Modernism and Other Modes in Forster's 'The Longest Journey.' (E.M. Forster)

By May, Brian | Twentieth Century Literature, Summer 1996 | Go to article overview

Modernism and Other Modes in Forster's 'The Longest Journey.' (E.M. Forster)


May, Brian, Twentieth Century Literature


What was modernism? Inter alia, it was anarchism, nihilism, apocalyptism, imperialism, masculinism, psychologism, skepticism, and primitivism: The list goes on, swelling in that sharply worded phantasmagoria we call literary history, collapsing any simplifying hierarchy but nonetheless swallowing up the slim contingent of Victorian hopefulnesses we know by the names liberalism, humanism, and progressivism. Liberal humanist progressives now trying to make peace with illiberal forms of postmodernism - the people Richard Rorty playfully calls "postmodern bourgeois liberals" - may be surprised to learn that modernism was an even more indomitable foe of liberalism than post-modernism now is. How did liberalism survive into the present? they might ask. As if the list offered above were not overwhelming enough, one can cite other lists.(1) One can make a list of such lists, and the effect is to sharpen our sense that, however we factor modernism, it was inexorable, even irresistible; it did not negotiate, it propagated. Lest one wonder whether such an image of modernism is but the self-serving fantasy of an antimodernist present, one needs to ask, what about the liberal humanist progressives who are not looking back on modernism but who faced it? How did modernism appear to them, and how did it appear to their opponents, the modernists themselves, and to these modernists' most devoted critics? All seem to agree: Modernist ironies were so apocalyptic that they had to be fought or fled, but whether fought or fled they were bound to eradicate even the staunchest humanist pieties.(2)

Such an image of modernist apocalyptism is itself apocalyptic, and this essay, like several other recent studies of modernism, is devoted to challenging it. Few literary historians seem to think that Edwardian and early modernist writers could eradicate modernist intimations, but several have recently claimed that modernist apocalyptism was not so implacable that it could not be answered or annulled - or at least contained or circumvented (see Wollaeger, Levenson, and Longenbach). In attempting to add weight to this argument, I shall examine an early novel by E. M. Forster, one whose circumvention of the modern is the more illuminating for its being unusually complicated, obscure, and only partially successful: The Longest Journey (1907). A new look at this odd and unpretentious novel may surprise literary historians with the thought that modernism, even at its advent, was not ineluctable.

Of course, Forster in 1907 was anticipating an arrival as much as he was addressing a familiar and nameable presence. One cannot be sure even that he would have called it "modernism," though in Journey he does speak of "the modern spirit" (290). But as Alan Wilde (1981) argues ("That Forster is a modernist . . . needs perhaps to be stressed" [51]), to ignore Forster's modernism is as ahistorical as discounting his humanism. The most historically sensitive study will respect the integrity of both and put them in tense relation, thereby bringing together readings that have tended to negate each other. On the one hand, liberal humanist critics have sometimes regarded the novel as a coherently Edwardian entity, one that celebrates the English countryside as Brookean salve for what Thomas Hardy in Tess called "the ache of modernism" (144). Though Forster tends to discourage this virtually mythological reading when he describes the composition of the novel as a case of disorderly conduct - "Thoughts and emotions collided if they did not always co-operate" ("Aspect of a Novel" [1228]) - John Colmer is not the only critic who believes that Forster managed to unify his rational satire ("thoughts") with that antithetical entity, prophecy ("emotions") and managed to make skepticism consort with romanticism.(3) On the other hand, and at the other end of the critical spectrum, is a virtually existentialist Forsterian like Barbara Rosecrance, for whom no such magisterial Forster emerges. …

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