Writer Jesse Hill Ford (1928-1996) is remembered as much for his influence on aspiring writers as for his own works. Ford was one of a handful of writers in the 1960s who had the courage to expose the evils of the Jim Crow South. He was also a dedicated educator who shaped the careers of many current writers.
Ford was born in Troy, Pike County, on December 28, 1928, to Jesse H. Ford and Lucile Ford. His mother was an elementary school teacher, and his father ran a local drugstore. When he was still an infant, he and his family moved in with his mother’s family in Jasper, Walker County. In 1939, Jesse’s father moved his family to Nashville, Tennessee, where he took a job as a pharmacist at Upjohn Pharmaceutical Company. Ford’s talent for writing first surfaced in two essays that he wrote in the second grade at Parmer Elementary School. Later, as a student at the preparatory Montgomery Bell Academy, Ford was encouraged to write by his English teacher, Mary Helen Bitzer. Despite the fact that he worked part-time at Walgreen’s, Ford still found time to contribute to and edit the school newspaper, The BELL, and to play football.
After graduating from Bell in 1947, Ford enrolled at Vanderbilt University; while still in college, he wrote for the Nashville Tennessean newspaper. He also wrote a number of stories and sketches for campus publications under the tutelage of Donald Davidson, a member of the Agrarian movement, a group of writers from Vanderbilt University who championed an economy based on agrarian values rather than industrial capitalism. Influential in southern writing, the Agrarians impressed Ford with their emphasis on the dignity of living off the earth.
Ford graduated from Vanderbilt University in 1951. That same year, he married Sally Davis, with whom he would have four children. Following a two-year stint with the U.S. Navy, during which he served in the Korean War with a reserve officer’s commission, Ford was admitted to graduate school at the University of Florida, where he was mentored by fellow Alabama author Andrew Lytle.
After receiving his master’s degree in 1955, Ford began working in public relations, first for the Tennessee State Medical Association in Nashville and then the American Medical Association in Chicago. Ford was so incensed by Chicago’s racial problems, however, that he moved to Humboldt, Tennessee, his wife’s hometown, in 1959 and embarked on a career as a professional writer.
In the early 1960s, Ford’s literary career got off to a very promising start. The first short story he submitted to the Atlantic Monthly, “The Surest Thing in Show Business,” won the “Atlantic First” award. In 1960, CBS television network aired his play The Conversion of Buster Drumwright. For the next few years, he continued writing essays and short stories. His first novel, Mountains of Gilead, was published in 1961, but it was his second novel, The Liberation of Lord Byron Jones (1965), that catapulted him into national prominence. It is the story of a prosperous black undertaker who is murdered by his wife’s lover, a white policeman. Not only was the novel nominated for the National Book Award in 1966, it also was transferred to the screen in 1970 as The Liberation of L. B. Jones.
The people of Humboldt did not share the rest of the nation’s favorable opinion of the book and movie, and Ford was plagued by death threats and vandalism. Still sensitive to the public outrage, Ford was concerned when an unidentified car parked in his driveway on November 16, 1970. Thinking that the driver was threatening one of his sons, Ford shot and killed African American private George H. Doaks, who had been drinking and chose Ford’s driveway for a romantic interlude with his girlfriend. Ironically, the soldier’s companion was related to the woman who had served as the model for one of the characters in The Liberation of Lord Byron Jones. Although Ford was acquitted of all charges in 1971, the publicity had a negative effect on his finances and reputation. The trial also damaged Ford’s relationship with his sons and his wife Sally. The couple divorced in 1973, and Ford left Humboldt.
Although Ford continued to write, teaching became his second career. In 1974, he began a semester as writer-in-residence at the University of Rochester in New York. On November 15, 1975, Ford married Lillian Pellitieri Chandler. Following the publication of his final novel, The Raider (1976), he was hired as writer in residence at the University of Alabama at Birmingham for the academic year 1977-1978, where he served as mentor to future best-selling mystery writer Richard North Patterson. From 1985 to 1992, Ford contributed more than 30 editorials to USA Today, writing from a conservative viewpoint. He also wrote a number of screenplays in Hollywood. After undergoing open-heart surgery in Nashville at the age of 67, however, Ford sank into depression and died by suicide on June 1, 1996.
Jesse Hill Ford was hailed by many critics as one of the up-and-coming voices of the literary South. But his novels never fulfilled the early promise of some of his most popular short stories, such as “The Savage Sound,” “Wild Honey,” and “To the Open Water.” Although most widely known today for The Liberation of Lord Byron Jones, Ford is also remembered as a screenwriter and teacher who was a formative influence on a number of best-selling novelists.
Selected Works by Jesse Hill Ford
The Mountains of Gilead (1961)
The Conversion of Buster Drumwright (play, 1964)
The Liberation of Lord Byron Jones (1965)
The Feast of Saint Barnabas (1969)
The Raider (1975)
Drumwright (play, 1982)
- Cheney, Ann. The Life and Letters of Jesse Hill Ford, Southern Writer, With Annotations and Commentary. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1996.
- Duke-Sylvester, Jennifer. “Jesse Hill Ford.” Tennessee Authors: Past & Present. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Libraries, 2003.
- McKinley, James. “An Inerview with Jesse Hill Ford.” Contempora 2.1 (1972): 1-7.
- Rubin, Louis. The Literary South. New York: John Wiley, 1979.
- White, Helen. Jesse Hill Ford: An Annotated Check List of His Published Works and of His Papers. Memphis: Memphis State University, 1974.