PREVIEW: Dr. Leavis, I Presume?
The Weekly Standard


Dr. Leavis, I Presume?
The man who put 'critic' in 'criticism.'
by Brooke Allen
05/22/2006, Volume 011, Issue 34


F.R. Leavis
Essays and Documents
Edited by Ian MacKillop and Richard Storer
Continuum, 314 pp., $39.95

F.R. LEAVIS (1895-1978) might not have been the most influential literary critic of the 20th century--that title would probably go to T.S. Eliot, whose rather slight output of literary essays made a disproportionate impact on the intellectual world--but within academia his effect was incalculable. Leavis's career, which lasted from the 1930s to the '70s, coincided with the creation of "English" as a subject in British universities and the professionalization of literary studies.

Leavis and like-minded scholars of his day believed that the study of literature should aspire to standards comparable with those demanded in the study of law, for example, or science. Critics should be qualified, just as doctors are qualified. Many disagreed; Britain, after all, had a long and proud tradition of the literary amateur. Leavis, a passionate polemicist with a genius for making enemies, was the most vocal advocate for the new professionalism.

Leavis saw literature in moral terms and literary criticism as a moral exercise. Many of his contemporaries described him as a puritan, and this is not a bad label: He was not a theological or sexual puritan, certainly, but a puritan in the Cromwellian sense, a doughty soldier in the cause of righteousness as he defined it. Literature was his religion. Those with a similar sense of literary vocation found his ideas sympathetic, while those who did not tended to be put off. He was a polarizing figure within academia--not everyone, at that time, thought English an appropriate subject for advanced study--and in the world of London letters, a milieu he condemned as frivolous and insufficiently focused on the good and the true.

As a fellow at Downing College, Cambridge from 1936 to 1962, and a pioneer of the "Cambridge English" that would help determine the way English was taught in colleges and universities both in England and America, and as the editor of the widely-read literary magazine Scrutiny, Leavis wielded tremendous influence. The Downing curriculum was so thorough and rigorous that schoolmasters across Great Britain obtained the college's exams and entrance papers as a sort of training manual for their sixth-formers, so that innumerable students left school with a Leavisite education whether or not they had any intention of going on to Cambridge. These same schoolmasters, on Leavis's advice, soaked up his recommended reading list: I.A. Richards's Principles of Literary Criticism and Practical Criticism, William Empson's Seven Types of Ambiguity, T.S. Eliot's Selected Essays, and Leavis's own work. Their students were specially directed toward Leavis's favorite authors, who included John Donne, Jane Austen, both Eliots (T.S. and George), and D.H. Lawrence.

Leavis's effect on educational standards was so pervasive that his inimical colleague, the literary historian E.M.W. Tillyard, complained that his students were trained rather than educated; they came up to Cambridge, he said, already armed with "a repertory of labels and phrases to be attached, by cunning, to the proper exhibits," and fully informed as to "the proper authors to admire or despise." Patrick Harrison, a former student of Leavis's, has spoken not only of "OK texts" for Leavis's students to read and approve, but "OK words"--"poise," "immediacy," "sharply realized"--for them to bandy about in examination papers.

Leavis's approach to literature as a moral endeavor has been inspiring to some, off-putting to others. He cared nothing for what literary critics would now call jouissance, the sensual enjoyment of the work of art. It is entirely characteristic for him to have seized upon Hard Times as his favorite Dickens novel, for this is the least "Dickensian" of the author's oeuvre, a bare-boned moral fable that lacks the verbal excess and lavish imagery--the jouissance--that was Dickens's real gift as a writer.

Leavis's seminal book The Great Tradition proposed a "great tradition" in the English (or rather, Anglophone) novel that ran from Jane Austen through George Eliot, Henry James, and Joseph Conrad. As his choice of authors indicates, his concern was once again with a particular sort of moral fable in which "the intention is peculiarly insistent, so that the representative significance of everything in the fable . . . is immediately apparent as we read." Critics bemoaned what they saw as aesthetic purism and, indeed, even Leavis himself seemed uncomfortably aware of it, acceding, as time went on, that there was an alternate and entirely different "tradition" to be argued, a prophetic and sensual one that ran through William Blake and Dickens to Lawrence.

