"So Much Generosity and Affection": Some Newly-Discovered Letters of E. M. Forster

Document Type


Publication Date

Spring 2003





Publication Title

Modern Language Studies


Letters Lost and Letters Found

Besides some enterprising mice, no one has seen these letters for decades. E. M. Forster wrote them to the American actor Tom Coley between 1949 and 1954, at the beginning of their long friendship. When Coley died in 1989, his possessions were willed to his friend William Roerick, and the letters were placed in storage. Last winter my student research assistant Sara Hoover and I rediscovered them, in a small shoebox of mixed papers dating from the early 1950s. Interleaved among the tax stubs, cancelled checks, family photographs, and other correspondence were these flimsy light-blue airmail letters in Forster's familiar hand. Though some of the stored items had been nibbled and gnawed, the letters were perfectly preserved.
Every romance of the archive has such heady moments of discovery, but honest scholars know they depend on the kindness of strangers. David Adkins, Roerick's executor, responded to our queries with patience and Forsterian generosity. He retrieved box after box, and answered days' worth of questions. Coley's possessions had devolved to him through Roerick's estate, and he found himself the unlikely steward of papers of a man whom he had never met. We came to feel that Adkins, like Margaret Schegel in Howards End, was the spiritual heir of Forster's friendship with Coley and Roerick.
Though Coley was gay, and deliberately discreet about his sexuality, these letters were not actively suppressed. The peripatetic conditions of Coley's life as a working actor, rather than an impulse to secrecy, prevented their discovery until now. Most likely Coley himself misplaced them. Coley had a proper apartment during only a portion of the five years in which these letters were written. For the remainder of that time he encamped with family and friends, while working in regional theater and summer stock. When Mary Lago catalogued the complete Forster letters in the mid-1980s, Coley willingly shared his correspondence with her, but this cache of early letters was overlooked. There are likely many other lost letters from their long friendship--perhaps some still to be discovered.


For more information on the published version, visit University of Buffalo, Northeast Modern Language Association's Website.

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