Ford Madox Ford on Daniel Defoe

Someday, probably some winter, I will sit down and actually read Ford Madox Ford’s The March of Literature, and take the full eclectic journey through Ford’s brain. But until that day arrives, the best I can do is hope for a few pages here and there when I look up a recently read author in the index and see what Ford might have to say. Thus, him on Daniel Defoe:

…[I]t would be unreasonable not to consider that Defoe, looking for new avenues by which to make a living by his pen, saw that there would undoubtedly be a market for English picaresque fiction—and supplied it. …

It is difficult to write at all dogmatically about Defoe, in part because his historical position and his untiring personal activities in public fields obscure a little the critical vision. As in the case of Goethe, one hesitates to write down that in ninety per cent of his writings outside Moll Flanders Defoe is an insufferable bore.

Of Moll Flanders:

It will be observed that the writing, if not very trig or distinguished, is yet worthy of respect for a certain quality of balance and rhythm calculated to show off very skilfully the sense of the content. It is as if Defoe in beginning a paragraph saw at once its end, its convlutions, and its whole shape. And that is very high praise which could be accorded to few enough of his later successors.

But as he went on his his career of outpourings of words, the life, very naturally, faded from his prose—the last traces of the seventeenth century prose tradition died out of it and the form of the paragraph went. Consider this from Captain John Gow: [excerpt omitted]

Sheer backboneless could not go much further.

Ford is pretty much will to give Defoe a break on this, since he’s getting old at this point and “though a man in those years may still write good prose, the odds are that he will not be able to do it incessantly, untiringly and to earn a scanty living.”

Of Robinson Crusoe, unfortunately, Ford does not have too much to say, because “since we have all of us read it in our first childhoods, hardly any of us could form any exact estimation of its technical, literary value.” Having not read it in my first childhood, I would have appreciated a more sustantive discussion—though certainly the case to pick up Moll Flanders (Norton Critical Edition already on the shelf, naturally) has been made. And I think I would agree about the skillfully rhythmic language in much of Robinson Crusoe, which Ford does admit “may pass for a masterpiece almost marmoreal and universally esteemed.”

His final word on Defoe is probably his best: “we shall have to produce yet many masterpieces, indeed, before his figure shall pass from the consciousness of posterity. He may have died a mere Grub Street hack but he shall be a hard, angular pebble indeed for oblivion to swallow.”

2 comments to Ford Madox Ford on Daniel Defoe

  • Hm, interesting what Ford says about Defoe’s shapely paragraphs. I don’t remember Moll Flanders well enough to really evaluate his point, but I’ve been meaning to re-read & I’ll have to keep that claim in mind when I do. I remember being quite impressed by MF and in particular Defoe’s complex but sympathetic portrayal of a promiscuous woman.

  • Yes, that’s typically what I hear talked up about MF, so this will give me something a bit unexpected to look out for as well. Someday!