though, the upheavals and derangement of the European order resulted in a shift towards the grand sweep of a didactic vision, and no doubt this contributed to the sense in which Ford’s record of ‘how the human mind perceives the world in all its unsyntactical variety’ could be described by Burgess as ‘modernism, which died in 1939, along with Ford Madox Ford’.15


Now that modernist studies are increasingly moving away from the concern with single authors to embrace the collective collaborations of different groups within an emerging modern culture, as well as disrupting the habitual foregrounding of the acknowledged major figures,16 it is surely time to revisit Ford’s relations with some of the allegedly marginal figures of the period. Ford emphasized, in his writings and in his life, the importance of collaboration and contact, as editor and instigator, opening and maintaining lines of communication with an extraordinary number of literary figures, many of them inevitably ‘minor’. It is probable that not only they but Ford too will appear freshly enriched by a renewed examination of such associations.




1 John Cowper Powys, Autobiography [1934], London: Macdonald, 1967 – henceforth Autobiography; p. 547.


2 Powys is best remembered for his novels, Wolf Solent (1929), A Glastonbury Romance (1932), Weymouth Sands (1934), Maiden Castle (1936), and Owen Glendower (1940).


3 His brother, Llewellyn Powys (1884-1939), who married Alyse Gregory (1884-1967), the editor of The Dial (1924-1925), had submitted some stories to the transatlantic review (1924), which Ford had rejected. See Max Saunders, Ford Madox Ford: A Dual Life, vol. 2, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996, p. 160.


4 Philippa Powys published the novel, The Blackthorn Winter (1930), and the collection of poems, Driftwood (1930). She lived most her life in the village Chaldon Herring in Dorset, close to a circle of writers that included another brother T. F. Powys (1875-1955), Sylvia Townsend Warner and Valentine

Ackland. See Judith Stinton, Chaldon Herring: Writers in a Dorset Landscape, 2nd edition, Norwich: Black Dog Books, 2004.


5 Ford, in the English Review, noted that, ‘owing apparently to some freak of his character, or to some social malaise, Mr. Reynolds seems to have abandoned suddenly his contacts with what he calls contemptuously ‘The cultured classes’, and to have taken up his quarters in the cottage of a Devonshire fisherman.… Such a career… should at least suffice to prove that Mr. Reynolds’ nature is no ordinary one’. The English Review, 1:1 (December 1908), 163. 

6 Letter dated Feb 4, 1944. John Cowper Powys,The Letters of John Cowper Powys to Philippa Powys: Powys to Sea-Eagle, ed. by Anthony Head, London: Cecil Woolf, 1996, p. 168.


7 Spencer Brydon, James’s double, refers to ‘the modern, the monstrous, the famous things, those he had more particularly, like thousands of ingenuous inquirers every year, come over to see, were exactly his sources of dismay’. Henry James, ‘The Jolly Corner’, English Review, 1:1 (December 1908), 6.


8 Letter dated April 8, 1944: The Letters of John Cowper Powys to Philippa Powys, p. 169.


9 See John Cowper Powys, The Pleasures of Literature, London: Cassell, 1938, which lists, among its chapters, pieces on Homer’s Odyssey, The Bible, Dante, Rabelais, Cervantes, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Milton, Goethe, Wordsworth, Dickens, Matthew Arnold, Melville and Poe, Whitman, Dostoievsky, Hardy, Nietzsche, and Proust.


10 John Cowper Powys, ‘An Essay on Dorothy Richardson’, in The Adelphi, 2:3, New Series (June 1931), 236.


11 See, for instance, his novel, When the Wicked Man (1931).

12 Ford, A History of Our Own Times, Manchester: Carcanet, 1989, p. 48. ‘A ROYAL PERSONAGE IN DISGUISE’ 127


13 Ford, The Critical Attitude, London: Duckworth, 1911, pp. 26-7.


14 Anthony Burgess, ‘Last Embers of Modernism’, The Observer, 11 April, 1982.


15 Ibid.


16 See, for instance, Robert Scholes, Paradoxy of Modernism, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006.



—from Paul Skinner (ed.), Ford Madox Ford’s Literary Contacts, International Ford Madox Ford Studies, Volume 6, 1997, pp 121- 128.


Leave a comment

No comments yet.

Comments RSS TrackBack Identifier URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s