- *E. M. Forster. Where Angels Fear to Tread
E.M. Forster’s fifth novel, A Passage to India, was published in 1924. From then, aged 45, until his death at 91, Forster’s publications took the form of essays, biographies, reviews, petitions, short stories, lectures, and libretti. After Passage, Forster once explained, his desire to write novels simply “dried up.” Notwithstanding, his later writings were to sustain the wisdom of the earlier fiction and also help explain it; Forster’s essays in large measure reproduce the insights of his novels, making them explicit and political.
Published originally in periodicals such as the Atlantic Monthly, the Listener, the New Statesman, Oxford and Cambridge Review, the Spectator, and the Times Literary Supplement, Forster’s essays are collected in three main volumes: Pharos and Pharillon (1923), Abinger Harvest (1936), and Two Cheers for Democracy (1951). While the first centers on Forster’s experiences as a World War I Red Cross volunteer in Egypt, the second and third range widely over literary, social, cultural, and biographical themes: from Proust to Marco Polo, music, liberty, Nazism, tolerance, censorship, chauvinism, anti-Semitism, the countryside, Cambridge, the English character, and America.
The epithet “Forsterian” (liberal, unconventional, skeptical, moral) had been in circulation since the critical success of his 1910 novel, Howards End. It is important in comprehending Forster’s influence as an essay writer to appreciate his achievement in maintaining, through some of the most turbulent years of the 20th century, a personal philosophy of liberal humanism. By the mid-1930s, indeed, he had become a principal moralist of his age. He was a sage (with remarkably few open detractors) who brought liberalism to suburbia; who countered the excesses of the world by demonstrating the powers of selfredemption; who garnered the respect of a whole generation of writers (including Auden, Isherwood, Spender, MacNeice, Cyril Connolly, and Iris Murdoch) for prescribing in his writings and exhibiting in his life an outspoken personal integrity.
As Isherwood concluded (1962), Forster’s work stood for “all that is truly worth saving from Hitler.”
The most famously Forsterian of the essays is perhaps What I Believe (1939). “I do not believe in Belief,” Forster begins. “But this is an Age of Faith, and there are so many militant creeds that, in self-defence, one has to formulate a creed of one’s own…
Tolerance, good temper, and sympathy—they are what matter really, and if the human race is not to collapse they must come to the front before long. But for the moment they are not enough, their action is no stronger than a flower, battered beneath a military jackboot.
They want stiffening, even if the process coarsens them. Faith, to my mind, is a stiffening process, a sort of mental starch, which ought to be applied as sparingly as possible. I dislike the stuff. I do not believe in it, for its own sake, at all.” What he does believe in, Forster then proceeds to enunciate: individualism—even though individual wholeness may be a myth, since an awareness of individual lives and deaths fosters decent personal relations with others; loyalty, trust, and love between friends—even though in theory human beings do not know themselves and cannot know others; human beings who are sensitive, imaginative, and conscientious, who endure through cruelty and chaos and do not see life in terms of power—ven while all live in power’s shadow; civilization—those intervals when force and violence are not to the fore, when social organization is based on the distribution of native human goodness rather than a dependence on the God of Christianity or of Government; and democracy, because it grants creative people the opportunity and liberty to make and express themselves, and shuns the hero-worship of Great Men. And he concludes: “So Two cheers for Democracy: one because it admits variety and two because it permits criticism. Two cheers are quite enough: there is not occasion to give three. Only Love the Beloved Republic deserves that.”
Particularly characteristic is Forster’s combination of affirmation and skepticism. He assumes a liberal humanism, for the purpose of living and as a purpose for living, not blindly, sanctimoniously, or dogmatically, but ironically, in spite of the absurdities of the world, despite the limitations of any human philosophy. Semi-cynical, Forster yet remains semi-idealistic.
Forster’s technique of writing was memorably described by Isherwood (1938) as “based on the tea-table.” It involves a toning down rather than a heightening of drama and import, accentuating through underemphasis. Unceremonious sentences bear a weight of meaning seemingly disproportionate to their spare scaffolding; the particular is offered as stimulus to generalities, the vivid image standing for the implicit wider idea.
