Born in Brookhaven, Mississippi, in 1913, Charles Henri Ford cannot be considered a southern writer in the traditional sense. The themes in his artwork, photography, poetry, and prose do not focus on the South or the southern experience. Instead, much of Ford’s work reflects a more broad homosexual American and expatriate American experience. Although his literary career began in Mississippi, Ford soon left the South and evolved into a prolific member of the American avant-garde. Ford is best known as America’s first surreal poet.
In 1929 Ford and two friends started Blues: A Magazine of New Rhythms in Columbus, Mississippi. Although Blues lasted only nine issues, it published authors including William Carlos Williams, Gertrude Stein, and Ezra Pound. After the failure of Blues, Ford moved to Paris and joined Gertrude Stein’s salon, through which he met other expatriate luminaries, among them Peggy Guggenheim, Man Ray, and Djuna Barnes. Ford later lived with Barnes and worked as her typist while she wrote the novel Nightwood.
In 1933 Ford published his first novel, The Young and Evil, which he wrote with Parker Tyler, another of the founders of Blues. The Young and Evil describes the lifestyle and adventures of a group of gay artists living in Greenwich Village in the 1930s. It has been called the first gay novel and presents evidence of an openly gay community existing in New York in the first half of the twentieth century. It was banned in the United States and England until 1975.
Ford returned to the United States in 1934 with the Russian painter Pavel Tchelitchew, who was Ford’s lover and companion until Tchelitchew’s death in 1957. The years that they spent together in New York proved to be the most productive of Ford’s career. They enjoyed the company of such luminaries as Stein, Williams, Guggenheim, Edith Sitwell, Glenway Wescott, George Platt Lynes, Jean Cocteau, Orson Welles, e. e. cummings, and Salvador Dalí, and Ford wrote about that period in Water from a Bucket: A Diary, 1948–1957 (2001).
In 1938 Ford published his first full-length book of poems, The Garden of Disorder, with an introduction by William Carlos Williams. Two years later Ford started View magazine, which attracted talent from all over the world, including Albert Camus, Georgia O’Keefe, Marc Chagall, Paul Klee, Pablo Picasso, Henry Miller, and Jorge Louis Borges. In the 1940s View Editions published the first monograph on Marcel Duchamp and the first English translations of André Breton’s poems.
In the 1950s Ford turned away from literature and to the visual arts. A close association with Andy Warhol and his circle introduced Ford to pop art, and he started to produce collage poetry and films, including one full-length feature, Johnny Minotaur (1971). Ford continued to work as a multimedia artist until his death on 27 September 2002. He was a longtime resident of the Dakota apartment building in New York City, living in a studio provided by his sister, actress Ruth Ford. Although Ford, like many American surrealist painters, photographers, and authors, is not well known by the standards of his most productive time, he was a member of a group of American innovators who pushed the era’s boundaries. His legacy is vast and impressive, and because of the focus on the still-controversial subject of homosexuality in most of his work, it remains avant-garde.
- Charles Henri Ford, interview by Allen Frame, Journal of Contemporary Art website, www.jca-online.com
- Charles Henri Ford, Modern American Poetry website, www.english.illinois.edu/maps
- Charles Henri Ford Papers, 1928–1981, Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin; New York Times (30 September 2002)