Promoting, supporting and encouraging the study of the United States since 1955

British Association for American Studies


Issue 18, Spring 2011: Article 3


Issue 18, Spring 2011: Article 3




© Alexander Howard. All Rights Reserved.

Charles Henri Ford (1908-2002)—the editor of Blues—occupies a curious, marginalised position in the history of 20th century American literature. A prolific, uncannily prescient poet, artist, and editor, Ford can be seen lurking in the background of many scenes of the major artistic advances of the century (a number of which he championed, anticipated, and disputed in his own work—particularly Surrealism and Pop Art). There are a number of reasons behind Ford’s paradoxical position, some of which are regional and geographical in basis, the roots of which I will consider in this paper.

Perhaps the best way to begin to understand Ford is with a brief summation of his career and main achievements.[1] Edward B. Germain’s introduction to Ford’s 1972 collection—The Flag of Ecstasy: Selected Poems—acts as a useful primer:

When he began publishing in 1929, Ford was unique: America’s surrealist poet. In retrospect, he is seminal. What he accomplished in 1930, most American poets hadn’t even imagined. In the pages of his magazines, Blues and View, he introduced and encouraged surrealism while it passed into the spirit of hundreds of American writers.[2]

Ford as seminal? Germain’s praise is effusive. But is it warranted? After all, we are dealing here with an obscure poet, often confined to the footnotes of American literary history. Let us begin by unpacking Germain’s statement. As noted by Germain, Blues and View were two modernist little magazines edited by Ford. Both magazines were surrealistically inflected. Though rarely spoken of at any great length, Ford’s role in developing surrealism in America was vital. Indeed, Ford was America’s first surrealist poet.[3] Seminal? So far, so accurate. In addition, Germain is correct to suggest that Ford played a significant role in influencing younger generations of American poets, often via the pages of his magazines. This is certainly true of View. For instance, Kenneth Koch acknowledged Ford’s influence on his own early writing,[4] as did Ted Berrigan:

Your poetry and your old magazine, VIEW paved the way for so much of what younger poets feel is really happening now, when so many older poets were being so boring and so ordinary.[5]

Like Germain, Berrigan is charitable about Ford’s literary achievements. But notice how—despite the fleeting reference to Ford’s own poetry—Berrigan explicitly lists View as an important precursor to what is ‘really happening now’ in the 1960s. Berrigan’s remark is typical of much that has been written about Ford’s lasting literary legacy.

Ford remains best known as the editor of View.[6] View ran from 1940-47 and was a pioneering magazine that served as a home away from home for the displaced artists of the European avant-garde—notably the surrealists: Breton, Duchamp, Ernst, and so on—who had been forced into exile during World War Two.[7] Perhaps significantly in the context of today’s conference, Ford’s View was— like its editor—based in New York. Of course, New York was the geographical location that, in the latter part of the century, displaced Paris as the centre of art world, cementing America as the dominant cultural force in the world.[8] Ford’s New York-based View played a significant role in this cultural re-alignment, reproducing and promoting early works of notable American artists like Isamu Noguchi and Joseph Cornell. In short, a heady mix of American and European aesthetic groupings—geographically distant groupings symbolically housed in periodical form—characterised Ford’s View milieu.

A strong case could be made that View was one of the most important American art magazines of the 20th century. However, whilst recognising the significance of Ford’s second magazine, I do not want to focus on View. Rather, I want to talk about Ford’s earlier ventures in the little magazine field, as represented by his avant-garde literary journal: Blues. This is where Germain’s historical specificity becomes relevant, as the dates of 1929 and 1930 correspond exactly with the publication run of Blues.

Blues: a Magazine of New Rhythms was Ford’s first little magazine, View his second. Inspired by Stanley Braithwaite’s anthology of magazine verse and by copies of Eugene Jolas’ influential European magazine, transition, Ford set out to carve himself a niche in the literary world in 1929.[9] Like View, Blues has its famous supporters. Blues was singled out for praise in Fredrick J. Hoffman’s canonical 1946 documentary of modernist little magazines. Hoffman notes that the ‘experimentation of Blues is self-conscious, enthusiastic, and daring’.[10] However, as the 1930s progressed the ‘daring’ and ‘enthusiastic’ experimentalism that Hoffman identified in Blues became disadvantages. Ford’s privileging of avant-garde literary techniques placed both editor and magazine at odds with socially ‘committed’ and dogmatic periodicals like the New Masses and Partisan Review. Writing in New Masses, Joseph Vogel criticised what he perceived as a ‘metaphysical’ tendency in Blues, one that runs ‘away from any form of life that may threaten a boot in the rear’.[11] Nevertheless, influential modernist figures like Stein continued to champion Ford’s venture, arguing that amongst the plethora of little magazines published in the second flush of modernism, Blues burned the brightest:

Of all the little magazines which as Gertrude Stein loves to quote, to have died to make verse free, perhaps the youngest and freshest was the Blues. Its editor Charles Henri Ford has come to Paris and he is young and fresh as his Blues and also honest which also is a pleasure.[12]

Kenneth Rexroth’s retrospective account of Blues similarly stresses the importance of Ford’s youthful venture. Rexroth notes that the number of writers Ford (and his editorial assistant, Parker Tyler) ‘discovered or published when they were still practically unknown is astonishing. They discovered Erskine Caldwell, Edouard Roditi, and me in one issue’.[13]