Hence, across a diversity of essay topics, there is a familiarity of treatment: personal and personable. Presenting particular ideas in a personal way, Forster eschews simple categorizations and conclusions and evinces instead the complexity of things: the disorder of the world, the paradoxical character of human nature. Thus he abnormalizes the everyday and brings it to consciousness. As Virginia Woolf noted, Forster was able to gain perspective on “the simple things which clever people overlooked.” He also addresses the reader on equal terms and without trivialization, with an “unforbiddingness” which encourages intimacy and rapport. Finally, while refraining from detailing a political program, and with ready admission of personal inadequacy and provisionality, Forster makes humorous, gentle stabs at pomposity and hypocrisy; by having domestic detail impinge on political sensibility, he makes his politics experiential, of a human size and intelligibility.
Speaking with simultaneous attachment and detachment, as participant, observer, and critic, Forster’s essay narration switches between a number of different voices. There is a voice of social realism; there is also a voice of social radicalism and prophecy. There is an ironic voice, veering between the comedic and the satiric, and also a voice of transcendentalism, of Forster proclaiming the inauthenticity of all manner of social exchange, through which (in art) reality only periodically erupts. There is a voice of allegory and romance, as Forster explores elemental human problems in flat characterizations. Finally, there is a voice of mysticism, of Forster seeking insinuations of the infinite in human contact with the earth. There is, in sum, a multiplicity to Forster, of many voices becoming and returning.
When these different voices are critically discussed, their relationship is often found to be perplexing. Woolf claimed an ambiguity and elusiveness at the heart of Forster’s writing deriving from the problem of harmonizing the voices so that a coherent vision could emerge. But in not resolving such ambiguity, Forster heightens his writing’s effectiveness; reality, he intimates, cannot be described in just one voice. Thus he demonstrates, in Lionel Trilling’s phrase (1943), his “whim of iron,” insisting that human life must always elude essential definition.
Nonetheless, Trilling (like others) declined to rank Forster as a great critic or theorizer.
His critical essays (“T.S.Eliot,” 1928; “George Orwell,” 1950) are seen as excessively informal, privileging neither distinctions nor judgments. His nonfiction in general is elegant, cultivated, and accomplished, but not unique; contemporary littérateurs— Strachey, Nicholson—might have written similarly. Even his more theoretical essays (“Jew-Consciousness,” 1939; “Does Culture Matter?” 1940) are found to be impressionistic, not architectonic, stimulated by a personal need to validate his individual responses. But then Forster never held criticism in particularly high esteem: criticism could not approach the mystery of the creative arts. Meanwhile, his overriding liberal impulse is to extend the range of his audience’s moral imagination, connecting all things, seeing all equally: good-with-evil, not good versus evil.
Since his death, a modish antihumanism has caused Forster’s liberal reputation to be queried. But then, as Stephen Spender put it, if Forster appears no longer to speak to us directly, it is likely because we have listened and followed his advice: his writing (fiction and nonfiction alike) has passed into our heritage.
Edward Morgan Forster. Born 1 January 1879 in London. Studied at Kent House, Eastbourne, Sussex, 1890–93; Tonbridge School, Kent, 1893–97; King’s College, Cambridge, 1897–1901, B.A., 1901, M.A., 1910. Contributor to various journals and newspapers, beginning at Cambridge and continuing later, including the Nation, the Daily News, the Daily Herald, the Athenaeum, the Listener, London Mercury, New Criterion, Time and Tide, and the New Statesman. Traveled in Italy, 1901–02, and in Greece and Italy, 1903. Lecturer, Working Men’s College, London, 1901–07. Cofounder, Independent Review, 1903. Lived in India, 1912–13, and private secretary to the Maharajah of Dewas, India, 1921. Worked for the National Gallery, London, 1914–15.
Red Cross volunteer worker, Alexandria, Egypt, 1915–18. Literary editor, London Daily Herald, 1920. Fellow of King’s College, Cambridge, and Clark Lecturer, Trinity College, Cambridge, 1927; Honorary Fellow of King’s College, 1946–70. Awards: James Tait Black Memorial Prize, 1925; Femina Vie Heureuse Prize, 1925; Royal Society of Literature Benson Medal, 1937, and Companion of Literature, 1961; honorary degrees from eight universities; Honorary Member, American Academy and Bavarian Academy of Fine Arts; Companion of Honour, 1953; Order of Merit, 1969. Died in Coventry, 7 June 1970.
