A slight pricking of the thumbs

petworth reynolds macbeth & the witches

(Joshua Reynolds, Macbeth and the Witches
National Trust Collections: Petworth House and Park, West Sussex)

‘You’re not very safe around sharp things,’ the Librarian observes, watching me wrestle with sheets of kitchen roll. ‘Put some pressure on it.’

‘Everyone has little accidents in the kitchen,’ I say.

‘Not as often as you do.’

‘dear hemingway’, Ford Madox Ford began a letter in November 1932, ‘(I have cut off the top of my left thumb with a sickle and so cannot put down the capital stop)’. He had conveyed the same news to Ezra Pound, probably a little earlier: ‘i have cut off the top of my left thumb in a gardenin operation and writing is difficult to me’.[1]

No, not that: on this occasion, I merely sliced off several layers of skin from my forefinger, leaving a relatively small wound which, nevertheless, had only one ambition, one aim in life: to bleed. It took quite a while to stop it.

Ford’s letter, though. The first point of interest is that he’s still writing to Ernest Hemingway, with whom he’d fallen out in Paris during the brief life of the transatlantic review. Hemingway included unflattering portraits of Ford and Stella Bowen in The Sun Also Rises (1926) and generally wrote disparagingly about Ford in letters to various correspondents in the intervening years but there was some direct contact in 1932, partly because Ford wrote round to a good many writers, Hemingway among them, soliciting testimonials for a pamphlet issued to accompany the 1933 trade publication of Ezra Pound’s A Draft of XXX Cantos.

Cantos-Testimonials

(Via Peter Harrington Books: https://www.peterharrington.co.uk/authors/p/ezra-pound )

There was also the hugely admiring introduction (dated January 1932) that Ford had written for the Modern Library’s reissue of A Farewell to Arms.[2] Ford’s November 1932 letter acknowledges the copy of Death in the Afternoon that Hemingway has sent him: ‘i have been absorbing instruction from it ever since last night when i got it and shall shortly be able to talk like any aficionado’ (Letters 216). In 1935, Ford published a report for the New York Times on the trial of Bruno Hauptmann for the kidnapping and murder  of the young son of Charles Lindbergh and his wife Anne. The report was headed ‘Trial is Likened to a Bullfight’ and, in Great Trade Route, Ford described how, to his companion Janice Biala, the painter with whom he lived during his last decade, the people she met ‘were of unexampled vindictiveness and ferocity’ toward the defendant. ‘For her it was as if she were in a bull-fight crowd, every member of which would have spat on, if it could, and have tortured, the bull . . . which is not, of course, the attitude of any bull-fight crowd’.[3]

More than thirty years would elapse before the publication of Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, with its cheerful defamation of several of his contemporaries, including Scott Fitzgerald, Wyndham Lewis, Gertrude Stein and Ford.

Ernst Jünger, in his classic First World War book Storm of Steel, wrote of finding the split thumb of a driver more sickening than wholesale slaughter and mutilation: ‘It’s an example of the way in which one’s response to an experience is actually largely determined by its context.’[4] Another contemporary of Ford’s, C. E. Montague, with a sly nod to the second witch in Shakespeare’s Macbeth—‘By the pricking of my thumbs,/ Something wicked this way comes’ (IV, i)—had the narrator of one of his stories remark: ‘Besides, I had felt a slight pricking in my thumbs, such as usually visits me when I come near an intellectual, even one who is not a burglar.’[5]

NPG 2752; Benjamin Jonson by Abraham van Blyenberch

(Abraham Blyenberch, Ben Jonson: National Portrait Gallery)

The poet and dramatist Ben Jonson presumably experienced something more than ‘a slight pricking’. When he killed the actor Gabriel Spencer in 1598, Jonson pleaded self-defence but also claimed ‘benefit of clergy’, the advantage of literacy being that he was able to read Psalm 51 (in the King James Bible) in Latin. The implication was that, since only members of the clergy could do so, it was inappropriate for them to be tried in a secular court rather than a (more lenient) ecclesiastical one. Possessing the power to save you from an undesirable rendezvous with the public hangman, the Psalm came to be known as the ‘neck verse’. In this instance, Jonson was only (only!) branded on the thumb.[6]

At least the skin on my forefinger will grow back. Probably.

 
Notes

[1] Ford Madox Ford, Letters of Ford Madox Ford, edited by Richard M. Ludwig (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965), 216; Brita Lindberg-Seyersted, editor, Pound/Ford: The Story of a Literary Friendship (London: Faber & Faber 1982), 112.

[2] Reprinted in Ford Madox Ford, Critical Writings, edited by Frank MacShane (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1964), 127-136.

[3] Ford Madox Ford, Great Trade Route (London: Allen & Unwin, 1937), 198.

[4] Ernst Jünger, Storm of Steel, translated by Michael Hofmann (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2004), 91.

[5] C. E. Montague, ‘A Fatalist’, in Action (1928; London: Chatto & Windus, Phoenix Library, 1936), 164.

[6] Peter Vansittart, In Memory of England: A Novelist’s View of History (London: John Murray, 1998), 48.