So, why did Blues fade so quickly from view? Firstly, brevity was a seemingly unfortunate aspect. Ford’s original magazine ran for a mere nine issues, beginning in March 1929 and concluding in the autumn of 1930. However, the brevity of Blues is not necessarily a hindrance. Its premature collapse in the first flush of youth prevented it from falling into the typical trap of little magazines as charted by critics like Ian Hamilton, who argues that ten years is the ideal lifespan for a little magazine. ‘Within that span’, argues Hamilton, ‘one can discern a pattern. There are the opening years of jaunty, assertive indecision, then a middle period of genuine identity, and after that a kind of level stage in which that identity becomes more and more wan and mechanical’.[14]

Secondly, historical contingency and economic expediency come into effect. Ford began publishing Blues mere months before the 1929 Wall Street Crash and the subsequent Great Depression of the 1930s. Such problems surely added to the problems of cash flow and distribution that were endemic in modernist periodical print culture. Thus, Blues came to a close before it really had a chance to begin. This is not the end of the story, however. Ford was to resurrect Blues for a one-off special edition in 1989. Edited by Ford, Blues 10 appeared as a guest issue of Michael Andre’s magazine Unmuzzled OX. Why might Ford desire a return to Blues, some sixty years after its original publication? The answer, I want to suggest, is threefold. The Unmuzzled OX Blues acts as both a subtle corrective to the praise typically offered solely to View and as an attempt to resituate Blues in the literary limelight of the late 20th century; it also functions as a final effort on Ford’s part to shore up—and ensure—his artistic legacy. In an indirect manner, the appearance of Blues 10 is also useful when charting the reasons for the disappearance of the original Blues from literary history.

Like View, Blues 10 was published in New York. Peripatetic though he remained throughout his life, New York was—by the time of Blues 10—something of a permanent home for Ford. During this time, Ford lived in the Dakota complex (in an apartment he shared with his sister, the actress Ruth Ford). Late in life, Ford was also prone to self-deprecation. He often referred to himself as ‘the hermit of the Dakota’.[15] Ford’s remark is as uncharacteristic as it is telling. Certainly, it is uncharacteristic, given Ford’s famously wide-ranging artistic connections. As Roberta Smith notes, ‘[t]he simplest summation of Mr. Ford’s life and work may be that he did exactly what he wanted, and seemingly knew everyone’.[16] Everyone worth knowing in artistic and literary circles, that is. The term ‘hermit’ carries with it connotations of chosen, deliberate isolation. Bearing this in mind, Ford’s later acts of self-willed marginalisation can be contrasted to the enforced isolation suffered during his formative years. Here, an obvious—yet equally revealing—point of contrast between Ford’s 1929 and 1989 Blues can be made. Although influenced by cosmopolitan periodicals like Jolas’ Parisian transition, Ford’s original Blues was not published in New York; it was published in Columbus, Mississippi. This brings us to the third reason as to why Blues faded so quickly from view. Put simply, Blues suffered from its regional obscurity. Combined with its experimental content, the regionally obscure origins of Blues perplexed contemporary critics who did not know how to respond to Ford’s magazine, except in hostile and derogatory terms.

The contentious issues of geography and regionalism in Blues have much to do with Ford’s biography. Ford was born in Brookhaven, Mississippi. A precocious youth, convinced of his genius and coveting poetic fame, the adolescent and ambitious Ford established Blues from the regionally remote Columbus. During its brief publication run, correspondence directed to Blues was delivered to the wholly un-cosmopolitan address of 227-228 Gilmer Building, Columbus, Mississippi. The geographical situation of Ford’s Blues played a significant—if paradoxical—role in the character of his magazine. Ford decried his isolation in un-cosmopolitan towns like Brookhaven and Columbus. Ford notes—in an early journal entry dated 22nd August 1927—that he ‘feels the need of new sensations, new friends, [and a] new environment’.[17] Ford is clear about the cause of his frustration: it stems from what he perceives to be geographical isolation in Brookhaven: ‘I cannot live in this provincial, bourgeois town’.[18]

Having identified the geographical root of this frustration, Ford proceeds to inadvertently diagnose the underlying psychological causes of the material problem. Ford equates provincialism with neurosis, as this journal entry of 7th January 1928 entry makes clear:

I must not live my life at home—sheltered and without pain. There isn’t the slightest doubt but that I would become a hopeless neurotic. For that reason I must go to New York. Be hurt if necessary. See what life is. Have “experience”—vital to one who would live by his pen. Or, for that matter, starve by it…

Am I lying to myself? Trying to justify a step that will be the most important one I ever took or shall ever take?

Oh, God, I must see…[19]

Despite the melodramatic, adolescent tone of the passage, Ford’s journal entry reveals his fear of artistic stagnation if remaining ‘sheltered’ in Mississippi. Ford’s preventive inoculation against the dangers of such neurosis-inducing shelter is simple: exchange regional Mississippi for the cosmopolitan lights and glamour of New York—in order to experience ‘life’—and make a name for himself in the literary world. That was the theory at least. In practice, events unfolded differently.

