This Goodly Land

Jesse Hill Ford (December 28, 1928–June 1, 1996)

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Biographical Information

Jesse Hill Ford was born in Troy, Ala. Soon after his birth, his family moved to Jasper, Ala., to live with his mother's parents. In 1932, Ford's father took a job with Upjohn Pharmaceutical Company, and the family moved to Nashville. Ford attended Montgomery Bell Academy, where he wrote for the school newspaper and edited the school annual during his senior year. Ford enrolled at Vanderbilt University in 1947, where he was mentored by Donald Davidson, a member of the Fugitive and Agrarian movements in Southern writing. After graduating in 1951, Ford entered the US Navy as an Ensign and served in Korea for two years. Ford then studied at the University of Florida under Andrew Lytle, another Agrarian, and earned his MA in 1955. Ford worked in public relations for the Tennessee Medical Association for two years and for the American Medical Association for seven months. He resigned in 1957 to write full-time, and he and his family moved to Humboldt, Tenn., his wife's hometown. In 1959, Ford sold his first short story to Atlantic Monthly and won the magazine's "Atlantic First" award. His play, The Conversion of Buster Drumwright, was aired by the CBS Television Workshop in 1960. The following year, Ford published his first novel and won a Fulbright Scholarship to study and write in Norway.

When Ford returned to Humboldt, he began working on a new novel, based on the murder of a local man. The Liberation of Lord Byron Jones, published in 1965, was very successful critically and financially, and, in 1966, Ford won a Guggenheim Fellowship for fiction writing. By 1969, he had published a collection of short stories and a third novel and had co-written the screenplay for a movie version of The Liberation of Lord Byron Jones. When the movie was released in 1970, Ford and his family were subjected to vandalism and harassment. Late that year, Ford fatally shot a young black man trespassing on his property, believing that the man was there to harm his family. Although Ford was acquitted of murder charges, the publicity severely damaged his life and career. He left Humboldt and wrote screenplays, frequently without screen credit, to pay his bills. Ford was writer-in-residence at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, for the academic year 1977-78. From 1985 to 1992, he contributed occasional editorials to USA Today. In 1995, Ford developed depression after open-heart surgery, and he committed suicide the following June.

Interests and Themes

Jesse Hill Ford’s stories and novels are set in Tennessee. His novels have multiple points of view and convey a strong sense of place by means of detailed description and vernacular dialogue. Frequent themes are violent conflict, revenge, racial tension, and the Southern sense of honor.

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Last updated on May 30, 2008.

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