E. M. Forster Essay - Forster, E(dward) M(organ) (Vol. 2)

Forster, E(dward) M(organ) (Vol. 2)

Forster, E(dward) M(organ) 1879–1970

A British novelist associated with the Bloomsbury group, Forster was also a critic, short story writer, and playwright. He was the author of A Passage to India and Howards End. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-14; obituary, Vols. 25-28.)

[When] E. M. Forster died … at 91, he had been for half a century England's most elusive and illustrious man of prose letters. It is still almost impossible to talk about the modern novel without mentioning his name.

Literary scholarship—which Forster loathed because it reduces writing to a rational rubble of themes and trends—will no doubt have little trouble in assigning Forster's influence and renown to sensible causes and perspectives….

His confrontations of plot and apparent symbolism at first seem to fit easily enough into the new century's dramatic reaction against the massive structures and stifling legacies of Victorian England: passion and beauty v. respectability and ugliness (Where Angels Fear to Tread), personal freedom v. conventional success (The Longest Journey), cultivation and simplicity v. the strangling encroachments of industrial wealth (Howards End). Most important, in taking up the issue of colonial oppression and racism in British India, Forster, with remarkable foresight, was the first to sound what became the most troubling political and moral issue of our times.

Yet Forster's genius lies precisely in the impossibility of stuffing his books into literary boxes, however labeled. He strove to maintain a free and, in the old-fashioned sense of the word, disinterested view. More than any other novelist, he is proof that to become a significant writer, a man must be neither an idea machine nor a recording angel, but a human voice sounding with its own shifting intonations in the ear and heart of the reader….

He had modest hopes for fiction as a shaper of men and history. He saw the creative imagination as a mirror, an instrument of learning and reflection that does not change the march of worldly events. The mirror image will not change, he thought, unless human nature alters. If, against all odds, that happens, he wrote, "it will be because individuals manage to look at themselves in a new way. Here and there people—a very few people, but a few novelists are among them—are trying to do this." Forster was one of them.

"Aspects of the Novelist," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; © 1970 by Time Inc.), June 22, 1970, p. 82.

E. M. Forster was more than a novelist of the first rank. He was a custodian of civilization.

His two collections of matchless essays, "Abinger Harvest" and "Two Cheers for Democracy," are monuments of humanism, the work of a cultivated and wide-ranging intelligence—independent, tough-minded and nonpartisan—which valued "tolerance, good temper and sympathy" over the more public and abstract rally cries of country. Personal relationships, not national aspirations, mattered most to Forster, who traced his spiritual heritage to "Erasmus and Montaigne, not Moses and St. Paul." He was as patriotic as the next man, taking to the radio to denounce Nazism in the 1940s, but he knew his priorities: "If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country."

Social systems did not interest him as such. Like Dickens, Forster was more concerned with matters of the heart. Yet, while Dickens saw compassion as the key to social improvement, Forster saw it only as a private salvation, an antidote to social injustice but not a cure. The theme of the "undeveloped heart" echoes through all his work. He drew the phrase from his experience as a day student in the British public-school system, which, he wrote, produced "well-developed bodies, fairly developed minds and undeveloped hearts."…

[In] essential ways, he was thoroughly modern. His melodrama did not pit the forces of darkness against those of light, but served to stress the moral ambiguities of his characters. His detached tone, his skepticism born of his association with the remarkable Bloomsbury group—D. H. Lawrence, Bertrand Russell, Lytton Strachey, the Woolfs, Maynard Keynes—and his finely honed sense of irony separated him from an earlier age preoccupied with the duality of science and faith and absorbed with the tensions of a rigid official morality….

With his death, we have seen the very last of a civilized breed. The most decent of men is dead, the secure society against which he revolted a shambles and the liberalism he advanced and embodied now once again on the defensive. Forster realized, however, that the civilized man and civilization itself existed by the grace of force—that culture only flourished when "force has not managed to come to the front." Now the last flower of one such flourishing is gone.

Paul D. Zimmerman, "E. M. Forster (1879–1970)," in Newsweek (copyright Newsweek, Inc. 1970; reprinted by permission), June 22, 1970, pp. 84-5.

Maurice is as totally ordinary and suburban as Forster can make him.

