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

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1,857 words.)