Failing to secure immediate passage to New York, Ford’s frustrations grew. At the same time, Ford continued to develop his poetic technique. His early poetic forays met with mixed success. In a journal entry of 5th February 1928, Ford notes how ‘[m]uch of my own work [h]as been returned recently. Rejections from Poetry, Books, American Mercury, Bookworm, etc. Oh its [sic] hard, hard…’[20] Hard though it might have been, Ford’s enthusiasm for the task at hand does not diminish. Taking stock on his twentieth birthday (10th February 1928), Ford asks:

What have I done? 1 poem in The New Yorker, 1 re-print of said poem in the San Antonio Evening News, 2 poems accepted by Bozart… How many times must I doubt these small achievements…?

…Fame? … In one year it shall be done.[21]

On the same day, Ford comes quickly to the realization that ‘[l]aunching a poetry magazine would help immensely’.[22] Soon after, a fortuitous meeting of young, likeminded poets in an unglamorous, regional setting sowed the seeds for the emergence of Blues.

Ford describes this meeting in a journal entry of 22nd February 1928. ‘Hope entered my dull existence today in the form of a charming letter from Miss Kathleen Tankersley Young’.[23] Like Ford, Young (herself both an editor and Harlem Renaissance poet) is largely absent from accounts of contemporary literary history.[24] And, like Ford, Young felt oppressed by bourgeois regionalism and isolation. This much is made clear in Ford’s journal entry of 5th March 1928: ‘[h]ow I sympathize with her, living here with no people with her tastes, no nothing. Except lonesomeness’.[25] The ‘here’ that Ford is referring to is San Antonio, Texas. Young had previously written to Ford about a First National Poetry Exhibition scrapbook that she wanted to share with him. The exhibition in question had been organised by Lew Ney, and was held in Greenwich Village, New York.

Ney was later to act as patron to Ford’s Blues. Whilst in the Village, Young had met Ney, who in turn suggested that she take a copy of the exhibition scrapbook to show to Ford (whose ‘Interlude’ was included in the volume).[26] Young did so, carrying with her the scrapbook to the much less cosmopolitan location of the library in San Antonio, Texas (where she and Ford had arranged to meet). Young brought traces of the cosmopolitan glamour the adolescent Ford coveted. Moreover, Young’s interests and ambitions coincided with those of Ford. ‘She, too, has thought of starting a poetry magazine but don’t guess we will… Oh, God, I feel—nothing seems worth anything to me tonite [sic]’,[27] wrote Ford on 4th March 1928.

But Ford’s despairing prediction proved inaccurate. Suitably inspired, Ford borrowed $100, found a willing printer, and began to publish Blues in February 1929. Blues was published in the provincial location of Columbus, Mississippi, a far cry from the more desirable New York. Basic in appearance, Ford’s magazine was bound in simple blue wrappers and, from the outset, contained a mixture of experimental and more conventional prose and poetry. Eschewing a codified stance, Blues offered no definitive account of Ford’s aesthetic inclinations. Retrospectively, the lack of a codified aesthetic programme in Blues was only to be expected, given its editor’s youth and, more significantly, Ford’s preference for inclusiveness and resistance to easy categorization in both art and life (it seems no mere coincidence that later issues of Blues trumpeted its arrival as a as ‘Bi-Sexual Bi-Monthly’).[28]

Rexroth—one of the early contributors to Blues—implicitly recognised Ford’s editorial acumen. Rexroth praises Ford’s ability to provide a suitably inclusive forum for ‘divergent’ attitudes in a letter of 30th November 1929:

Everybody, judging from the contributions of the “Blues group”, you and I included, seems to know a great deal more about where he is going and why, has at least the sketch of a programme of personal discipline outlined, than he did in the beginning last year. These programs may be a great deal more divergent than we expected then, but we are at least held together by a common disgust a common enemy and a common persecution.[29]

Rexroth’s comment is suggestive, gesturing towards the simultaneously divergent and unified ‘sketches’ of personal programs contained in Blues. What is more, geography is a factor in Rexroth’s comments. After all, the regionally isolated Ford hardly had yet the chance to meet his ‘divergent’ contributors.

So, despite his provincial isolation, and having launched his little magazine, Ford sought out potential contributors for Blues. One such contributor was none other than that doyen of high-modernist little magazines, Ezra Pound. Ford had already made contact with Pound. Pound was quick to recognise the potential of Ford’s project, arguing that it was the American magazine best suited to assuming the role of Margaret Anderson’s The Little Review. ‘Seems to me a chance (in Blues) for the best thing since the Little Review’,[30] Pound wrote to Vogel on 23rd January 1929. This is not all. Pound adds that Blues seems ‘certainly the best thing done in America without European help’.[31] Pound’s distrust of European aid places him at odds with Ford. As we have noted previously, Blues was directly inspired by the prominent magazine transition. Not only this, Ford’s magazine was to feature literary contributions by Jolas.

