He’s Got Rhythm

Concerning E. M. Forster
Frank Kermode
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $24, 192 pp.

Every few years I offer a course in English prose writers, almost all of them novelists, who did their work between 1900 and roughly 1950. E. M. Forster comes early in the term, flanked by Joseph Conrad, D. H. Lawrence, and Ford Madox Ford. Although Conrad and Ford have their admirers, the majority of the class, often not the best students, choose to write about Forster. His appeal may be based in part on the films made from the novels by Merchant-Ivory and David Lean; but I suspect it is closely tied to what students hear as an appealing narrative voice, willing, at times eager, to speak over the heads of the book’s characters and address readers directly in a way that, for all its old-fashioned ring, has charm and the promise of wisdom. Lawrence scares off many by his humorless prophetic insistence in The Rainbow; Conrad and Ford, in Under Western Eyes and The Good Soldier, present extreme difficulties in their original techniques. In Forster’s A Room with a View, by contrast, both style and content seem easy: a novel about the troubles of men and women who might pass for you and me a hundred years ago.

Forster’s continuing relevance for younger readers, as well as their teacher, was only part of the reason I welcomed Frank Kermode’s short but trenchant book “concerning” him. Since the first of Kermode’s books, Romantic Image, appeared in 1959, I have read him on poets from Spenser and Milton to Yeats and Wallace...

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About the Author

William H. Pritchard is the Henry Clay Folger Professor of English at Amherst College. He is the author of Shelf Life: Literary Essays and Reviews (University of Massachusetts Press) among others.