Many refer to it but few have read it. Yes, I am talking about F. R. Leavis' The Great Tradition, first published in 1948. The date is important. It helps explain the central aim of the book, to determine the significance of the novel after the war, the atom bomb and the concentration camp. Leavis' central criterion for great writing, that it has "a vital capacity for experience, a kind of reverent openness before life, and a marked moral intensity" is a clear reaction to an age characterised by the ideologies of fascism and communism. Where they sought to define, control and close down, literature creates, explores and opens up.
George Orwell, at least, appreciated what Leavis was trying to do. He gave the book a sympathetic hearing in his last-ever review for The Spectator. Orwell was, though, in a minority. Many critics chose to ignore The Great Tradition, despite its growing influence. A series of radio talks on the English novel drew heavily on the work without, Leavis complained, acknowledging him. Others were downright hostile and this enmity has persisted for more than 50 years.
But why should a book that offers a close reading of four novelists, half of whom are women, continue to rouse such ire? The answer lies in the opening sentence. "The great English novelists are Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James and Joseph Conrad." There you have it. Definite proof that Leavis was an elitist. But carry on down the page. He is not saying that these are the only novelists worth reading, just that they are the best. They not only "change the possibilities of art for practitioners and readers", they also promote an "awareness of the possibilities of life".
And, frankly, what's wrong with that? It makes the reader sit up and take notice and it dares to say something about the qualities that make great literature and why it matters. Give me Leavis to the subject benchmark statement any day. He is a critic not a bureaucrat; one who opens himself to literature and is shaken by the encounter. It took him 30 years to come to terms with D. H. Lawrence, whose name does not appear in those famous opening words - an omission that shows the great tradition was by no means complete.
In fact a careful study of the book reveals that, far from being dogmatic, Leavis was constantly thinking about other authors, most notably Dickens, and how they fitted into his tradition. What he meant by that term was how one novelist learnt from another and, in doing so, found his or her own voice. It was the critic's job to trace these complex relations and to assess the author's contribution to the culture at large.
The Great Tradition survives because it throws down the gauntlet in a way no other work of criticism does. Sadly, few bother to read it through. If they did, they would find far more to inspire, provoke and engage them than can be found in many a current work.