Bearing these comments in mind, we can assume that Pound would have been irked to find Jolas later listed as a member of the editorial board of Blues. Though Pound’s prejudice against potential European influence over Blues is clear, he still has much useful advice to offer Ford: ‘Most “young” magazines play ostrich. They neither recognize the outer world nor do they keep an eye on contemporary affairs of a strictly literary nature’.[32] Pound proposes to remedy this situation by having Ford compile an aggressive list of written stupidities contained within contemporary periodicals, or, as Pound calls it, a ‘sottisier’. ‘These sottisiers are often the first parts of a live mag. that people read’,[33] argues Pound. They serve to differentiate a critically vibrant, aesthetically relevant magazine from those that are not. Those magazines found lacking subsequently become characterised by common ‘idiocies’[34] that must be guarded against.

In this respect, Pound’s comments recall Rexroth’s words to Ford, those suggesting that Blues is ‘held together’ by disgust for a ‘common enemy’. In turn, Rexroth’s comments shed light on those of Pound. Notice how Rexroth stresses how Ford is able to hold Blues together despite the myriad aesthetic directions in which the magazine travels. Rexroth’s view tallies with a related suggestion made by Pound to Ford:

As you don’t live in the star town with yr start [sic] contribs. You can not have fortnightly meeting and rag each other. Best substitute is to use circular letters. For example write something; or use this note of mine; add your comments; send it on to Vogel; have him show it to [Herman] Spector; and then send it to Bill Wms. [William Carlos Williams] each adding his blasts and blesses or comment of whateverdamn natr. etc.When it has gone the rounds, you can send it back here.[35]

As altruistic as Pound’s advice initially seems, it actually reveals a characteristically Poundian attempt to stamp his own mark on Blues. Once the ‘blasts’ and ‘blesses’ of his literary elders are collected, Pound suggests that Ford return it to his address— not in Columbus, but Rapallo, Italy. Perhaps wisely (and significantly), Ford did not take Pound’s ‘friendly’ advice.

Regardless of personal motive, Pound’s advice does suggest a means with which to circumnavigate regional isolation. Realising the geographical limitations imposed on Ford, Pound suggests that he should use ‘circular letters’ as substitution for direct meetings. In this way, Ford would be able to bind—or rather, hold—together the aesthetically divergent attitudes potentially found in Blues. Pound reasons that—in Ford’s case—such circulars would fulfil one of the supposed prerequisites when establishing a youthful literary venture like Blues:

Every generation or group must write its own literary program. The way to do this is by circular letter to your ten chief allies. Find out the two or three points you agree on (if ANY) and issue them as a program.[36]

At the time, Ford’s rejection of Pound’s advice was arguably detrimental to Blues. Ford’s decision not to include anything that might suggest a programme ultimately left whatever public there was for a new (regionally), obscure little magazine with few means to pigeonhole the experimental work contained within. With no convenient explanation for the direction of the work displayed in Blues, or means with which to evaluate the magazine, Ford’s venture faced public resistance.

Sometimes—as in The Literary Lantern of 30th December 1928—such resistance was prejudicial, framed in derogatory language pertaining to specific regions of North America: ‘Literature seems to spread like infection. At any rate, no sooner have we become used to unwanted activities in Alabama, then we find Mississippi stirring’.[37] On other occasions—as in Donald Davidson’s review in the Tennessean (3rd March 1929)—Blues was dismissed out of hand as repeating ‘the vices and [having] none of the virtues of the forward and experimentalist cults that wax and sicken on the banks of the Seine and the Hudson’.[38] In a way, Davidson’s dismissal of Blues does contain an element of truth. A curious, hybridised mixture of local, cosmopolitan, and international experimental literature does feature in Ford’s magazine. Indeed, New York is evoked in Davidson’s mention of Hudson River, much as the ‘banks of the Seine’ imply the ‘experimentalist cults’ of Parisian magazines like transition.

Nevertheless, Davidson simply does not know what to make of Blues. Ford’s magazine strikes him as ‘mysterious and odd’[39]—all the more as Ford’s urbane magazine comes from Mississippi. Davidson’s prejudices are typical of those others who deigned to discuss Blues. Herein lies one of the main problems facing Ford’s venture: general indifference. We might cite the lack of any differentiating Blues manifesto as a reason for the wider indifference that Ford faced. James Rorty—writing in the New York-based The Nation on 17th April 1929—suggests as much, arguing that Blues is merely ‘a potpourri of badly dated modernistic attitudes and techniques with an underlying arrivist [sic] psychology’.[40] Rorty literally dismisses Blues as a mismatched collection of miscellanea.

But indifference can manifest itself in a variety of guises. To be sure, the relative difficulty of even finding an available copy Blues should be taken into account. Young emphasises as much to Ford, in a letter of 23rd October 1929: ‘I asked for a BLUES quarterly at the Washington Square Bookshop and they were not very nice … she said no they didn’t carry it any more and that they had to weed out some of those little magazines of that type…’[41] Weeding out magazines of that type: Young’s choice of words is telling. Public prejudice against avant-gardism comes into play here. According to William Carlos Williams, the problem lay with the American public, not with Blues. Furthermore, the value of Blues in Williams’ eyes ultimately lies in its refusal to pander to the tastes of an indifferent American society, in which ‘[d]ifferentiations of personality, [and] individualistic expressions are taboo. We require mass action and group drawings’.[42]

An editorial board member, frequent Blues contributor himself, and staunch nativist advocate, Williams best sums up the difficulties facing Ford’s magazine in an unpublished piece:

1. Agreed: That “Blues” is a perfectly hopeless attempt to put what is alive in writing before an american audience; it is a negative virtue but the only one that can be respected.