Leavis was widely seen as didactic and domineering, but as his biographer Ian MacKillop has said, "It should not be thought that Leavis expected literary criticism to be universally Leavisian. He truly believed he was a necessary opposition." This is absolutely true. In his view, the assumptions and habits of the 19th century had continued unchallenged until "the Eliotic revolution" and he saw himself very much as the prophet of that revolution, fighting against a lax belle-lettrist Victorianism. Late in life, he told a colleague in a moment of unguarded vainglory that one day a triangular relationship would become an accepted part of literary history: Lawrence-Eliot-Leavis, with himself seen as the mediator between two great and opposing artistic visions.

LEAVIS WAS NOT ONLY DOGMATIC but belligerent and paranoid. He was also, however, an inspiring teacher. His detractors accused him of brainwashing his followers, but as one student remembers, "It was his energy and seriousness that were pervasive rather than his opinions. . . . To an undergraduate his absorbed continuing interest, his vivid relationship with figures of the past, his belief in the importance of what we were doing--these were the things that struck me." Another student, Neal Roberts, is even more laudatory, and his paean indicates why the intransigent Leavis became such a key figure within his historical moment--not so much the moment of the Eliotic revolution, perhaps, as that of the postwar welfare state, when the traditionally elitist universities were finally opened to men and women from the state schools.

"I would say that Leavis's importance as a cultural influence," writes Roberts, "comes less from the specific judgments of texts, or even his critical method, than from the impression he gave, to a student without a received background of literary culture, that English literature, English culture, belonged to you. That was very fortifying when you were an obscure scholar from a lower-middle class London suburb about to enter Cambridge. It meant that my ideal Cambridge was not the Cambridge of Bloomsbury, of the leisured classes and the public schools, of an elite culture in the class sense. It centered on a man whose culture-heroes were the tinker's son who wrote The Pilgrim's Progress, the clerk's son who wrote Great Expectations, the steward's daughter who wrote Middlemarch and above all the miner's son who wrote The Rainbow. . . . "

It is to Leavis the teacher that Ian MacKillop and Richard Storer have devoted this new volume, F.R. Leavis: Essays and Documents. This book was originally intended to mark the great man's centenary, but Leavis was born in 1895 so it is now more than a decade too late for that. Something rather in the nature of a Festschrift, it brings together pieces by an array of Leavis's onetime students. There are essays and memoirs here, but there are also, rather fascinatingly, reading lists, lecture notes, exam papers, and annotations. At their best, these pieces give the reader an idea of just what it was like to study with the master, to be educated--or, if you like, trained or even indoctrinated--in the Leavisian creed.

The lecture notes, collected by Charles Winder, give one a particularly vivid sense of being in the classroom with the teacher. Sometimes Winder jotted down the patter verbatim, so that we even get a sense of Leavis's spoken tone. Here are a few excerpts:

Cowley, the Aldous Huxley of the 17th century. . . . Ability but not creative. . . .

The Prophetic Books [by Blake] a creative disaster; nothing in them.

Except for Shakespeare the Elizabethans don't matter.

Dickens potentially a greater writer than he actually became.

Browning. . . . Like a modern American evangelist. Billy Graham, the preacher who will do a back-somersault in the middle of a sermon to keep the crowd on his side.

After [George Eliot]'s written as far as Silas Marner she's exhausted her material of reminiscence. She has now to be the wholly inventive novelist.

As we can see, there is plenty for an alert student to think about and challenge. "Except for Shakespeare the Elizabethans don't matter"--can we let that get by? Which of them does matter? Hasn't this opinion permeated our academic agenda, and our curricula? "Dickens potentially a greater writer than he actually became"--this is true, surely, for in terms of pure talent Dickens has had no rival (in the English language) but Shakespeare--yet not many really consider him the greatest writer after Shakespeare.

The spoken voice one gleans from these notes is rather attractive. Leavis's written voice is far less so: In fact, his prose was justly called "repellent" by one TLS reviewer, "coke-like in its roughness and chill" by another. Here is an example:

It is not merely that without an ability to read literature (that is, to see that Eugene O'Neill doesn't exist), and without a sense of the human tradition such as cannot be acquired apart from an education in literature, one cannot acquire the sense of 'human values' desiderated. It is that, if one cannot see that it is impossible to read Aeschylus (in English or Greek) as one reads

Shakespeare, then one cannot read Shakespeare in any serious sense; and if one cannot read Shakespeare, then one cannot think. . . .

