Unpacking the Morality of EM Forster in the Modern Age

This is sort of a silly exercise, but I feel compelled to do it. Today it’s not okay to admire people who behave in socially unacceptable ways. This is a very good thing, but it certainly leaves some people feeling very conflicted. I think Dave Chappelle said it best when he described his feelings on hearing the accusations against his childhood hero, Bill Cosby. Jezebel unpacked his set pretty well. Cosby did a lot of good things for the black community, but he also did a lot of bad things. So Dave falls short of saying he still admires him.

I’ve had this feeling before in my life. I was a giant fan of Nolan Ryan when I was a kid. The man pitched seven no hitters, and had a massive, 27-year career in baseball. But when I was a teenager in the late 90s, I met a baseball journalist who told me that Ryan was mostly impressive because he had a long career… and his longevity was probably due in part to his old age coming during the prime of the steroid era in baseball. As far as I know, the steroid allegations about Ryan were (and still are) pure gossip. But I was personally devastated. Could Nolan Ryan be a fraud?

Well, I was not a very athletic boy, but I was a huge reader. And I soon came to admire several authors far far more than I ever admired Nolan Ryan. The biggest one who I still greatly admire today is EM Forster. As an adult, I’ve become quite entangled in Forster’s writing, his life story, and consequently his morality.

In broad strokes, it’s difficult to find fault in Forster’s morality. He lived the quiet life of an upper middle class Edwardian gentlemen who became a famous author in his twenties then lived to be ninety. He believed in love above all things. He wrote passionate, nuanced speeches in support of working class people. He served in the Red Cross in the first world war, and did his part for morale as a minor celebrity in the second world war.

But when you look closely at Forster’s life, there are a few odd moments. A few of his tales, and some temporary aspects of his character may draw ire from modern readers.

For instance, when Forster briefly worked as secretary for an Indian prince, he accepted a sex slave as a gift. Here’s the passage from Wendy Moffat’s biography.

“His Highness reassured him, and promptly arranged to find a sexual partner from among the palace servants…Kanaya was a barber at the palace, a slender, pretty, devious boy. Shaving Morgan became the sanctioned pretext for their sexual encounters… The boy was already ‘budgeted for,’ he reassured Morgan… And so for some weeks Morgan sodomized the boy.” (location 3422 in the Kindle edition)

So Forster raped a poor Indian servant for several weeks. Some might moralize that Forster isn’t on the same level as an alleged serial rapist like Cosby, but he’s still a rapist. He still raped someone.

Forster also fell in with a very misogynist gay community. Here’s Wendy Moffat again.

“he confided to Leonard [Woolf] and Virginia [Woolf] that he found lesbians ‘disgusting: partly from conventions, partly because he disliked that women should be independent of men.'” (location 4080)

This is about the worst I can find in his biography. One sanctioned rape, and some vile words about women.

Is it okay for me to admire EM Forster? It’s certainly okay for me to admire his work. Or is it?

Chris Brown makes a pretty good example. He beat his girlfriend bloody. Radio host Greg Kot said Brown “shouldn’t have a career” and The Atlantic asked “Is it wrong to like Chris Brown’s music?

Another good example from the literary world is Orson Scott Card. Card wrote some science fiction books that I greatly admired when I was a young man. I was very disappointed to discover his toxic views about homosexuals and black people … in fact, he’s pretty much an asshole to everyone who isn’t like him. I had already read most of his books before I discovered his views, but when the Ender’s Game movie came out, I consciously boycotted it. I didn’t want to support someone who openly spreads hate.

I never listened to Chris Brown very much, so I’ll have to use Orson Scott Card’s despicable racism and homophobia as my litmus test. Apparently, if someone is as nasty as Orson Scott Card, then I don’t feel comfortable supporting their work.

So how does Forster compare to Scott Card? Well, Card’s actions are purely literary. As far as I know, he’s an extremely hateful individual, but only in words. He says nasty stuff, but he’s never actually acted on his beliefs. Forster also said a lot of nasty stuff about women, so he goes in the same category in that respect. As far as I know he never acted on those beliefs except to state some obtuse opinions to a lesbian writer. But he definitely did rape a young Indian boy. So his actions are arguably worse than Card’s.

Of course, history has to come into play here. It doesn’t make much sense to judge a historical figure based on modern morality, right? Forster has to be forgiven in some respect because his misogyny mostly occurred within a cloistered world of homosexual men. And the rape of the boy was sanctioned by the boy himself, and the boy’s employer/pimp. So that makes it less bad, right?

Well, kind of. Forster knew that raping the boy was wrong though. I could pull another quote from Moffat where he talks about how having a sex slave has made him vicious. He ultimately gave up the sex slave because he (correctly) thought it made him a worse person. So he knew it was wrong, even though it was sanctioned.

And if we aren’t judging historical figures by modern morality, then what about Thomas Jefferson? Thomas Jefferson rightly gets lambasted by modern historians for owning and raping black slaves. If it’s okay to judge Jefferson, then on some level it’s okay to judge Forster too.

In the end, there are a few reasons why I feel so differently about Forster than I do about Orson Scott Card.

Primarily I condemn Card because he is working today, in my time. My boycott of his work can, feasibly effect him. And even though he hasn’t directly committed crimes against other people, his hate speech has been directed at people who HAVE committed crimes in the name of homophobia or racism. So I can’t let him off the hook. It’s not okay to spread hate when kids are being dragged to death behind cars just for being gay.

Then there’s the fact that Forster was gay. He was a gay man born into an Edwardian society that didn’t even recognize the existence of homosexuality. It was so repressed that homosexuality couldn’t even be written about, except in code. So when Forster takes the Indian sex slave, he recognizes it as an explosion of his repressed sexuality. In a significant way, Forster’s crime is cathartic.

In the end, I have very mixed feelings about Forster’s morality. Like Dave Chappelle I feel very conflicted. I love his work more than any other author’s, but I still don’t think it’s okay to downplay his rape of a young boy. Forster is very similar to many of history’s great men. He created great works, but in the end he was only a man.