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Considered one of the finest fiction writers of his generation, Richard Ford is best known for his novel The Sports-writer (1986) and its sequel Independence Day (1995). He is often celebrated for his portrayal of everyday contemporary American life. While troubled and deeply flawed, Ford’s characters are ultimately both sympathetic and optimistic. Ford has been compared to Ernest Hemingway for his laconic, masculine prose, to Walker Percy as a Southern writer, and to Raymond Carver for his minimalism and style of ”dirty realism.”
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Born February 16,1944, in Jackson, Mississippi, he was the son of Parker Carrol and Edna (Aiken) Ford. As Ford grew up, he lived directly across the street from celebrated Southern writer Eudora Welty. His father was a traveling salesman, and Ford and his mother accompanied his father on many road trips. When not taken on these trips with his parents, Ford often stayed with his maternal grandparents at a hotel they owned in Little Rock, Arkansas. This sense of itinerancy influenced Ford’s fiction in the creation of characters who are psychologically and culturally, as well as geographically, rootless.
When Ford was sixteen years old, his father died of a heart attack. This crisis compelled Ford to develop a strong sense of personal responsibility for his life. This sense of importance of accepting accountability for one’s life choices also became a central theme of Ford’s fiction. After completing high school, Ford entered Michigan State University where he earned a B.A. in literature in 1966. Ford then briefly enrolled in law school at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, but decided to pursue a writing career instead. In 1968, Ford married Kristina Hensley, a research professor, whom he credited as a major influence on his development as a writer. By this time, Ford was studying creative writing at the University of California at Irvine, earning an M.F.A. in 1970. There, he studied with writers such as E. L. Doctorow and Oakley Hall.
The United States was involved in armed conflict in Vietnam, later known as the Vietnam War, beginning in 1964. The United States supported the more democratic South Vietnamese government, and fought against the Communist party of North Vietnam. By the early 1970s, it was clear the United States could not win the war, and pulled out of the country in the mid-1970s. Ford remained in college during much of the conflict, and unlike hundreds of thousands of other American men, did not serve in Vietnam. However, he later touched on the effects of the war and those who fought it in The Ultimate Good Luck (1981), whose main character was a Vietnam veteran.
Published First Novel
After completing his M.F.A., Ford produced a number of early stories, many of which were rejected by literary magazines. He also spent six years working on what became his first novel. In addition, Ford was employed at various universities in the 1970s. From 1974 to 1976, Ford was a lecturer in creative writing at the University of Michigan. In 1976, Ford finally published his first novel, A Piece of My Heart, which concerned two very different men who cross paths during one week of an annual turkey-hunting season on an island in the Mississippi Delta. The novel was praised for its evocation of the South and the people who lived there. At the time the book was published, there was nationwide interest in the South as Democrat Jimmy Carter, a peanut farmer, who had served one term as Georgia’s governor, was elected president in 1976. He was elected partly because he was regarded as an outsider at a time when voter discontent with Washington and politics was quite high.
In the late 1970s, Ford returned to academia as an assistant professor of English at Williams College from 1978 to 1979, then taught creative writing at Princeton from 1979 to 1980. Ford published his second novel in 1981, the crime thriller The Ultimate Good Luck. In the novel, he explores the life of an American living in Mexico, Vietnam War veteran Harry Quinn. Quinn becomes drawn reluctantly into violence and murder as he tries to get his ex-lover’s drug-trafficking brother out of jail. The Ultimate Good Luck was poorly received by critics, and Ford took a break from fiction writing for a time. He began contributing articles to a sports magazine, Inside Sports. After the magazine folded, his wife suggested that he write a novel about a man who is happy. These experiences led to his best-received work.
