The Modernist as Pragmatist: E.M. Forster and the Fate of Liberalism
University of Missouri Press, 1997 - 210
The past few years have witnessed a resurgence in the study of British literary modernism. With recent publications on modernist American poetry and increasingly appreciative attitudes toward modern British novelists like Joseph Conrad and E. M. Forster, many scholars are experiencing a renewed interest in modernism. In The Modernist as Pragmatist, Brian May investigates modernist works that have been, until recently, regarded largely as mere exercises in stale Victorian liberal ideology.
Breaking from one current interpretation of Forster as an innovative and perhaps objectionable representative of modernist fictional audacity, May keenly argues that Forster is neither a traditional liberal nor an imperial modernist stylist. He is, rather, a pragmatic liberal critic of both unreconstructed Victorian liberalism and unreckoning modernist aestheticism.
May also looks at the debate between two contemporary progressive pragmatists, Richard Rorty and Cornel West, who have turned to the liberalism of the past as an avenue toward the future. First clarifying the terms of the debate, May then tries to resolve it using the writings of E. M. Forster to discuss some of the major political and philosophical statements of Rorty and West. In turn, the works of these two philosophers are used as tools to gain insight into Forster's literary texts and cultural contexts.
By bringing British literary history to American neopragmatist philosophy, May allows the reader to understand both more concretely, historically, and imaginatively. Persuasive new readings of A Passage to India, Howards End, and The Longest Journey are used to illustrate how Rorty and West offer a choice between pragmatisms.
May's well-argued study offers an exploration of how literature and philososphy can lead to a fruitful dialogue that can complement formalism as well as traditional types of contextualism. It also persuasively connects Forster to the contemporary debates between liberalism and pragmatism, making this an important contribution to all scholars of modernism.