Two Problems with Biographies: E.M. Forster Under Scrutiny

Two biographies/analyses of E.M. Forster indicate the problems with biographies.

The first, A Great Unrecorded History by Wendy Moffat, is selective to the point of occasionally, uncomfortably, being less than upfront. As a reviewer on Amazon caustically but perceptively points out,  "[W]hy, if Moffat is emphasizing the all-encompassing Sexuality Motif in her rendering of Forster's life, did she not explore the obvious?"

In other words, why is Moffat only emphasizing certain material, when so much more was available to her? And why does she fail to address potential issues? There are multiple places where Moffat should--but does not--stand back and say, "But of course, there's another side to the events in Egypt . . .  Readers may wonder why the Buckinghams maintained a different version of events. . . " and even, "But of course, Forster himself had differing reactions to his experiences." 

Forster was obviously something of a romantic idealist with a strong self-critical streak as well as a critical eye. He seems to have swayed between the version of his life that he wanted to be true and the version of his life that he accepted, in his droll way, as more likely. Moffat appears to prefer the romantic, idealistic version. Yet Forster often refutes this version of his own life--as any self-analytical person might do, dissecting, down the road, the version that seemed comfortable at the time. Moffat, however, accepts only the version that supports her thesis, often summarizing material rather than allowing quotes to speak for themselves: the quotes provide a far more complex reading. 

From a researcher's point of view, the biography not only fails to prove its thesis, it fails to noticeably or subtly address the opposition's objections. Ignoring the obvious and/or refusing to address the obvious indicates, as the above reviewer maintains, an agenda.

Having allowed for an agenda, I suggest that all biographers run the risk of "falling in love with" the subject. After all, getting to know someone so intimately is bound to encourage an attachment. I get this person. I know him or her.

So pedestal-creation (he was perfectly miserable! he was perfectly happy!) makes for an interesting but not all-encompassing or trustworthy biography.

On the other hand, the literary analysis--the biography portion follows the lecture chapters--of Frank Kermode's Concerning E.M. Forster seems to suffer from an opposite tendency, one  I encountered in my master's program. While studying critical analysis of popular culture, I came across scholars who desperately wanted to talk about popular culture, who actually liked it, but were far too embarrassed to be matter-of-fact and open about their liking.

Apparently, Forster is one of those "great" writers whom the academic establishment is vaguely embarrassed about--"great" but not as "great" as D.H. Lawrence or Henry James.

Kermode is not blind to this perspective and even seems to steady himself for the inevitable criticism (unlike Moffat, he is eminently aware of what outsiders might say) but the apologetic tone irritated me after awhile. In a passage about Aspects of the Novel, Kermode states the following:
[Forster discussed story and plot] simply and memorably, perhaps too memorably . . . The book was a big success though of a genre in which Forster might not have expected success. And that is good cause for congratulations: it was good that he, so skeptical about the value of all criticism, should test the opinion as a practitioner. Yet it remains possible to complain that in a book on such a subject he ought, perhaps, to have looked about him rather more . . .
I'm not making this up: in a single short paragraph in a lecture about Forster, Kermode qualifies any positive statement about Forster four times. I had to read Aspects of the Novel (for the first time) myself to realize how good it actually is and to appreciate that Forster crafted his lectures as carefully as he crafted his novels. Kermode seems to wish that Forster had used Aspects to create a list of "people I have read and approved of," but this type of list is precisely what makes so much literary analysis--and so many Hollywood biographies--so tiresome; Hollywood biographies focus on "all the people I know and approve of," but the result is an equally dull jockeying for status and position.

Kermode returns several times to this lack of position-jockeying in Forster--why didn't he?!--rather than accepting that Forster had darn good reasons, as a darn good analyst and writer, to limit his examples in Aspects of a Novel. He was defending claims, not soothing literary egos.

I accept that Kermode sort of admired Forster, but his analysis left me with the opposite impression. Although he seems to have liked A Room with a View, the bulk of his analysis reads as coming from a man deeply uncomfortable with his subject-matter. Since I am entirely capable of making up my own mind about Forster, I prefer reading material by someone who likes him (as he actually was) and his writing (as it actually is). Lionel Trilling, maybe?

The two issues--lack of critique; abundance of apology--may be inevitable to any biographer. When they can be solved, the result is impressive: the subject is objectively but not unfairly explored--the biographer is willing to question while still ultimately taking the subject's side.

It can be done! It is admittedly less than easy.
The successful biography

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