Sitting With E.M. Forster While He Had His Portrait Sketched By John Farrelly AUGUST 22, 2014
By 1947, when this delightful little chat took place, E.M. Forster hadn’t published a novel in twenty-three years, but his reputation as a critic and scholar remained undiminished. (In fact, he wouldn’t publish another novel before his death in 1970.) Famously sweet and seemingly able to talk to anyone—he was friendly with notorious snob Virginia Woolf but almost exclusively dated men with blue-collar jobs—Forster spent much of his adult life developing and cultivating the persona of a man who could speak intelligibly on any topic from the grab-bag. Which is precisely why a meandering conversation like the one below—had while Forster sat for a portrait—is such a treasure to read.
To mark its 100th anniversary, US magzine The New Republic is republishing a collection of its most memorable articles.
This piece originally appeared in The New Republic on July 28, 1947.
E.M. Forster agreed to an interview several days before his recent departure for England. He was to have his portrait sketched at the time of our appointment, but the artist had very kindly suggested that we could talk while he worked. “I have no idea what we shall talk about,” Forster said on the phone. I admitted that neither had I. He said, “Oh, good!”
Early on a very hot morning I went round to the house where he was staying in Greenwich Village. In the littered studio of a top-floor apartment, the sitting was already in progress. Forster was settled comfortably in his shirt sleeves, against several pillows, on a large bed, his legs straight in front of him and his hands folded in his lap. He kept his eye scrupulously fixed on the artist, and since he held to this pose throughout our talk, the first impression was the only one granted. So it can be said at once that he looks just as one might expect, though unlike his photographs, and considerably younger than his age (67). His body is slight and dapper, his face browned except for the white blur of a small mustache. His talk is more agitated than animated, but subject to pauses and musings and charmingly broken by suddenly evaporating chuckles.
He was very serious about the formal aspects of the interview, fretted about chairs and graciously offered pencil and paper, but appeared slightly apprehensive of the whole thing, perhaps of the double exposure of being sketched and quoted at once. “Suppose you ask questions and I’ll answer them or not.” To which his frequent response was a considered, “Well… you might say I’m interested,” or a deprecating, “Oh, I wouldn’t know about that, now would I?”
He seemed disinclined to talk of books and reluctant to talk of writers, murmuring, “I suppose they’re about the same everywhere.”
He volunteered that he was disappointed to have heard so little music in this country, coming as he did at the wrong season, and proffered the itinerary of his trip in the West—Boulder Dam; the Grand Canyon (where “I went down to the bottom on what I believe is the usual conveyance”); Pasadena (“I went into Hollywood one morning but no one much seemed to be about. There was a mist”).
Mention of the universities he had visited dispelled the mist. He brightened immediately. “I should like to say something on that. I had numerous friends among the students.” This was evidently a most congenial topic to the man who has written more lovingly perhaps than anyone else of English undergraduate life, and whose description of his own Cambridge, in the early part of The Longest Journey, brings tears to the eyes of old “Cantabs.”
He was concerned with the difference (“in the social life”) between the centralized arrangement of American universities and the English system of associated colleges which form so many individual social units. Strange to him were the large, organized intramural activities of the American schools as contrasted with the more personal and intimate amusements of the English student. “But there are many changes there now. The communal meals at college make an immense difference. Food and warmth enter into everything. No fires, you know. The great change is that the students do no entertaining. Of course, formerly they were entertaining all the time. Yes… tea parties, at which no wine was served,” he added. “And with so many married students at the universities now, the college system is increasingly difficult. I expect we’ll have to modify rather along American lines.” He appeared to take a dim view of this. “But I’m talking more about England than America.”
By way of transition, he laughed, “Of course we’ve nothing like your fraternities.” Fraternities fascinated him. He returned to them several times, but was anxious to secure further information rather than to hazard an opinion. “You might say I’m very interested.” Nevertheless, he conceded, “I’ve heard mostly adverse criticism. But then most of my friends happened not to be in the fraternities.” He reflected for a moment, in amusement. “I have heard terribly funny stories of initiations. Of course that sort of thing might be fun at 16, but I should think it would be a bit gray by 18.” It was suggested that 18 wasn’t the age limit to the fun. He gurgled, “Oh, I should think it still went on at 46!”
The great difference, he noted, between conversation here and in England is that “in America you’re always talking about the menace of Russia. At home we’re mostly concerned with the restrictions of daily living. It’s only natural we’re not interested in foreign affairs. Everyone here has been most sympathetic and nice, but you simply can’t imagine what it is to be under this constant pressure of not having enough to eat. Everyone, rich and poor, is always fidgeting. You can’t describe it. I can’t believe that in two days I shan’t be able to get butter and eggs.” He added grimly, “What most hurts me here is the waste. I love to see people eating all sorts of things, as many as they can get and as much as they want, but the waste….” He sighed, “I don’t know whether anything can be done about it in this country.”
Then he changed the subject. “Among entertainments, I saw ‘Annie Get Your Gun’ and enjoyed it very much.” He chuckled mischievously at this. “But what I particularly liked were the two operas by Menotti [“The Medium” and “The Telephone”]. They were the best things I saw here. A friend took me and I went back by myself. I do wish you’d mention that.”
As I said goodbye to Forster, I expressed some wishful hope, from an uneasy American conscience, for the “butter and eggs.”
“It shall be horrible,” he said brightly.