Essays and Related Prose
Pharos and Pharillon, 1923
Anonymity: An Enquiry (pamphlet), 1925
Aspects of the Novel, 1927
A Letter to Madan Blanchard (pamphlet), 1931
Abinger Harvest, 1936
What I Believe, 1939
Two Cheers for Democracy, 1951
Albergo Empedocle and Other Writings, edited by George Thomson, 1971
Aspects of the Novel and Related Writings, edited by Oliver Stallybrass, 1974
The Uncollected Egyptian Essays, edited by Hilda D.Spear and Abdel-Moneim Aly, 1988
Other writings: six novels (Where Angels Fear to Tread, 1905; The Longest Journey, 1907; A Room with a View, 1908; Howards End, 1910; A Passage to India, 1924;
Maurice, 1971 [published posthumously]), short stories, travel writing, and three plays.
Collected works edition: Works (Abinger Edition), edited by Oliver Stallybrass and Elizabeth Heine, 1972–(in progress).
Borrello, Albert, E.M. Forster: An Annotated Bibliography of Secondary Materials, Metuchen, New Jersey: Scarecrow Press, 1973
Kirkpatrick, B.J., A Bibliography of E.M.Forster, Oxford: Clarendon Press, revised edition, 1985 (original edition, 1965)
McDowell, Frederick P.W., editor, E.M.Forster: An Annotated Bibliography of Writing About Him, De Kalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1976
Beauman, Nicola, Morgan: A Biography of E.M.Forster, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1993
Bloom, Harold, editor, E.M.Forster, New York: Chelsea House, 1987
Borrello, Alfredo, An E.M.Forster Dictionary, Metuchen, New Jersey: Scarecrow Press, 1971
Borrello, Alfredo, An E.M.Forster Glossary, Metuchen, New Jersey: Scarecrow Press, 1972
Bradbury, Malcolm, editor, Forster: A Collection of Critical Essays, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1966
Crews, Frederick, E.M.Forster: The Perils of Humanism, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1962.
Dowling, David, Bloomsbury Aesthetics and the Novels of Forster and Woolf, London: Macmillan, and New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985
Furbank, P.N., E.M. Forster: A Life, London: Secker and Warburg, 2 vols., 1977–78;
New York: Harcourt Brace, 1978
Gillie, Christopher, A Preface to Forster, Harlow: Longman, 1983
Gransden, K.W., E.M. Forster, Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, revised edition, 1970 (original edition, 1962)
Herz, Judith Scherer, and Robert K.Martin, editors, E.M.Forster: Centenary
Revaluations, London: Macmillan, and Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982
Isherwood, Christopher, Lions and Shadows: An Education in the Twenties, London, Hogarth Press, 1938; Norfolk, Connecticut: New Directions, 1947
Isherwood, Christopher, Down There on a Visit, New York: Simon and Schuster, and London: Methuen, 1962
Jones, D., “An Interview with E.M. Forster on His Life and His Books,” The Listener, 1 January 1959
Page, Norman, E.M.Forster, Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1987; New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988
Stallybrass, Oliver, editor, Aspects of E.M.Forster: Essays and Recollections Written for His Ninetieth Birthday, 1st January 1969, London: Arnold, and New York: Harcourt Brace, 1969
Stone, Wilfred, The Cave and the Mountain: A Study of E.M. Forster, Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1966
Summers, Claude J., E.M.Forster, New York: Ungar, 1983
Trilling, Lionel, E.M.Forster, Norfolk, Connecticut: New Directions, revised edition, 1965; London: Hogarth Press, 1967 (original edition, 1943)
Warren, Austin, Rage for Order: Essays in Criticism, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1948
Wilson, A., “A Conversation with E.M.Forster,” Encounter 9 (1957)
Woolf, Virginia, “The Novels of E.M.Forster,” in her The Death of the Moth and Other Essays, London: Hogarth Press, and New York: Harcourt Brace, 1942
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