Creating Frank Bascombe
The Sportswriter (1986) focuses on Frank Bascombe, an alienated, middle-aged sportswriter reflecting on his life over an Easter weekend after his nine-year-old son has died and his marriage has collapsed. The first-person narrative shows Frank reflecting on why he gave up after writing fiction for a secure living writing about sports, and clearly reflects many of Ford’s own life experiences. Lauded by many critics when it was published, the novel was named one of the five best books of 1986 by Time magazine. Firmly established as a critically acclaimed, best-selling author, Ford focused primarily on writing and publishing fiction.
In 1987, Ford published his first book of short stories, Rock Springs. The stories focus on lonely, damaged people, and are primarily set in Montana. Ford’s next novel, the brief Wildlife (1990), features forty-six-year-old Joe Brison looking back to three days in his life when he was sixteen years old. Living in rural Montana in 1960, he is witness to the breakup and end of his parents’ marriage. Working in a different genre, Ford wrote a screenplay, Bright Angel, in 1991. It was based on two of his short stories, “Children” and ”Great Falls.”
A Pulitzer Prize
After serving as an instructor at Harvard University in 1994, Ford returned to the character of Frank Bascombe in his next novel Independence Day (1995). Set in 1988, the protagonist has lost his job and his wife has moved with their two surviving children to Connecticut with her new husband, but he tries to find a new life working in real estate sales. A Fourth of July weekend spent trying to reconnect with his surviving, but troubled, son at various sport halls of fame forces him to take stock of life and the nature of independence in people’s lives. Independence Day marked the first time an author received both the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award for the same novel.
Next, Ford published a collection of novellas, Women with Men: Three Stories (1997). In the late 1990s, he also edited several collections of other people’s writing, including Essential Tales of Chekhov (1998). In addition, Ford taught at Northwestern University for a year from 1997 to 1998.
Returning to Frank
In 2001, Ford published another collection of his own fiction, A Multitude of Sins, which evoked a mixed reaction from critics. Many of the stories focus on characters engaged in extramarital affairs. In 2006, Ford published his third novel featuring Frank Bascombe, The Lay of the Land. Set in 2000, the novel is set between the presidential election and the final decision by the U.S. Supreme Court which resulted in George W. Bush’s winning the presidency. The presidential election between Bush and his opponent, Al Gore, was so close in November 2000 that there was no clear-cut winner for five weeks. The main controversy was centered on Florida where the state’s electoral votes were in dispute and the winner would be given the presidency. Though the ballots started to be recounted there, the Supreme Court ended attempts by Gore to have the Florida votes recounted by people and not machines. Bush was given the presidency.
The Lay of the Land was intended to be the final installment of the saga. Frank is fifty-five years old, still selling real estate, suffering from a prostate tumor, being cared for by daughter Clarissa, and dealing with the loss of his second wife, Sally, who discovered her previous husband is not dead as originally believed. Set over a Thanksgiving Day weekend, Frank deals with family matters by inviting his first wife and son for dinner. Critics were somewhat disappointed by the book, as comedy had been replaced by tragedy, but many appreciated the consistent voice Ford gave Frank over the three books. Ford continues to write from his home in East Boothbay, Maine, where he lives with his wife.
Works in Literary Context
In Ford’s fiction, he focuses on characters who never evade the realities that were attendant upon their own choices and their own successes and failures. He creates many characters who wander and wonder widely, seeking some connection with others but often experiencing their most vivid moments of awareness in utter solitude. In settings as diverse as Mississippi, Montana, and Paris, Ford situates characters who struggle to come to terms with their pasts, presents, and futures. Ford’s central thematic concerns include loneliness, alienation, male-female relationships, family life, yearning for human connection, and a sense of disappointment in the American dream. As an author, Ford was influenced by John Keats, his mentors at the University of California at Irvine, E. L. Doctorow and Oakley Hall, as well his experiences growing up as the son of a traveling salesman and living in the South. While some critics believe that Ford’s writings display the influence of Faulkner and the Southern literary tradition, the author often rejects these ideas.
