E. M. Forster

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Forster, E(dward) M(organ) (Vol. 9)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Forster, E(dward) M(organ) 1879–1970

An English novelist, short story writer, essayist, and critic, Forster is considered a major twentieth-century author. Caught in a continual inner struggle with his homosexuality, Forster used this struggle as a source for his art. Best known for his critically acclaimed novel, A Passage to India, Forster wrote prophetically and sensitively of the major dilemmas of our time. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-14; obituary, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 1.)

Mr Forster's place in the canon is an unusual one. He enjoys, securely, a reputation of the most insecure kind—that of a major figure—definitely that—who falls just short—but clearly short—of true greatness. A reputation which might be expected to stimulate objections from all quarters stimulates them from virtually none. No one, apparently, wants to see him promoted into the ranks of the acknowledged masters and hardly anyone wants to see him pushed out of the canon altogether. He is the occasion of no very serious or very interesting debate. When he is praised, he is praised extravagantly but harmlessly…. Mr Forster's peculiar reputation rests, it might be guessed, not so much on what he's done as on what he's been taken to represent; and it would be a mean spirit indeed who, given what he has been taken to represent, would look with an unfriendly eye upon what he's done.

Looked upon so, Mr Forster has done little more than generate in himself and others an enthusiasm for platitudes. Let us consider two documents, 'What I Believe', Mr Forster's personal manifesto, and Howards End, the novel in which he tries most directly to embody the values of the manifesto.

In the essay he says he's in favour of private decencies, personal relationships, people who are sensitive and creative—the lovers, artists and homemakers—good temper, good will, tolerance, loyalty, sympathy, friendship and Love the Beloved Republic and against public affairs, Great Men, force and violence and people who see life in terms of power…. We have to take Mr Forster's word for it that he knows not only the words for love and sympathy, but the things themselves. It's only by turning to the novel that we have any chance of bringing the essav's claims into question; it's there we are forced to turn for the knowledge that will make good these claims. And, turning and looking, what we find is not quite a vacancy but yet more fine sentiments and, dominating the palpables of tone, characterisation and plot, an assortment of snobberies and a pervasive self-satisfaction.

The intentions of Howards End are explicit and impeccable. It urges its readers to 'only connect …' to build within themselves 'the rainbow bridge that should connect the prose in us with the passion' for then 'love is born, and alights on the highest curve, glowing against the grey, sober against the fire' and, like the essay, the novel insists 'it is the private life that holds out the mirror to infinity; personal intercourse, and that alone, that ever hints at a personality beyond our daily vision'. Its heroes and heroines are those who 'attempt personal relations', its villains 'the hurrying men who know so much and connect so little'; its triumphs occur when 'truer relationships gleam'.

But fine sentiments and would-be noble phrases don't even make good feelings let alone good novels. And if, in an essay, a writer can't get away with just naming the things he believes in, how much less so can he in a novel, when his 'beliefs' must be acted out as particular, concrete instances? Talk, for the novelist even more obviously than for the essayist, won't suffice. He must deliver the goods. And if he can't, if he doesn't really own the feelings he lays claim to, his novel will betray him…. Howards End betrays Forster. He preaches in it love and sympathy and is caught furtively practising the everyday, casual snobberies of any other...

(The entire section is 7,428 words.)