E.M. Forster was a hugely famous British writer known best for A Room with a View, a 1908 novel made into a 1985 movie starring Daniel-Day Lewis and Julian Sands, and Howard's End, a sweeping tale of romance, laughter and real estate. And readers are hopefully familiar with Maurice, the gay love story that remained unpublished until the closeted writer's 1970 death. But with the exception of his confessional essay "What I Believe," most of Forster's non-fiction work goes unnoticed. This explains why Two Cheers for Democracy, a collection of his non-fiction pieces, has been out of print since 1962.
Two Cheers, limitedly available at Amazon, includes a brief essay Forster wrote about his first and only time in the States, in 1947, at the age of 68. This essay, "The United States," contain insights on the American landscape and character that prove to be so acute and well-observed that they're just as true today. He respected Americans, clearly, and he loved our forests, canyons and rivers, but not all of the things he saw were positive.
Here, in order of appearance in "The United States," are five of Forster's great American observations:
1. "America is rather like life. You can usually find in it what you look for… It will probably be interesting, and it is sure to be large." This is by far the most famous of Forster's quotes on the United States, and it may be the most concise and condense statement not only about America, the Beautiful, but about Life, the Confounding.
2. "I had expected generosity and hospitality. I had not expected so much tact, charm and sensitiveness… Wherever I went I found delicate understanding of our troubles in Britain over food and clothing, and a desire to help that was never patronizing…I remember the chambermaid in the hotel at Salt Lake City who when I offered her a tip replied, 'I don't like to take your money, brother, you need it more than I do.'" Say what you will about Americans (we're collectively unrefined, brutish, short-minded and egotistical, for example) but we're always willing to lend a helping hand in times of need — sometimes too much so: the town of Newtown, Connecticut, rocked by the Sandy Hook elementary shooting, received so many donated teddy bears that they asked people to cease and desist.
3. "The defects are, I suspect, lack of discrimination, emotionalism, and a tendency to narrow the idea of freedom into freedom to make money." Forster's probably using "discrimination" to mean "discernment" but there's no misinterpreting his very relevant remarks about the States' transposition of money and freedom.
4. "…When they do think of foreign affairs, they think of Russia. China to some extent, but mostly Russia. Russia is always weighing on their minds. They are afraid of war, or that their standard of life may be lowered… As soon as the idea of Russia occurred to them, their faces became blood red; they ceased to be human." Remember, Forster was visiting in 1947, when Russia was still a high-profile nemesis. The roles may have changed a bit, and China is definitely now be more of a concern, but the sentiment remains the same: humans, even exceptional Americans, can quite easily turn into howling beasts. The cheers after Osama bin Laden's death come to mind, as does the jubilation after alleged Boston marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was captured. It's natural to be relieved, but it's not a party, people.
5.. "…I do beg anyone who happens to have fallen into the habit of nagging at America to drop it. It proceeds not from considered criticism but from envy and discontent — and, of course, life out there is far more comfortable for the average man than it is here. The food is nice, if dearer, the clothes are nicer and cheaper, the cold drinks are not lukewarm…. But these advantages over ourselves should not embitter us against the people who enjoy them. " In other words, don't hate the player...
(Image via The Smithsonian.)