A pariah in the republic of letters

F. R. Leavis
August 4, 1995

Ian Mackillop has written a comprehensive, meticulously researched and even-handed biography of his former tutor, F. R. Leavis. It is a splendid achievement and a brave one, since to write about Leavis in today's post-structuralist climate is to risk intellectual ostracism.

Mackillop covers in fascinating detail Leavis's troubled career and the development of his criticism. No permanent lectureship until the age of 52, no professorship at Cambridge and little recognition of his work in the British literary or English studies journals. There is also Leavis's indignation that the mere advertisement of radio talks about the English novel did not acknowledge The Great Tradition (1948), and his distribution to interested - and non-interested - parties of his correspondence with Alan Pryce-Jones about The Times Literary Supplement's neglect of Scrutiny, the magazine which Leavis edited with his wife for nearly 20 years and which decisively shaped the perception of English literature for a generation to come. Mackillop also gives a new insight into Leavis's acrimonious clash with C. P. Snow over the latter's Rede lecture, "The Two Cultures and The Scientific Revolution". Mackillop points out that at least one motive behind Leavis's attack was that people like Angus Wilson identified him as the literary-critical counterpart of Snow, promoting a concerned realism in fiction and suspicious of fantasy.

Was Leavis then more sinned against than sinning? Mackillop shows that Leavis did not always help his own cause. He opted to do the new PhD examination rather than enter for prizes which was the usual route to career success in Cambridge. He wrote a piece in the Cambridge Review criticising F. L. Lucas, a member of the English faculty and a fellow at King's. Leavis was also "unshrewd" in his choice of academic specialisation, choosing to write about American literature when it was not on the syllabus. And, when he withdrew from 18th-century studies in the late 1920s, he did not offer lectures on any of the areas in which much teaching was needed, for example Shakespeare.

Then there is the matter of Leavis's habit of alienating friends and colleagues. Mackillop gives a particularly messy and protracted example of this in his account of the F. R. Leavis Lectureship Trust. The whole sorry affair ended with a former ally, Morris Shapira, sharply rebuking Leavis for his pose of a man "cruelly and tragically wronged". Shapira found this "utterly contemptible" particularly, he added interestingly, because of "the effect all this poppycock has on your wife's reputation".

Nevertheless, Mackillop is adamant that "there was ideological hostility to Leavis". Indeed there still is. His work is distorted and ridiculed. This strength of feeling - prejudice even - has prevented a much-needed reassessment of Leavis's work.

That Leavis can arouse such hostility 20 years after his death calls for some explanation. A Cambridge don is said to have remarked that the trouble with Leavis was that he was Jewish but didn't know it. Leavis was often thought of as Jewish and there are presdent-day critics who maintain that this might be the key to understanding the whole Leavis phenomenon. But there is also the question of class. Leavis's family moved from a rural craft culture in the Fens - a source, perhaps, of the organic community - to trade in Cambridge, a background which may explain No l Annan's remark that Leavis was "not collegial"; a view that played no small part in Leavis's exclusion from the Cambridge establishment. On the professional front the publication of Revaluation: Tradition and Development in English Poetry (1936) raised the issue "of defining Leavis's place in the republic of letters". Was he an academic, a critic or a journalist?

The reaction to Leavis can in part be explained by the fact that it is difficult to categorise him. The paradox of Leavis is that though he may be said to have professionalised the study of literature, he himself was not a professional. He was a teacher rather than an academic, personally involved with the subject rather than professionally distant from it. He belonged to the university as community not the university as corporation.

It is a testament to the power of the professional ethic that key terms in Leavis's criticism such as "life" and "human" are mentioned by his opponents only to be derided. Perhaps Leavis's preoccupation with "life" may appear naive from the sophisticated perspective of post-structuralism but not to someone who tended the wounded of Passchendaele. Post-structuralists are suspicious of the word "human" because it is defined from the Eurocentric point of view, but Leavis meant by it a capacity for creativity evident in the "creative collaboration" of criticism. More generally, the term refers to Leavis's belief that, through language, "human beings create the world they live in", a view that is close to the post-structuralist notion that reality is an effect of language.

It is this proximity of Leavis to the post-structuralist position that may explain hostility towards him. Like post-stucturalists, Leavis did not believe that an author's life was the key to his or her work and Mackillop's description of him as "a hedonist of multiplicity" shows that Leavis's writing is not incompatible with the post-structuralist stress on the plurality of a work. This contrasts with the usual view of Leavis as narrow and inflexible, a view often supported by reference to The Great Tradition. After all, the opening line boldly declares that "(t)he great English novelists are Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James and Joseph Conrad". What receives less notice is Leavis's prophetic observation, a few lines further down, that "(t)he view, I suppose, will be confidently be attributed to me that (except for these novelists) there are no novelists in English worth reading". Elsewhere Leavis notes that the field of English literature cannot be "canonically and finally determined . . . demanding deferential acceptance and appreciation on established and correct lines".

Clearly Leavis was not as rigid as some of his detractors have claimed. The main difference between Leavis's position and that of the post-structuralists is that he is more concerned with the significance of a work, they with its meanings. And the fact that neither of these can be considered apart from the other may perhaps start a dialogue between Leavisian and post-structuralist criticism.

To understand the significance of a work means valuing it. Valuation is a process of finding out why a work is what is and not otherwise, and it involves comparing the work to other works in a movement of "placing valuation". In this Leavis gropes toward a language for discussing literature that conveys its shocks and delights, the way it impacts on intellect, senses and imagination all at once. Response to art had to be sincere for that obliges us to recognise that "significant art challenges us in the most disturbing and inescapable way to a radical pondering . . . of our most important determinations and choices". For Leavis, great art implicitly asks the question "(w)hat for, what ultimately for?" to which it gives no answers, only the communication of "a felt significance, something that confirms our sense of life as more than a mere succession of days, a matter of time as measured by the clock".

Leavis wrote that "when language is impoverished the world is impoverished". What he meant by that was that language, by being appropriated for commercial purposes, loses touch with its roots. An idealistic notion some might say. But it has a certain appeal in a culture where complex problems of poverty, fulfilment and community are reduced to the level of a soundbite. Literature is not the answer to these problems, and certainly Leavis never believed it was. But he did say that literature was one way of keeping in touch with the "values, constatations, distinctions, promptings (and) recognitions of potentiality" that language embodies. Nor, Leavis emphasises, should these be taken as in any way "univocal or dictating an ideal comprehensive solution". They are a resource, a reminder of other possibilities and alternative directions not apparent in present cultural and political discourse.

For literature to be used in this way it must be maintained as a separate discipline. The present trend is for it to be absorbed into cultural studies. One of the features of cultural studies is that it questions, and rightly, the distinction between "high" and "popular" culture. Unfortunately, this can lead to the claim that there is no qualitative difference between Tolstoy and Ian Fleming. To say this is to weaken those powers of discrimination on which a just appreciation of difference depends. And what implications does that carry for democracy, which should promote difference? In a memo to the Cambridge English faculty in 1957, Leavis stated that if literary criticism continued to do its work, English literature would have disappeared by the year 2000. I, for one, hope that he was wrong.

Gary Day, senior lecturer in critical and cultural theory, De Montfort University, Bedford, will give a centenary lecture on F. R. Leavis at Downing College, Cambridge, on November 22.

F. R. Leavis: A Life in Criticism

Author - Ian MacKillop
ISBN - 0 713 99062 7
Publisher - Allen Lane
Price - £25.00
Pages - 476

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