2. Resolved: There is nothing to do but to continue to do as now being done by “Blues”: it is the best present day tradition. The only one that can be counted on to bear anything but dry nuts.[43]

Whilst casting aspersions on the critical and literary faculties of the general American ‘audience’, Williams implores Ford to stay the course, as there is ‘nothing’ more to do but to continue. Williams’ praise of Blues is somewhat contradictory: at points he describes it as ‘perfectly hopeless’ whilst later arguing that ‘it is the best present day tradition’. Williams’ praise of Blues is vague. We are told that Blues represents the ‘best’ writing being done in the modern tradition—the only tradition ‘that can be counted on to bear anything but dry nuts’—but nothing more. Nevertheless, retrospectively—and despite William’s vagueness—it is possible to appreciate Ford’s magazine for what it was intended to be.

Blues is resolutely uncodified. Decades later, when asked about his opinion of Charles Olson’s role in the formation of the Black Mountain School of projectivist poetry, Ford remarks tartly: ‘I can’t see why Olson founded a school’.[44] Though the two writers are perhaps closer in attitude—if not spirit—than Ford allows here, the relevant point is clear: Ford distrusts any poetic ‘school’ that—by dint of programmatic implications—approaches a condition where codification becomes a possibility. That is not to say that Blues is characterised by sheer randomness, far from it in fact. Again, recall Rexroth’s comments about the divergent quality of Blues. Time and space prohibit me from developing this point, but a cursory inspection of the magazine in its entirety reveals how Blues is held together by Ford’s subtle editorial approach, where seemingly disparate pieces are textually able to dialogue with and dispute one another.

Significantly, this textual dialogue is also conducted across materials that are geographically divergent. As suggested previously, what distinguishes Blues from other contemporary American little magazines (like Pagany and Morada, which stress nativist qualities, and Troubadour and Smoke, which are inconsistently edited and academically orientated[45]) is the fertile mix of regional forms contained within the periodical’s covers. Parker Tyler (Ford’s confidante, editorial assistant, and collaborator) confirms as much in 1965: ‘[o]f course there were a great many other little magazines but Blues distinguished itself, not only by being aesthetically and intellectually radical, but by being internationally as well as nationally angled’.[46] This blend of regional and international forms accounts for the inclusion of the Vorticist-inspired line drawings of Mexican Contemporáneos artist Augustin Lazo, the colloquial social realist prose of a young James T. Farrell, the regionally specific—whether American or European—pieces by William Closson Emory and Jacques Le Clercq, and Ford’s own surrealist-inflected, typographically diffuse Southern idioms.

The regional and the cosmopolitan coalesce in Blues. However, contemporary critics fail to appreciate the uncodified nature of the magazine, whilst simultaneously attacking Blues because of what they perceived as a ‘betrayal’ of Ford’s Southern heritage. For instance, an unnamed piece in The Literary Lantern (28th April 1929) criticises Blues for containing ‘nothing by a southern writer and nothing about the South’.[47] Such criticism is unwarranted; aside from listing a Mississippi postal address, Blues had never claimed to be a magazine representative of the American South.

Criticism of Blues came closer to ‘home’—that is, from within, and from unexpected sources. Pound is one such source. During his sole appearance in Blues—in the footnote to his ‘Program 1929’—Pound reveals his anxieties regarding the supposedly damaging lure that the bright lights of New York exert upon the American literary youth:

Foot-note: Instead of EVERYBODY’S going to New York ten or a dozen bright young lads ought to look in on the national capital. We need several novels in the vein of Hemingway’s The Torrents of Spring dealing not with helpless rural morons but with ‘our rulers’ and the ‘representatives of the people’.[48]

Pound’s almost paranoiac fear of the corrupting influence of the cosmopolitan landscape is ironic given his various stays in the European centres of modernism. Moreover, Pound’s neurosis about the cosmopolitan appears the absolute inverse of Ford’s fears caused by geographical isolation and provincial stagnation.

Despite Ford’s personal reservations, the early numbers of Blues nevertheless foreground more nativist, regional concerns—though not strictly of a ‘Southern’ variety. Instead, in the first issue of Blues, we find the highly regionally specific Southwestern poetry of Norman Macleod (the editor of nativist Morada) and the localised, Midwestern prose of Le Clercq. Macleod’s poem ‘Loggia’ displays an agglomeration of a variety of disparate cultural (Native American) and regional (Southwest America) influences. Macleod goes to great lengths to highlight an awareness of nativism—as in poetic imagery that is ‘black like a moqui’s hair’[49]—and articulate a sense of regional specificity, a specificity beset by undercurrents of historical violence:

Bound, gagged… over the edge of cliff

face three hundred feet to stark virginity

of rock, alien priest

served ritual to Acoma[50]

Macleod’s ‘Loggia’ anticipates later critical analysis—like that proposed by Jahan Ramazani—that suggests that ‘we need to remind ourselves constantly that the cultures, locations, and identities connected are themselves agglomerations of complex origin—though those earlier fusions have often been naturalized in ways that occlude the surprise or irony of their convergence’.[51] Thus, in the instance of Macleod’s contribution, Ford’s Blues remains attendant to regional specificity.

