For about half of the 20th century, the English literary tradition was arbitrated by a critic whose ideas transformed the intellectual landscape of his time, and whose influence lingers still. I write this from personal experience: as a student, I was lucky enough to see FR Leavis in action. It’s hard now to convey the peculiar fervour and excitement – the frisson – that surrounded this Cambridge don with his open white shirt and intense, bird-like demeanour, in front of his acolytes and disciples. And it’s perhaps even harder to recognise how completely Leavis, and the literary critical consensus associated with his name, has been swept aside since his death in 1978.
To understand the hold Leavis had over the minds of students who came of age in the 60s and 70s, I want to quote from an interview given to The Paris Review by the writer and psychoanalyst, Adam Phillips, in which he describes the impact of Leavisite teaching on his adolescence:
It was contagious and inspiring. My teacher had been taught by FR Leavis at Cambridge. Leavis was a literary critic who treated English literature as a secular religion, a kind of answer to what he thought was a post-Christian society. He had a fanatical assurance about literature… And my teacher at school felt something comparably zealous… It was conveyed to us that certain books really did matter and that you were involved in some rearguard action for the profound human values in these books. This was conveyed very powerfully – that the way to learn how to live and to live properly was to read English literature – and it worked for me. I was taught close, attentive reading, and to ironize the ambitions of grand theory.
As zealot-in-chief, FR (Frank Raymond) Leavis, born in Cambridge in 1895, was shaped by the non-conformism of an East Anglian upbringing. In his prime, his criticism was distinctive for its uncompromising association of literature and morality. Having served in the ambulance corps during the first world war, he went on to pioneer a new literary critical aesthetic from the early 1930s when, as a young don, he founded the quarterly review, Scrutiny. Leavis would edit this extraordinarily influential journal from 1932 to 1953. At the same time, he published the works that established his reputation, New Bearings in English Poetry (1932), Revaluation (1936), the immensely important essays from The Common Pursuit (1952) and, before that, perhaps his best-known critical statement, The Great Tradition.
In this polemical tour de force, Leavis expounded his belief in an inalienable connection between literature and morality, with special reference to the work of just five great novelists, his chosen representatives of the great tradition – Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James, Joseph Conrad and DH Lawrence.
Not everyone accepted the moral ferocity of Leavis’s judgement. To some in the academic critical establishment, Leavis was anathema. He, however, never wavered in his opposition to what he saw as the frivolous and dilettante ways of Bloomsbury, always insisting that form was the novelist’s first responsibility, and that novels that expressed an indifference to form would always be less important.
In the broader evaluation of the English literary tradition, Leavis never took prisoners. He pronounced Milton as negligible, dismissed the Romantics, and believed that, after John Donne, there is no poet we need bother about except Hopkins and Eliot.
Leavis offered the serious reader of fiction a moment of exemplary clarity – something that’s missing today
And when it came to English fiction, Leavis believed that some challenging discriminations are very much called for. Nevertheless, he claimed it would be a misrepresentation of his views to suggest that, apart from Austen, Eliot, James and Conrad, there are no novelists in English worth reading.
The knockabout opening chapter of The Great Tradition is still an entertaining, sometimes shocking, read:
Fielding hasn’t the kind of classical distinction we are invited to credit him with. He is important not because he leads to Mr JB Priestley but because he leads to Jane Austen, to appreciate whose distinction is to feel that life isn’t long enough to permit of one’s giving much time to Fielding or any to Mr Priestley.
Having, so to speak, cleared his throat, Leavis goes on to swat Laurence Sterne as irresponsible, nasty and trifling, exclude Dickens (finally reprieved in a later chapter on Hard Times), declare Wuthering Heights to be a kind of sport, belatedly admit DH Lawrence (the great genius of our time) to his pantheon, and set the scene for the majestic essays (on Eliot, James and Conrad) that follow. These giants, says Leavis, are distinguished by a vital capacity for experience, a kind of reverent openness before life, and a marked moral intensity.
The impact of Leavis on the literary imaginations of some late 20th century writers is possibly exemplified by the response of his former student, the Man Booker prizewinning novelist Howard Jacobson, who confesses, in a self-lacerating account of his tutorials with Leavis, the agony he suffered at the feet of the master critic.
The work that strained my capacity for reverence most, writes Jacobson, was The Great Tradition, especially the opening essay with its footnote dismissive of Laurence Sterne. Not because I admire Tristram Shandy; although I am what is sometimes called a comic novelist I never did find Tristram Shandy anything but as ‘trifling’ as Leavis found it, ditto the tradition of laborious jocosity it continues to spawn. But the other adjectives employed in Leavis’s dismissal – ‘irresponsible’ and ‘nasty’ – made me uncomfortable. ‘Irresponsible’ can point to virtues (think of Henry James’s praise for ‘irresponsible plasticity’) no less than vices. And ‘nasty’ is not a convincing critical term, just as ‘pornographer’ was never a convincing description of Kingsley Amis.
Jacobson goes on: That challenge had not been thrown when I first read The Great Tradition, but there was a less affronting version of it, cited approvingly by Leavis himself, in George Eliot’s lament for Casaubon. How terrible to ‘be what we call highly taught and yet not to enjoy: to be present at this great spectacle of life… but always to be scholarly and uninspired, ambitious and timid, scrupulous and dim-sighted’.
I didn’t think there was anything there that should have given Leavis pause about himself. Were not timid scholarship and dim-sighted scrupulosity precisely the shortcomings he found in the Cambridge of which, in the early days, he was the scourge? But what about us, Johnny-come-latelies to the wars he’d fought in? ‘That great spectacle of life’, which it is Casaubon’s tragedy to miss out on: how possessed of it were we? And in the final count, how possessed of it was Leavis himself when again he shrank from the nastiness he found in The Golden Bowl, a novel which, he said, outraged our ‘moral sense’?
The question has sometimes been asked of me whether I didn’t find Leavis’s teaching, and the whole atmosphere in which we were taught, discouraging – I hesitate to say of creativity, but I can at least say of productivity. I came late to the writing of novels, though it was the only thing I had ever wanted to do. But I don’t hold Leavis responsible for that. To be intimidated by the literature you have been taught to love is no bad thing: the proof of a good education is not the unembarrassed production of tosh.
There are, in conclusion, many things to be said against Leavis: he exercised a kind of cultural tyranny; half his nominations for his great tradition weren’t English; he was a better critic of poetry than fiction, and so on. That’s all true, no doubt. But in the end, we must concede that he offered, to the serious reader of fiction, a moment of exemplary clarity – something that’s missing today. As Jacobson puts it, so well, at the end of his appreciation, Leavis told a particular story about English literature. It’s not the only one. But we owe it to him to show that, so far, nobody has told a better one, or told it with a braver conviction of why it matters to tell it at all.
What I think and judge I have stated as responsibly and clearly as I can; Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James, Conrad, and DH Lawrence: the great tradition of the English novel is there.
QDLeavis: Fiction and the Reading Public (1932)
Raymond Williams: Culture & Society (1958)
Lionel Trilling: Sincerity and Authenticity(1972)
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