EM Forster’s best known for novels like A Room with a View and Howard’s End, but the English author also wrote extensively about politics and civil society, including an essay called “Anonymity: An Enquiry.” Originally published in November 1925’s The Calendar of Modern Letters, Forster’s piece seems relevant today, ahead of A Warning, the forthcoming tell-all by the anonymous White House staffer who wrote last year’s New York Times op-ed, “I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration.” I expected freedom of speech-loving Forster to support anonymity, full stop, but his take’s more nuanced, though perhaps not nuanced enough.
In a nutshell, Forster says anonymity’s alright in literature, but not in newspapers. Newspapers are meant to report the facts, and therefore the fact-sayer should be available to be held accountable. As an example of why newspapers need bylines, Forster says, and I’m paraphrasing, “An anonymous reporter could say the Emperor of Guatemala has died, and we’d believe it, not knowing there is no such person.” We, the public, have therefore been duped and the perpetrator deserves to be taken to task.
Many say the same about Anonymous. Trump and his White House certainly have: When Anonymous wrote the blockbuster New York Times op-ed that spawned A Warning, Trump decried the nameless byline as “gutless” and suggested the author committed all-caps “TREASON” — and press secretary Stephanie Grisham said much the same last week, “The coward who wrote this book didn’t put their name on it because it is nothing but lies.”
Forster would likely agree with this argument at its most basic level, but digging deeper, we see distinctions that may sway Forster’s opinion.
As Forster notes in “Anonymity,” words serve two primary purposes: to convey information and to convey atmosphere. They can do both, surely, but all exist on that spectrum, from info to atmo. To illustrate his point, Forster cites “Stop” versus “Beware of pickpockets.” One word is information – halt here – and the other set instills a sense of fear; it creates atmosphere. Atmosphere, then, is essentially world-building:
“[Atmosphere] resides not in any particular word, but in the order in which words are arranged—that is to say, in style. It is the power that words have to raise our emotions or quicken our blood. It is also something else… It is their power to create not only atmosphere, but a world, which, while it lasts, seems more real and solid than this daily existence of pickpockets and trams.”
Thus, anonymity’s allowed in novels and poetry because the words therein are meant for world-building and the author’s name is immaterial.
One could argue, and Anonymous certainly does, that A Warning is as much about atmosphere as facts. Anonymous themselves say that they’ve changed certain sequences to protect their identity. The precise events aren’t what’s important in this book; A Warning isn’t simply interested in the actions or inactions Trump has taken, but the entire corrupting effect Trump has on the government and culture at large. It’s about the environment, or atmosphere, that the president creates, and that we’re allowing. As Anonymous writes in the original op-ed: “The bigger concern is not what Mr. Trump has done to the presidency but rather what we as a nation have allowed him to do to us. We have sunk low with him and allowed our discourse to be stripped of civility.” They are writing the book to “restore the soul” of our political system.
If that’s not atmosphere, I don’t know what else is, and it’s for primarily that reason that Forster may bend his own rules to cut Anonymous some slack. Though Forster would prefer Anonymous reveal themselves, he’d allow some anonymity to help reset the national mood. But Forster would also say, and everyone can agree, that anonymity alone can’t end this calamity. It takes more, including the most powerful tool of all: love.
In 1935, ten years after “Anonymity,” Forster wrote “The Menace to Freedom,” in which he warned of tyrants rising in the interwar era:
“[The tyrant] is becoming the norm, country after country throws him up…; requiring only opportunity and ruthlessness, he supersedes parliaments and kings. And consequently, many people do not believe in freedom anymore, and the few who do regard it as something that must be discovered, not recovered.”
Part of the reason tyrants arise, he says, is that people huddle in herds, refusing to be true individuals and stand up for democratic ideals. That’s the fundamental menace. I believe Forster would see Trump for what he is – a tyrant –, and he would encourage his supporters to muster the gumption to break free and claim their individual rights. And that, Forster says, requires love – love for ourselves and love for our ideals.
“The desire to devote oneself to another person or persons seems to be as innate as the desire for personal liberty. If the two desires could combine, the menace to freedom from within, the fundamental menace, might disappear, and the political evils now filling all the foreground of our lives would be deprived of the poison that nourishes them.”
Anonymous says something similar at the end of their original op-ed. After citing John McCain’s farewell letter, in which the Trump foe wrote, “We weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries,” Anonymous notes, “All Americans should heed his words and break free of the tribalism trap, with the high aim of uniting through our shared values and love of this great nation.”
It’s only with love for democratic principles, and ourselves, that we can fight undemocratic despots – a fact that needs no checker.