All the unity and strength that the novel possesses stem from this seemingly odd choice of a protagonist—all right, a hero. The many weaknesses that my fellow reviewers tend to emphasize stem from it too. Forster really knows very little about the outer or inner life of such a man as Maurice. Rather than show him at his work in the City of London, Forster has to present him as a commuter in a railroad car—the only place Forster is likely to have met or even overheard a broker. As for the inner life, Forster asks us to believe that a handsome "jock" like Maurice spends four years at an English boys' boarding school without discovering his own homosexuality or even learning any slangier description of a homosexual than "an unspeakable of the Oscar Wilde sort."…

I can't deny that Maurice is rather a thin book, with little of the richness—of irony, of symbolism, of sharply differentiated characters—that we find in A Passage to India, written ten years later…. Yet it is reasonable to wonder whether Forster could have written that amazingly mature and wise and unsnobbish book if he hadn't first gotten Maurice out of his system. He purged himself of much more than homosexuality in the earlier book. A Passage to India is free not merely of class snobbery but of the inverted snobbery of liberalism too….

What the young today may like best in Maurice, if they like anything, is its attack on the suburbs from within. Forster could not have hated suburbia so fiercely or satirized it so penetratingly had he not grown up in it. When Maurice renounces the suburbs for what he more than once calls "the greenwood," his idealism will not embarrass the young, though it makes me feel a little skeptical….

Like his French contemporary André Gide—a more courageous man but a less accomplished novelist—Forster permits us to see a man's conscious acceptance of his own homosexuality as a metaphor for liberation in all its forms: liberation not only from the Christian sexual ethic but from the matriarchal family, from the hypocrisy of suburbia, and, in the last analysis, from bourgeois society as a whole….

In the end, Maurice, although obviously a much smaller book than A Passage to India, does not disgrace E. M. Forster either as a man or as an artist.

Vivian Mercier, "A Means of Grace," in Nation, November 29, 1971, pp. 565-67.

Maurice, bad as it is, nevertheless is Forster's only truthful book, full of nerves, hysteria, infatuations, bitterness…. The "great novels" are mirages. A Passage to India has some travel-diary observation and momentum, but the crudeness of Forster's sensibility is illustrated by the climactic trope he invents for the coming together of Fielding and Miss Quested: "A friendliness, as of dwarfs shaking hands, was in the air." Howards End … is part boy-scout oath ("Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height …"), part Put-Christ-back-into-Christmas ("How many of these vacillating shoppers and tired shop-assistants realized that it was a divine event …?"), part East Lynne ("he was rotten at the core"), part snobbery again ("She was a rubbishy little creature"), part wisdom ("Science explained people, but could not understand them"), and all lies.

Marvin Mudrick, in Hudson Review, Spring, 1972, pp. 143-44.

All novelists are many people (which is what Forster means by 'fragments') or they would not be novelists, and each significant fictional character is one potential of his creator, however disguised; with Forster, the range of characters is large, and the gulf between them—socially, psychologically, temperamentally—is sometimes wide; his real concern is for wholeness, in respect of the relationships between people, and of those people with themselves. Many of the particular types of individual that Forster created derive from his background….

Forster's unique contribution to the English domestic novel is that he was able to bring into its scope, without rejecting civilised values, the real problem of civilisation—whether, to quote … from Howards End, 'it is worth giving up the glory of the animal for a tail-coat and a couple of ideas'. Not that we really have the choice, but Forster was always aware that, to quote him once again, 'everything has to be paid for', and if we know the price, we may be able to evaluate truly what we are and what we have. If we can learn from him that, as he suggests, self-knowledge and truth to oneself are our most valuable assets, he will have given us a great deal.

Maurice Capitanchik, "The Novels of E. M. Forster," in Books and Bookmen, May, 1972, pp. 14-18.

In all the early stories [represented in Oliver Stallybrass' collection of Forster's stories, The Life to Come, and Other Stories, published posthumously in 1972] there is the fear of madness and of fear itself; and however short, they emerge as important way stations along the path of his fiction. But even then, in that early period, he was writing what he called his "sexy stories" or his "indecent writings." Like a new tide they begin to tingle the feet and finally drag the ocean in another direction. I am not talking here about those stories in which homosexuality is implicit or sublimated—that's in everything from "Ansell" to the last story of all. This is the second batch of stories, beginning with the title story written in 1922 and ending with "The Other Boat" in 1958, where homosexual relations are exposed, described, and glorified….

Of the many things to be said of these stories, perhaps the most important is to mention the melodrama. Forster had an Elizabethan addiction to it, and here—given the dynamo of his own criminal practices (in England, then, any homosexual act was liable to prosecution and vicious sentences) and the necessary conspiracy of such an honest man in such a tangle of private lies and social hypocrisy—it emerges most strongly. Perhaps homosexual relationships give its mechanics new force. Its power needs a greater canvas, however, and once more we first admire and then regret.

Melvyn Bragg, "An 'Indecent' Art," in World, December 5, 1972, pp. 58-9.