But can the same be said of the French writer Jacques Le Clercq’s short story ‘Jordan Revolver’? ‘Jordan Revolver’ opens the first issue of Blues. Le Clercq’s story can best be summed up by its closing paragraph. ‘The story is exactly that. Jordan Revolver contracted a venereal disease from Rosie; he married a prostitute in Detroit; he was found dead and his cadaver was used for experimental purposes in the clinic at Ann Arbor. The rest is silence’.[52] Whilst to an extent accurate, Le Clercq’s summation of Jordan Revolver’s life fails to account for the geographical specificities of the story. Le Clercq’s narrative visits a variety of different locations, both American (in the form of the University of Michigan and Lake Superior) and European (in the narrator’s recounting of wartime exploits in Parisian cafes and clubs). An interesting point of comparison can be made between Le Clercq’s prose and that of F. Scott Fitzgerald. To be more specific, comparison can be made between ‘Jordan Revolver’ and Fitzgerald’s debut novel: This Side of Paradise (1920). The narratives of both This Side of Paradise and ‘Jordan Revolver’ feature accounts of their respective protagonists’ American university experiences. Fitzgerald’s description of Amory Blaine’s experience of American university life is significant: ‘[f]rom the first he loved Princeton—its lazy beauty, its half-grasped significance, the wild moonlight revel of the rushes, the handsome, prosperous big-game crowds, and under it all the air of struggle that pervaded his class’.[53]

The similarities between ‘Jordan Revolver’ and This Side of Paradise do not end there. Fitzgerald’s recounting of Amory Blaine’s extracurricular activities is revealing: ‘[o]n the Triangle trip Amory had come into constant contact with the great current American phenomenon, the ‘“petting party”’.[54] This corresponds to the following comment of Le Clercq’s narrator in ‘Jordan Revolver’:

I spent the summer of 1915 at Apostle Island in Lake Superior… I learned for the first time the technique of what later came to be known as necking or petting, but which in that rude day was termed loving, or with inelegant emphasis, loving-up. I found it more than futile, for my boyhood had been spent abroad.[55]

Futile for Le Clercq’s narrator, perhaps—though the same cannot necessarily be said of Jordan Revolver. Unlike Le Clercq’s narrator, Jordan Revolver’s upbringing—‘He dressed much as anyone at Apostle Island; he swam excellently and earned some money occasionally by acting as life-guard on the beach’[56]—remains rooted in the American, and is not dissimilar to that of Amory Blaine:

Amory saw girls doing things that even in his memory would have been impossible: eating three-o’clock, after-dance suppers in impossible cafes, talking of every side of life with an air half of earnestness, half of mockery, yet with a furtive excitement that Amory considered stood for a real moral let-down. But he never realized how widespread it was until he saw the cities between New York and Chicago as one vast juvenile intrigue.[57]

Notice the emphasis placed on geographical locale. Fitzgerald here designates the unnamed space between New York and Chicago as a ‘vast juvenile intrigue’. Fitzgerald’s notion of juvenile is one taken up by Le Clercq. The narrative of ‘Jordan Revolver’ is in many respects that of an adolescent—a narrative in which Le Clercq’s protagonist ‘played the banjo, told stories, danced and comported himself generally with inconspicuous adequacy’.[58]

The comparison between the two texts—both of which detail the American Midwest at length—is no coincidence. Le Clercq’s subject—and his treatment of the material—invites comparison to the earlier Fitzgerald. Ford is aware of such a comparison: this is why he positions Le Clercq’s story at the very beginning of Blues. Like any magazine editor, Ford felt the need to situate Blues. Having chosen not to heed Pound’s advice to publish an aesthetic programme, Ford used the materials at his disposal in order to construct a differential vantage point for Blues. Ford’s desire was to situate Blues both in relation to region and to earlier forms of literary modernism. Ford’s use of ‘Jordan Revolver’—replete as it is with allusions to the earlier ‘Jazz Age’ is an example of this editorial practice, a practice that is consistently repeated throughout each issue of Blues.

Bearing in mind the mixture of nationalities, landscapes, and forms contained in Blues, perhaps Ford’s regionalism might be best viewed as one of reluctance. This might be one way of understanding Ford’s decision to open Blues—his magazine of purportedly ‘new’ rhythms—with a Midwestern tale told by a European writer; a writer, moreover, belonging to what Charles Bernstein would describe as the era first-wave modernism.[59] There is a generational aspect at work here, and it is interesting to note that Ford’s 1933 novel The Young and the Evil (co-authored with Tyler) was described by Stein as the novel that ‘creates’[60] Ford’s generation as Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise did his before. Perhaps Ford is aware of how generational issues of modernism—themselves tied to his own attempt to situate himself and Blues in relation to previous aesthetic practice—link with his magazine’s regionalist impulse?