Even setting aside Leavis's dubious propositions, the prose qua prose is scandalous, and one is tempted to suggest that someone who seriously uses the word "desiderated" is not himself qualified to read (much less to teach) Shakespeare or Aeschylus, or even the nonexistent O'Neill.

With these citations, we are given glimpses of a paradox within Leavis's approach: The high seriousness that could be so exciting too easily shifted into the high seriousness that could be so deadening. Another essay in the collection, Barry Cullen's "The Impersonal Objective: Leavis, the Literary Subject and Cambridge Thought," explores this dichotomy further. Leavis and what Cullen calls "the Richards-Eliot axis in Cambridge" placed, Cullen says, "particular emphasis upon professionalizing English Studies as an intellectual discipline, one capable of groundbreaking innovation similar to that which their colleagues, Moore, Russell and Wittgenstein, had achieved in the Cambridge philosophy school. . . . [T]hese Cambridge critics saw their task as one of de-aestheticizing literature so that it could take its place as a key component of cultural science."

To de-aestheticize literature seems a perverse and probably fatal operation: If one were to achieve this end, what would be the result? Mere moral symbols and formulae, indistinguishable from--no, rather thinner than--abstract philosophical propositions. Leavis carried on a famous feud with the scientist and novelist C.P. Snow, in which he attacked Snow's scientific cultural bias and expressed his own distaste for what he described as a "general technocratic drift" in modern civilization. But surely Leavis's own career is symptomatic of that drift. Could the Elizabethan, the Augustan, or even the Victorian, age have produced a litterateur who aspired to "de-aestheticize" literature in the service of abstract standards? Would people of those eras have been naive enough to believe it possible?

The worst item in this collection is Gary Day's unbearable essay on "Leavis and Post-Structuralism," a perfect illustration of everything the nonacademic world most detests about academia. This is followed up

by Michael Black's "Leavis on Lawrence," a well-written and intelligent essay, but one which swallows the Leavis party line a little too easily. "[T]hese are the key writers in the 'short 20th century': Eliot the great poet and Lawrence the great writer of fiction; and we know they are that because the great critic has shown it."

Well--do we? Leavis's writings on Eliot got crankier and crankier over the years, until at the end the Eliot he grappled with was unrecognizable to the reader and was probably unrecognizable to Eliot himself. His work on Lawrence, passionately intense and often beautiful, in fact, never transcended his own subjectivity. Nor perhaps would we want it to, for Lawrence himself was an artist with a glorious faith in the subjective. Another contributor to this book, Keith Dobson, illustrates the same point with a telling anecdote.

I was listening recently to an American art critic, Mr Greenberg, saying that no critic had discovered an objective method of evaluating works of art. The interviewer said, 'What about Leavis?' Mr Greenberg said, I admire Leavis immensely; but he was just as much an aesthete as the rest of them. I'd love him to be here today [laughing], and I'd tell him so.

Leavis, in fact, had a crippling inability to reconcile the kind of contradictions that will always persist in so inexact a discipline as literature. When he began his work on Lawrence, for example, he was disturbed by the thought that, to accept Lawrence whole, one would have to surrender "all that Jane Austen stood for." Likewise, to make a case for Donne, he felt, would negate John Milton and everything he stood for. This either/or mentality--if one is right, the other must be wrong--should have no place in literary criticism. The only reason Lawrence might negate Austen, or Milton might negate Donne, is if the critic accepts Lawrence and Milton in the spurious role they both enjoyed playing: that of prophet. And if the critic does this, he implicitly surrenders his claim to aesthetic judgment and assumes the mantle of the philosophical acolyte, a position that has nothing whatever to do with criticism. If we look at them as imaginative artists, there is no reason Lawrence and Austen, Donne and Milton, cannot all be equally right--each, that is, within his or her own subjective world.

Though often made with unbecoming assurance, Leavis's pronouncements are still provocative, because as aesthetic statements they tend to be inherently unanswerable. When he says that "great poetry" must have "impersonality" we feel he is parroting Eliot and we doubt him, but his own ideas are consistently intriguing. For example: "[A] sensibility that is not decidedly of its time will hardly be of a kind to exert a commanding pressure--to have that peculiar individual intensity that manifests the poet." Is this true? One searches for contrary examples, and falls short. And yet, perhaps great poetry only seems of its time in retrospect, because we have incorporated that very same poetry into our own idea and definition of its time.

