Thursday, December 17, 2015

`The Complacencies of an Extinct Volcano'

Reading one’s old work is an agony of shame, self-reproach and, on rare occasions, qualified envy of one’s younger self. At the bottom of a cardboard box filled with magazines and photographs I found a folder of clips dating from the seventies. At the time, seeing my name in print, even in the pages of a weekly newspaper in rural Ohio, was still a kick. Today, I don’t remember writing some of these stories. One of them, a profile of a young guy who had just opened an automotive garage in his home town, is so insubstantial, filled with so many informational holes and undeveloped themes, and written so breathlessly, I wish I could throttle the 26-year-old me who wrote it. The lede is a question, the laziest of devices, one I discarded decades ago, and I actually quote the guy as saying, “I really like cars.” That’s the entire quote. It lies on the page like a puff of smoke.

Ford Madox Ford, born on this date, Dec. 17, in 1873, published his best-known novel, The Good Soldier, in 1915. It was his nineteenth. In the dedicatory letter he wrote for the 1927 edition, addressed to Stella Bowen, his common-law wife and the mother of his daughter, Ford judges it his best, though he was still in the midst of writing his supreme creation, the World War I tetralogy Parade’s End. While feigning humility he leaves no doubt as to his pride in The Good Soldier:

“No author, I think, is deserving of much censure for vanity if, taking down one of his ten-year-old books, he exclaims: `Great Heavens, did I write as well as that then?’ for the implication always is that one does not any longer write so well and few are so envious as to censure the complacencies of an extinct volcano.”

Ford is seldom given credit for possessing a vigorous sense of humor, but the decrescendo of that final phrase is a minor masterpiece of comedy. When I speak of envying my youth, I mean my ignorance before the world and the craft of writing, and the momentum it produced. I was a college dropout with few prospects, scared and naïve, and having a wonderful time editing a newspaper. Apprenticing one’s self is risky, but I blundered my way into competence. To paraphrase the auto mechanic quoted above, “I really like writing.” In his final book, The March of Literature (1938), Ford described himself as “an old man mad about writing.” If envy can be benign, I’m envious of that young man who was mad about writing. In The Rambler #183, published on this date in 1751, Dr. Johnson refers to envy as “a stubborn weed of the mind.” My favorite flower is the dandelion.

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