Lives in Transition
In a number of Ford’s short stories and novels, he focuses on settings and circumstances to explore people, and sometimes families, whose lives are in transition, often unexpectedly, as they experience profound changes. Ford shows how these changes take place and affect those involved during such times. In Wildlife, for example, Joe Brison describes what he witnessed at home when he was sixteen years old. In one weekend, he sees the dissolution of his family when his mother has an affair while his father is gone. The stories in Rock Springs mostly focus on characters in transit, moving from one town to another or one way of life to another. Several stories in Women with Men focus on the moment of change, including ”Great Falls.” In this story, a young man recounts watching his father put the barrel of a revolver under the chin of a man he has caught in bed with his wife. When the boy meets his mother the next day, he knows that his father will never let her come back and realizes that his life has turned suddenly. He also knows that he is left with puzzling questions to which he will never find answers.
Ford often sets his novels over short, well-defined periods of time, allowing a full exploration of the effect of specific events on his characters. He focuses specifically on the moment when change and ruin begin. Sometimes this time is spent in contemplation, or it is merely a moment of change. Wildlife, for example, takes place over only three days when the marriage of Joe Brison’s parents falls apart. Similarly Ford’s best known novels The Sportswriter and its sequels Independence Day and The Lay of the Land each focus on a different holiday weekend in which Frank Bascombe reflects on his life and reveals much about his relationships with others, including his family. For example, The Sportswriter takes place over an Easter weekend during which Frank engages in contemplative reveries about marriage, sports, life in suburban New Jersey, and the art of storytelling.
Works in Critical Context
Ford has garnered widespread critical acclaim for his portraits of middle-class American life, especially in the way he has portrayed modern lives characterized by loneliness, alienation, and the yearning for connection. Reviewers have admired Ford’s well-crafted prose, rich with descriptive detail and a strong sense of place. He has also been commended for a fresh perspective, skillful storytelling, effective use of a first-person narrative, and accurate rendering of American vernacular speech. A number of reviewers have criticized his portrayal of women, claiming that his perspective is essentially masculinity. Other critics have defended his representation of female characters, arguing that the women in his fictions are usually stronger and more self-assured than the men.
Critics were divided over Ford’s fourth novel, Wildlife. Jonathan Yardley, in the Washington Post, was not pleased with the way the characters smoothed ”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,” Yardley also noted. Writing in the London Times, Victoria Glendinning commented 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 the story is ”beautifully made” and noted that Ford ”has far more to teach Europeans about ordinary American life and the American psyche than have the flashier East Coast novelists.” Toronto Globe & Mail critic Trevor Ferguson called it ”a superb novel” and concluded, ”[The novel] is also, like its characters and its vision of America, strangely contradictory—at once affirmative and self-limiting. Applaud or berate him . . . Ford and his stylistic decisions deserve heated debate.”
In reviews of Independence Day, critics have praised Ford’s ability to evoke sympathy among readers for a protagonist as common, unremarkable, and unheroic as Frank Bascombe. While some reviewers have dismissed the plot of Independence Day as sketchy and uninteresting, others have found in its plainness a metaphor for the quiet desperation of everyday life. Critics have also praised Ford as masterful in his use of descriptive detail in Independence Day, particularly in his depiction of the book’s setting and his understanding of the real estate business. ”With Independence Day,” Michiko Kakutani observed, ”Mr. Ford has written a worthy sequel to The Sportswriter and galvanized his reputation as one of his generation s most eloquent voices.
- Guagliardo, Huey, ed. Perspectives on Richard Ford. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2000.
- Walker, Elinor Ann. Richard Ford. New York: Twayne,2000.
- Ferguson, Trevor. Review of Wildlife. Globe &Mail (July 7, 1990).
- Glendinning, Victoria. Review of Wildlife. London Times (August 9, 1990).
- Kakutani, Michiko. Review of Independence Day. New York Times (June 13, 1995): C17.
- Yardley, Jonathan. Review of Wildlife. Washington Post (June 20, 1990).
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