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Who Was F. R. Leavis? [by David Lehman]

LeavisIn literary criticism, as in no other field of human endeavor, we remember the great practitioners by their errors and blind spots. Samuel Johnson dismissed Milton’s “Lycidas” -- perhaps the greatest elegy in English literature -- as artificial and insincere. T. S. Eliot introduced the term “objective correlative” in order to judge Hamlet a failure by this criterion. Yvor Winters thought the world of Elizabeth Daryush, a poet as deservedly obscure today as sixty years ago when Winters trumpeted her name.

F. R. Leavis fit right into this pattern. Narrow and dogmatic, the legendary Cambridge don refused to divulge his criteria when making absolute pronouncements. He advocated the “great tradition” of the English novel but limited it to a half dozen writers: Austen, Dickens, George Eliot, Henry James, Conrad, and Lawrence. His embrace of modern poetry extended no further than T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. He did not write well. Irascible, undiplomatic, and as frank as his first name, he was quick to excommunicate his disciples -- and there were many -- for their real or imagined apostasy.

Yet for all his faults, Leavis was one of the handful of literary critics who stamped his own identity on the enterprise, changed its nature, and brought it squarely into the modern world. He practiced his craft ferociously, as if the fate of civilization depended on it; he had a reverence for literature that should be, but is no longer, a sine qua non for budding assistant professors. It is possible that he took himself and his opinions too seriously. But the moral seriousness of his literary criticism, which could not be faked, gives it an importance far beyond the validity of any of his individual judgments.

Born on July 14, 1895, in Cambridge, the university town that would dominate his professional career, Frank Raymond Leavis had from the start a grand sense of destiny. As a child on a summer holiday in France, he had the impression that the festivities of Bastille Day were in honor of his birthday. Following World War I, in which he served as a cook and orderly, seeing action in Ypres and the Somme, Leavis returned to Cambridge, where his father owned a piano-and-music shop. English was a new subject at Cambridge when Leavis took it up, and he helped define what “English studies” were about. He impressed and irritated his professors and colleagues, with whom he would often quarrel in the years to come: Leavis’s biography is a chronicle of conflicts with E. M. W. Tillyard (author of The Elizabethan World Order), F. L. Lucas (Tragedy), and I. A. Richards (Practical Criticism).

Although devastated by his father’s death -- the funeral took place on the day Leavis was scheduled to take his “tripos” examination in the field of tragedy -- Leavis performed brilliantly. But the ladder to academic glory at Cambridge was full of slippery rungs. Leavis, who routinely gave offense, was passed over for promotion until it became impossible to ignore him.

Leavis married the most accomplished and devoted of his students, Q. D. (“Queenie”) Roth, the daughter of orthodox Jewish immigrants, in whom he found the perfect partner. The two of them edited the journal Scrutiny, which exemplified modern literary criticism as synonymous with the close reading of texts. Building on the example of William Empson (Seven Types of Ambiguity), Leavis valued ambiguity and complexity and was instrumental in revising the canon of poetry. Milton was out, John Donne was in, and modern poetry at its most vital -- Eliot’s “Portrait of a Lady” and “Gerontion,” Pound’s “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley,” and selected works by Thomas Hardy, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and William Butley Yeats -- was understood to be a repudiation of Romanticism and an extension of the 17th century ideal of “metaphysical” wit. New Bearings in English Poetry and Revaluation were books that the serious student had to read, as was Q. D. Leavis’s Fiction and the Reading Public.

Characteristically, Leavis became known on this side of the Atlantic as the result of a controversy. In 1959 C. P. Snow published The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. Although a successful novelist himself, Snow was a physicist by training who was highly esteemed for his managerial skills and his popularizing of scientific concepts. In his famous lecture, Snow seemed to suggest, in Ian MacKillop’s words, that “the scentific mind was socially progressive and the literary mind reactionary.” (p. 314). Denouncing Snow’s thesis, Leavis argued that “the advance of science and technology means a human future of change so rapid and of such kinds of tests and challenges so unprecedented, of decisions and possible non-decisions so momentous and insidious in their consequences,” that humanity will need all the intelligence and spiritual guidance that high culture can provide. (P. 318). Leavis’s cri de coeur is as timely today as when he uttered it. “You cannot point to the poem; it is `there’ only in the re-creative response of individual minds to the black marks on the page,” Leavis wrote. “But -- a necessary faith -- it is something in which minds can meet.” (P. 320).

Ian MacKillop’s biography is indifferently written and makes few concessions for the non-British reader. His book is less valuable as a synopsis of Leavis’s writings and teachings than as a case study in the rebarbative realm of academic politics. The description of Cambridge in-fighting will jolt even jaded readers familiar with the bitterness, envy, and resentment that seem the common lot of American academics. After his retirement in 1962, Leavis had hoped to hand-pick his successor at Downing College -- most of the teaching at Cambridge is done in tutorials at the student’s home college rather than in university-wide lectures -- and when Downing strayed from the approved path, Leavis angrily severed his ties with the college. This bald summary gives little idea of the byzantine turns that the affair took. A story full of intrigues, betrayals, hurt feelings, and paranoid explosions, the Downing mess had the emotional violence of a Dostoyevsky novel without either the bloodshed or the promise of redemption. It is sad that one’s final impression of Leavis’s life has less to do with his powers of intellectual stimulation than with his ruinous penchant for intramural warfare. But this, too, augments one’s sense that Leavis’s career was a parable of modern literary criticism in its perils no less than in its virtues.

[Review of F. R. Leavis: A Life in Criticism. By Ian MacKillop.  New York: St. Martin’s Press.]


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I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark


from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman

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