It certainly seems feasible. Over the course of its nine original issues, Blues displays what might be described as a localist—as distinct from a superficially regionalist—sensibility. In this regard, Louis Zukofsky’s localist poetic sensibility was a good fit for Blues. Ford’s implicit recognition of Zukfoksy’s localism accounts for the latter’s inclusion in Blues (despite the fundamental differences between the poetic approach of both writers).[61] The comparison between Ford and Zukofsky is suggestive. As early as 1928, Zukofsky’s ‘Poem beginning “The”’ had challenged notions of high-modernist universalism. Similarly, after Ford’s sixth Blues—the ‘Expatriate Number’ of June 1929 that included a wealth of first-generation modernists, including Stein, Jolas, Kay Boyle, Laurence Vail, and Harry Crosby—his magazine made a short-lived shift towards the local. The three issues of Blues that followed the expatriate number are mainly filled with unknown, American writers: both regional and cosmopolitan. One might argue that a symbolic clearing out of first-wave modernist figures takes place in Blues.

But matters become complicated. Arguing that transatlantic expatriatism has been fully replaced by regional modernism seemingly falls prey to confirming what Hugh Kenner called ‘homemade’ American modernism. According to Kenner, homemade modernism is that which is simply grateful to receive the scraps of an already ‘formed tradition’[62] regarding aesthetic inheritance. However, Ford’s biography suggests a refutation of any homemade, regionalist agenda that Blues fostered, reluctantly or not. Having watched his magazine suffer at the hands of the literary public, Ford soon left America, offering this parting shot as he did:

…it is you and your fellows who make a vice of literature by assuming that it has the efficacy of a plough share; […] you all are the trespassers, but as there are in america now among the younger generation one artist to forty farmers i assume that numbers will triumph, since, as you rightly divine, america deals always in size and never in quality being a big woman in a big bed with many little and inadequate husbands.[63]

Is Ford guilty here of repeating some of the regional stereotypes that had been asserted about his own magazine? Perhaps. What is certain is that soon after Ford decried America as a generic, rural space: one that is simultaneously large in ‘size’ yet critically ‘inadequate’ and unresponsive, due to the manner in which literature is treated as if it has nothing more than ‘the efficacy of a plough share’. In leaving America, Ford joined a long list of self-exiled modernists who sought refuge in those expatriate communities that the ‘cooperative’ Blues had briefly begun to challenge, later returning just in time to provide a literary shelter for the last vestiges of a geographically displaced European avant-garde culture during the 1940s.




[1] Critical treatments of Ford are few and far between. But, for a general overview of Ford’s literary career, see Karen L. Rood, ‘Charles Henri Ford’, in Dictionary of Literary Biography, 1880-1945, ed. by Peter Quartermain (Detroit: Bruccoli Clark, 1986), pp. 191-210. Those readers seeking a more colloquial treatment of Ford are directed to the documentary Sleep in a Nest of Flames, dir. by James Dowell and John Kolomvakis (Symbiosis Films, 2001).

[2] Edward B. Germain, ‘Introduction’, in Flag of Ecstasy: Selected Poems, Charles Henri Ford (Los Angeles: Black Sparrow Press, 1972), p. 11.

[3] This title is often erroneously attributed to one of Ford’s protégés: Philip Lamantia.

[4] Koch: ‘I think I started writing poems I liked more when I was seventeen or eighteen. I wrote a poem when I was just eighteen, maybe on my birthday, called ‘For My Eighteenth Birthday’ or ‘Poem For My Birthday’ and it was influenced by French surrealism in so far as I understood it. I understood it mainly from a surrealist magazine called View’. David Kennedy, An Interview with Kenneth Koch, 5 August 1993: <> [accessed 13 September 2010]

[5] Ted Berrigan to Charles Henri Ford, 26 April 1965, Charles Henri Ford Papers, Harry Ransom Center, Austin (hereafter: HRC).

[6] See View: Parade of the Avant-Garde 1940 1947, ed. by Charles Henri Ford (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1991), for a varied and detailed selection of essays, literature, and art complied during View’s seven-year publication history.

[7] Detailed critical accounts of the European avant-garde’s time in American ‘exile’ can be found in Martica Sawin, Surrealism in Exile and the Beginning of the New York School, 2nd edn (Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1997), and Dickran Tashjian, A Boatload of Madmen: Surrealism and the American Avant-Garde 1920-1950 (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2002).

[8] For an extended discussion of New York’s rise to prominence in the art world, see Serge Guilbaut, How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art: Abstract Expressionism, Freedom and the Cold War (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985).

[9] See ‘Charles Henri Ford’, Charles Henri Ford interviewed by Allen Frame, Journal of Contemporary Art, <> [accessed 10 January 2011]

[10] Fredrick J. Hoffman, Charles Allen, Carolyn F. Ulrich, The Little Magazine: A History and Bibliography, 2nd edn (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1947), p. 290.

[11] Joseph Vogel, New Masses, October 1929, reprinted in Charles Henri Ford, Scrapbook: 1928-1931, unpaginated, Charles Henri Ford Papers, Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, University of Yale (hereafter Beinecke). Vogel’s case is a strange one. Originally an editorial board member and contributor to Blues, Vogel was to turn his back on Ford and the magazine. For more on Vogel’s break with Ford see, Douglas Wixson, Worker-Writer in America: Jack Conroy and the Tradition of Midwestern Literary Radicalism, 1898-1990 (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1994), p. 180.

[12] Gertrude Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (London: Penguin Books, 2001), p. 260.

[13] Kenneth Rexroth, American Poetry in the Twentieth Century (New York: Herder and Herder, 1971), p. 106.

