E. M. Forster Forster, E(dward) M(organ) (Vol. 4)

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Forster, E(dward) M(organ) (Vol. 4)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Forster, E(dward) M(organ) 1879–1970

Forster, an English novelist, short story writer, and essayist, was one of the major writers of our time. In many ways, as one critic noted, Forster was "the outstanding literary spokesman for humanist values." (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-14; obituary, Vols. 25-28.)

From many points of view [Forster] was a superb literary critic. He felt this himself, and had a pert way of exclaiming how acute he was, and what an easy business criticism turned out to be. His letters of literary advice to friends are admirable. No one was better, as they acknowledged, at sensing their intentions or putting his finger on the spot where things went wrong. As a critic he looked, he scrutinised the object as if nothing else like it had ever existed, and he emerged with a brand new, freshly-minted formula, fitting not only the work in question but, potentially, a whole new class of works. His published criticism has the same virtues; many of his judgments in Aspects of the Novel seem dated now, but his formulae are as lively as ever.

However, there was a price to pay for this ad hoc approach to criticism. He was so distrustful of system in all matters of art, as in matters of the heart and conduct, that he could not enter into the frame of mind of artists to whom system mattered. He could never get his mind round Henry James, for instance, though he thought about him, off and on, all his life. He would write James off as a futile cobweb-spinner; then he would pick up a new novel of his and be astonished at its marvellous power and solidity. The thing seemed a great mystery to him; it never occurred to him that James might have wanted to do one thing in one novel and another in another—that there was a system and larger artistic plan in his literary career….

I mention his limitations as a critic because they help to define his virtues, which were also his virtues as a thinker and writer in general. His mind was a vast breeding-ground for discriminations. He endlessly picked and chose and could distinguish between two blades of grass. No one ever made such restrictive remarks. I can hear them so vividly: "So-and-so, with an intelligent face, fairly"; or, "I am devoted to so-and-so's son, slightly."… Again, both as a critic and a creator, he was a master of angle. As all his friends remarked, nobody came at things from queerer angles. It was not whimsicality; it arose from his seeing things more concretely than other people. (It shows his respect for the concreteness of the world that he always realised his metaphors. Describing himself as having, like a rat, deserted the ship of fiction, he continues "and swam towards biography.") He planted himself firmly in the world and took sighting from where he stood; there was this that one could see and that which was concealed by the lie of the land. Of course, one could change one's viewpoint…. His great strength as a novelist was his sense for the angles at which people stood to one another and to the universe surrounding them and the constant dance of changing angles from which he makes us view them. For him, the art of fiction, like the art of life, lay in finding one's bearings. "One must face facts," a friend once said to him. "How can I," he replied, "when they're all around me?"

This leads me to what you might call his "secret" and his deepest originality; I mean his feeling for life. His knowledge of society was not particularly remarkable; what was superior to him was his knowledge of the possibilities of life. It seemed he could see through to life; it was not a vague generality to him but a palpable presence, and he could hear its wingbeat.

P. N. Furbank, "The Personality of E. M. Forster," in Encounter, November, 1970, pp. 61-8.

[One] of the effects of reading E. M. Forster is to feel a bit ashamed … at one's own obtuseness at not being able to see things—important things about relationships, about society, about the condition of being human—as he...

(The entire section is 5,645 words.)