Memoirs of a Leavisite: The Decline and Fall of Cambridge English by David Ellis

Gary Day on a sympathetic study of influential literary critic F. R. Leavis and how the teaching of literature has changed

July 11, 2013

Of all the insults that English lecturers used to hurl at one another, “Leavisite” was the most damning. Those most likely to wield it were those most ignorant of his work. Apparently F. R. Leavis had said there were only four great novelists, so that must mean he was an elitist. Consequently, anyone who believed in close reading, collaboration, the changing nature of the literary canon, the condition of the language and the power of great literature to alter expression was simply beyond the pale.

This isn’t to say that Leavis didn’t have his limitations. He was inclined to overlook faults in writers he admired and he could be dismissive of working-class culture, which to his mind consisted of “nothing but emptiness that has to be filled with drink, sex, eating, background music and what the papers and the telly supply”. But as David Ellis rightly asks in this fine memoir, what is so reprehensible about these activities?

All the same, Ellis does not condemn Leavis’ remarks but places them in the context of his understanding of how industrial civilisation developed, in particular how it tore up the cultural heritage and left people with “a hunger for significance” that could not be satisfied by the latest Hollywood blockbuster or tittle-tattle about celebrities. Whether or not Leavis’ analysis was right is open to question, but no one can say he didn’t link the study of literature to major social transformations.

A small, sunburned man with shirt open to his sternum, Leavis endeavoured to elicit a personal response to literature from ‘the slothful, philistine and half-educated creatures who sat before him’

One of Ellis’ themes is how the teaching of literature has changed since Leavis’ time. A small, sunburned man with shirt open to his sternum, Leavis endeavoured to elicit a personal response to literature from “the slothful, philistine and half-educated creatures who sat before him”. He was, Ellis recalls, “endlessly indulgent”. We don’t ask students for their personal response today, we ask that they meet the assessment criteria and if they can’t, well, we will just have to think of some other way for them to pass.

The idea that studying literature enables us to know ourselves and each other a little better has little to offer the corporate university. Those who still believe in the value of a unique arrangement of words on the page are, in Ellis’ perfect phrase, “haunted with a sense of belatedness”.

His is a memoir of beautifully evoked ghosts. Here’s the poet D. J. Enright spotted in the corner of a pub, reluctant to talk about literary matters, except to say that there was no money in poetry. I forget who said there’s also no poetry in money. And there is Frank Cioffi, my old philosophy lecturer, bringing ideas to life as he strode about the room.

But what of Ellis himself? What does the reader learn about him? That he grew up in a bookless home, that he went to grammar school, that he worked in a factory, that he was good at cricket, that he worked at the University of Kent, that he loves Wordsworth and is a writer of biographies. We seem to know all about him but, as befits someone who is “belated”, Ellis has an elusive air. Perhaps that also has something to do with the closing quotation from Cioffi, which states that we are all partly defined by the lives we did not lead.

This book is in large part a lament for the destruction of a humane conception of literature by the commodification of higher education. Ellis feels that he, too, may have played a part in that process by failing to uphold “Leavisian principles”. Ah well. Each man betrays the things he loves. But at least Ellis recognises their value. That’s more than most.

Memoirs of a Leavisite: The Decline and Fall of Cambridge English

By David Ellis
Liverpool University Press, 160pp, £25.00
ISBN 9781846318894
Published 13 May 2013

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Reader's comments (1)

In a review of "The Making of the English Working Class", a reviewer referred to the author, E.P. Thompson, as a "Leavisite", which got me to this review. I'm trying to reconcile these two references.

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