[14] Ian Hamilton, The Little Magazines: A Study of Six Editors (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1976), p. 9.

[15] Valery Oişteanu, ‘Charles Henri Ford (1908-2002)’, NY Arts (December 2002), <accessed 20 September 2010>

[16] Roberta Smith, ‘Charles Henri Ford’ (Obituary), The New York Times, 30 September 2002. For more biographical information, see Charles Henri Ford, Water from a Bucket: A Diary, 1948-1957 (New York: Turtle Point Press, 2001).

[17] Charles Henri Ford, I Will Be What I Am, undated, Charles Henri Ford Papers, HRC, p. 91.

[18] I Will Be What I Am, p. 91.

[19] Ibid., p. 94.

[20] Ibid., p. 98.

[21] Ibid., p. 99.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid., p. 100.

[24] Documents and references pertaining to Kathleen Tankserley Young can be found in various archives (the HRC at University of Texas-Austin, the Beinecke at Yale University, and Princeton University). Examples of Young’s poetry can also be found in Shadowed Dreams: Women’s Poetry of the Harlem Renaissance, ed. by Maureen Honey (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1989).

[25] I Will Be What I Am, p. 102.

[26] I Will Be What I Am, p. 101.

[27] Ibid., p. 102.

[28] There is an unpublished program—drafted by Parker Tyler—that was written and intended for eventual publication in Blues. However, when Blues folded, the manifesto was forgotten. Parker Tyler, ‘Program’, undated, Charles Henri Ford Papers, HRC.

[29] Kenneth Rexroth to Charles Henri Ford, 30 November 1929, Charles Henri Ford Papers, Beinecke.

[30] Ezra Pound, Selected Letters 1907-1941, ed. by D.D. Paige (New York: New Directions, 1950; repr. 1971), p. 223.

[31] Selected Letters, p. 223.

[32] Ibid., p. 224.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid., p. 223.

[37] Charles Henri Ford, Scrapbook: 1928-1931, unpaginated, Charles Henri Ford Papers, Beinecke.

[38] Scrapbook, unpaginated.

[39] Ibid., unpaginated.

[40] Ibid., unpaginated.

[41] Kathleen Tankersley Young to Charles Henri Ford, 23 October 1929, Charles Henri Ford Papers, Beinecke.

[42] Williams Carlos Williams, Blues: A Magazine of New Rhythms (1-9), ed. by Charles Henri Ford (New York: Johnson Reprint Corporation, 1967), p. 75. All references are taken from the Johnson Reprint copy of Blues.

[43] Williams Carlos Williams to Charles Henri Ford, undated, Charles Henri Ford Papers, Beinecke.

[44] Charles Henri Ford Interviewed by Ira Cohen, Gay Sunshine Interviews, ed. by Winston Leyland (San Francisco: Gay Sunshine Press, 1984), p. 53.

[45] For more on Blues and its relation to other contemporary little magazines, see my ‘Into the 1930s: Troubadour (1928-32), Blues (1929-30), Smoke (1931-37), and Furioso (1939-53)’ in The Oxford Critical and Cultural History of Modernist Magazines, vol. 2 North America, 1890-1950, ed. by Peter Brooker and Andrew Thacker (Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming 2012).

[46] Parker Tyler, ‘Charles Henri Ford: From Poet to Graphipoet’, unpublished (1965), p. 1, Charles Henri Ford Papers, HRC.

[47] Scrapbook, unpaginated.

[48] Pound, ‘Program 1929’, p. 29.

[49] Norman Macleod, ‘Loggia’, p. 22.

[50] Ibid., p. 22.

[51] Jahan Ramazani, A Transnational Poetics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), p. 47.

[52] Le Clercq, ‘Jordan Revolver’, p. 9.

[53] F. Scott Fitzgerald, This Side of Paradise (London: Penguin Books, repr. 2000), p. 39.

[54] This Side of Paradise, p. 54.

[55] ‘Jordan Revolver’, p. 2.

[56] Ibid., p. 2.

[57] This Side of Paradise, p. 54. Emphasis added.

[58] Ibid., p. 2.

[59] Charles Bernstein’s discussion of first- and second-wave modernism places artists and writers born between 1889 and 1909 in the latter category. Born in 1870, Le Clercq falls into the former category. Bernstein, ‘Objectivist Blues: Scoring Speech in Second-Wave Modernist Poetry and Lyrics’, American Literary History, 20 (2008), 346-368 (p. 348).

[60] Quoted in Philip Hoare’s obituary for Charles Henri Ford, The Independent, 1 October 2002, <> [accessed 13th September 2010]

[61] It should be noted that by the time that the Zukofsky edited the 1931 ‘Objectivist’ issue of Poetry—which included poetry by Ford and Tyler—a rift between Ford and Zukofsky had emerged.

[62] Hugh Kenner, A Homemade World: The American Modernist Writers (London: Marion Boyars, 1977), p. 169.

[63] Charles Henri Ford, ‘Correspondence’, The Left: A Quarterly Review of Radical & Experimental Art, 1 (1931), p. 92. I am indebted to Michael Rozendal for this reference. Michael Rozendal, On The Line: A Reconsideration of 1930s Modernist and Proletarian Radicalism (unpublished doctoral dissertation, State University of New York-Buffalo, 2006).