A sophisticated observer like Patrick Harrison, whose memoir "Downing After the War" is included here, is able to unite the sympathetic and unpleasant sides of Leavis with real artistry. Here is his rather cruel summation of Leavis's career:

T.S. Eliot in the 1930s and 1940s can in some respects be seen as a part-time writer and an amateur critic. To say this is in no way to belittle his significance: it gave to his small oeuvre a refreshingly succinct impact, in contrast to the more voluminous works of many professional men-of-letters. But to embody his insights and the significance of his poetry systematically into an academic establishment responsible for the teaching of English called for an operation altogether different in kind from anything in which Eliot was interested or of which he was capable. This was the task Leavis set himself, like an energetic colonial administrator following up an inspired but unreliable conqueror. Mapping the provinces, first of poetry, then the novel. Establishing an appropriate ideology. Discrediting the lingering remnants for former rule. Setting up training establishments for district officers to maintain law, order and morale throughout as much new territory as possible and defending its borders. Ridiculing enemies. Ruthlessly executing without trial those suspected of disloyalty or heresy. Practicing an austere personal regime of life and feeling increasingly betrayed by the slipping into self-indulgence and dotage of the once admired leader in the decadence of a distant capital. How dull, serious, secular, and pedestrian all this effort must have seemed to Eliot, at ease in a fashionable world which Leavis abhorred and shunned and in which he could never have felt at home anyway. Yet, if Eliot's news bearings were to have permanent influence beyond a tiny elite and not to be swept away by subsequent tides of fashion, an effort of the kind made by Leavis had to be undertaken by someone.

All very true. And in the end, Eliot himself found the efforts of his obsessed fan not only dull, serious, secular, and pedestrian, but increasingly unhinged. "I so strongly disagreed with Dr Leavis during the last days of [Scrutiny]," Eliot wrote, "and objected to his attacks and innuendoes about people I knew and respected. I think it is a pity he became so intemperate in his views and was extravagant in his admirations, as I had, in the earlier stages of the magazine, felt great sympathy for its editor."

"Intemperate" and "extravagant" are, in fact, mild terms: Where The Great Tradition and The Common Pursuit, New Bearings in English Poetry and Education and the University had been provocatively polemical, much of Leavis's late writing (see, for instance, The Living Principle: #'English' as a Discipline of Thought [1975]) descended to paranoid rants aimed at largely imaginary enemies.

To reexamine Leavis's career is to return to the question he thought he had definitively answered: that is, whether it is really desirable to "professionalize" literary criticism at all. Perhaps Leavis's Victorian and neo-Victorian predecessors (George Saintsbury, Arthur Quiller-Couch, Lord David Cecil) had it right, and the study of literature must remain the province of the erudite amateur. Literature simply cannot be judged or examined by scientific standards; if it could, it would not be literature at all but science or philosophy.

Moreover, when literature is asked to fulfill the function of religion, it can't help seeming just a little bit thin. One hesitates to say that Leavis took literature too seriously--for, of course, it is a serious pursuit for those of us to whom it matters--but he approached it with a partisan rage that is somehow inappropriate to the art's inherent delicacy and necessary humanity. Going over his attack against C.P. Snow and the idea of the "two cultures" (scientific and humanistic) that Snow discerned within their society, one feels that Leavis, for all his fervent commitment, somehow lost the argument. When Snow proposed that the intricacy of scientific knowledge was the "most beautiful and wonderful collective work of man," Leavis countered it with what he called a prior work: "the creation of the human world, including language."

Well, the farther our scientific knowledge progresses--and it has progressed significantly since the deaths of Leavis and Snow--the less self-sufficient and beautiful our human world begins to seem in relation to the infinite mysteries of the universe. It is only too clear that there are many more things in heaven and earth than were dreamt of in Leavis's philosophy. In the end, Leavis fell short of his own high humanistic ideals, through intellectual exclusivity and sheer bloody-mindedness, and the passionate advocate degenerated into the hectoring bigot.

Brooke Allen is the author of the forthcoming Moral Minority: Our Skeptical Founding Fathers.

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