Thursday, August 10, 2017

Tolkien and the 1954 Nomination of E. M. Forster for the Nobel Prize

Now that I've received the official word, I'm pleased to announce the appearance in the fall of Mythlore of my essay, "J.R.R. Tolkien and the 1954 Nomination of E. M. Forster for the Nobel Prize in Literature." 

As you can probably tell from the title, my theme is that mysterious case of why Tolkien would have nominated Forster -- whom we never knew he admired -- for literature's highest prize. To my knowledge, only two scholars have even discussed that situation at any length, both bloggers: Jason Fisher here and John D. Rateliff here.

Basically, I have two contentions. The first revolves around possible literary reasons for Tolkien's nomination. Verlyn Flieger has previously posited that Tolkien could have been influenced by Howards End, but I'm placing my money on A Passage to India. Although postcolonial issues did not occupy much attention in Tolkien's own writings, he certainly knew about such things himself (having been born in S. Africa), making him aware if nothing else of what colonialism did to subjects and rulers alike. He has a telling passage in one of his letters where he describes the English as quickly losing their "generous" sentiments when they reside in the colonies for any length of time, and that's basically a plot summary of A Passage to India. The second major factor, though, is Forster's awareness of the tension between the universal and the particular --i.e., a universal citizen with no overwhelming allegiance to any one country, and the citizen of one particular to the exclusion of other countries. Tolkien, like Forster, sympathized with the universal perspective.

I think my second contention, however, is even cooler. 

Basically, Tolkien didn't make his Nobel nomination in isolation. Two Oxford colleagues, F.P. Wilson and Lord David Cecil, joined him in nominating Forster. Analyzing the Nobel website suggests it was one nomination letter signed by all three individuals, so the question is, why did they collaborate on this? 

My hypothesis is that they were helping C.S. Lewis get elected to a professorship up in Cambridge, which was also happening in early 1954. Tolkien and Wilson, incidentally, were both electors for that chair, and we know that chair was being created specially for Lewis. I think their nomination of Forster, one of Cambridge's most prized writers, could have been a bargaining chip to help smooth the creation of that chair.*** Unfortunately, there's no hard evidence for my hypothesis, but I think I make a compelling case out of what information we do possess.

So, look for details of that in the next issue of Mythlore.

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*** The title of my piece, incidentally, hits a slightly different angle from the one my wife wanted me to adopt: "Inklings Scandal Uncovered(!): The Old Boys' Network in Action."

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