Forster, Fitzgerald, and Baldwin through the Lens of Biography

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WHAT draws a biographer to a particular subject? Hero worship? Infatuation? A more temperate kind of admiration or affinity? Or, at very least, some sort of fascination, based on attraction or perhaps even repulsion?

James Boswell's landmark "The Life of Samuel Johnson" and Mrs. Gaskell's "Life of Charlotte Bronte" were products of devoted friendships. Equally insightful biographies have been written by scholars carefully reconstructing the lives of people they never met.

Nicola Beauman did not know E.M. Forster (1879-1970), but, as she explains in her introduction to "E.M. Forster: A Biography," she felt a great love and affinity for the man and his work.

Author of a life of Lady Cynthia Asquith and a study of the "woman's novel" between the wars, Beauman deems Forster the best novelist then working in that tradition. "Howards End and A Passage to India are among the great novels of the century," she writes, "but only for those who can see that lightness of touch, humour, domestic observation and psychological perception do not preclude insight into the weightiest, the most crucial aspects of our society." Her laudable aim in writing Forster's life is to enhance our understanding of his novels.

Her approach (in contrast to Forster's earlier biographer, P. N. Furbank, who did know him) is "intuitive," perhaps too much so. Beauman has a way of fussing over "Morgan," as she overfamiliarly calls him, as if she somehow knows him better than he knew himself.

Contradicting the general perception that he was unhappy at prep school, she equips him with two previously unsuspected boyhood chums on the strength of a rumor and the still less convincing "evidence" of an analysis of young Forster's handwriting and her own reaction to a photograph of one of the alleged chums: "He looks the kind of young man one would imagine Morgan wanting as a friend," she declares.

On even flimsier evidence, she also concludes that Forster's father (who died before Morgan's second birthday) shared his son's homosexual orientations.

Not only do Beauman's overconfident tone and proprietary attitude undermine one's ability to accept her intuitive insights (even on occasions when she may in fact be right), but in an odd way her boundless sympathy seems to blind her to the less appealing aspects of her subject's personality: his fustiness, timidity, and listlessness.

She is so certain that the reader shares her enthusiasm for "Morgan" that she does not take adequate pains to convey what made him so special: to reveal, beneath his staid surface, the sensitive and thoughtful man who gave us such fine work.

In the case of Jeffrey Meyers, who's written lives of Katherine Mansfield, Wyndham Lewis, D.H. Lawrence, Joseph Conrad, Ernest Hemingway, and Edgar Allan Poe, the question is not so much "why F. …