F. R. Leavis

It’s not every literary critic who is so famous that he ends up a character in a BBC TV programme. But in 1991 he was played by a then-famous actor, Ian Holm (who played Bilbo Baggins in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings, 2001-2003), in a programme called The Last Romantics. The drama was an account of Leavis's relationship with his mentor Arthur Couch at Cambridge University.

F. R. Leavis F. R. Leavis

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    Leavis also appears in a few lines of dialogue in Bridget Jones’ Diary (2001)!

    Bridget works at a publishing house and is on the phone gossiping when her boss walks in. Instinctively, she pretends she is on a work call, ending with:

    ‘Thank you for calling, Professor Leavis’.

    Surprised, her boss replies: Was that...F.R. Leavis?

    Bridget. Yup.

    Boss: Wow. Huh! The F.R. Leavis ... who wrote "Mass Civilization and Minority Culture"?

    Bridget: Mm-hmm.

    Boss: The F.R. Leavis who died in 1978? Amazing!

    We will explore the theories of F. R. Leavis as a critic and take a look at his bibliography.

    F. R. Leavis as a critic

    Frank R. Leavis was a Cambridge professor and literary critic, who rose to prominence in the 1950s and 1960s. He was hugely influential, but, despite his importance as a critic, he attracted several detractors for his dogmatic approach.

    Leavis published works of literary criticism throughout his career. He started with books on English poetry and later turned his attention to the English novel. At the same time as writing books, he set up a journal called Scrutiny which acted as a kind of arbiter of 'good literature'.

    Scrutiny was an outlet for the writing of F. R. Leavis. He and L.C. Knights set it up in 1932. The quarterly journal ran to nineteen volumes up to 1953, and a final, twentieth volume was called ‘A Retrospect’. The readership rose to around 1,500 towards the end of its life. It was on account of Scrutiny that Leavis gained the influence that he did as a critic. Early subscribers to the quarterly included the poet T.S. Eliot (1888-1965) and Aldous Huxley (1894-1963).

    There were two stages to Leavis’ work as a literary critic. The first one focused on poetry. Leavis criticised Victorian poetry, in particular. The influence of T.S. Eliot can be felt during this stage.

    Victorian poetry was influenced by the Romantic poets and emphasised the senses, sentimentality and emotion.

    Leavis’ first book of criticism was called New Bearings in English Poetry (published in 1932). The work tried to identify the new directions that poetry had taken after the end of the last century and was a homage to poets like T. S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, and Ezra Pound. After New Bearings Leavis published Revaluation: Tradition and Development in English Poetry (1936) which took his evaluation of poetry back to the seventeenth century as he attempted to delimit a continuous tradition of excellence in English poetry.

    In the minds of English literature students, the name F.R. Leavis goes hand-in-hand with the idea of ‘close reading’. Another name for this is ‘practical criticism’. This meant ‘taking the text apart'.1 It also meant not paying much attention to the cultural and historical contexts in which a work of literature was produced. Close reading is about paying attention to the text itself. ‘To call for close reading … is to do more than insist on due attentiveness to the text. It … suggests an attention to this rather than to something else: to the ‘words on the page’ rather than to the contexts which produced and surround them. It implies a limiting as well as a focussing of concern.’1

    After New Bearings, Leavis published a wide range of books on various aspects of poetry, and then on the English novel, which he turned to in 1948 with the publication of The Great Tradition. In this book, he argued that there exists a tradition, a canon, identifiable in the works of Jane Austen through to Joseph Conrad. But he left out some important names: like Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy.

    F.R. Leavis: literature and society

    Leavis’ originality lay in his claim that the point of literary criticism was to foreground the moral values of human civilisation. In short, his emphasis was on the preservation of tradition, of the inherent and identifiable worth of literary texts. In this respect, he shares common ground with T.S. Eliot. This is the position of his well-known book, the one mentioned above in the quote from Bridget Jones’ Diary, Mass Civilisation and Minority Culture (1930).

    The question Leavis asks is: How can a literary tradition be preserved? The answer he gives is similar to the issues raised by T.S. Eliot in his essay ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ (1919). For example, Leavis doesn’t stress the quality of the work of literature so much as what can be taken from it as evidence of the quality of life presented by it. That is to say that he wishes to stress the contents of a literary work rather than its form or aesthetic beauty.

    F.R. Leavis: conception of literature

    As mentioned, Leavis set out his vision for art and society in The Great Tradition (1948). It is in this book that he spells out his view that novels, and even English literature departments, should sustain a literary and cultural tradition.

    Leavis believed that the role of literature in life is to confer a sense of significance to our routine existence and to question our habitual judgement, and great literature does both. Emphasizing that a critic sustains the “living principle” (the tradition), he compared the critic to a wheelwright that draws on the skill of England, and held that so does a critic exhibit more than just individual taste – thus echoing Arnold’s view of a critic who upholds “the best that was known and thought in the world,” and TS Eliot’s ideas as encapsulated in his 1919 essay, ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’.2

    Leavis was not afraid to be discriminating in his value judgements. He was opposed to ‘art for art’s sake, and not for life’s sake’.2 That said, it is not the case that Leavis had no time for art or aesthetic values. Instead, Leavis believed that it is the subject matter (the content) which should give shape to art, rather than the other way around.

    Leavis, therefore, attempts to set certain writers in a noble tradition of excellence. The Great Tradition even begins by naming them in the opening line, which reads: ‘The great English novelists are Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James and Joseph Conrad!’ The list seems very short. Leavis had little time for Charles Dickens, whom he considered to be merely an entertainer, although he liked Hard Times (1854). He considered Thomas Hardy not to fit into the moral vision for life which he thought constituted great literature because Hardy’s vision was pessimistic.

    There is a danger of misunderstanding Leavis at this point, however. He is not saying that only those four novelists are any good. He is saying that these are the best. He has time for a range of other writers but considers them less good. Such were his high and uncompromising standards. The important thing for Leavis is that art and life should be related:

    The great novelist creates out of a deep, personal engagement with reality. The process is not one of self-indulgence, but rather of his striving toward a completer, more disinterested understanding of his relation to life. Consequently, he achieves a vision of reality unvitiated by personality.

    F. R. Leavis: bibliography

    F.R. Leavis was hugely influential and highly controversial. Those who appreciated his work thought that he had injected a ‘seriousness’ into the study of literature. Even though some considered him to be too dogmatic and too quick to judge literary works, others valued his insights and especially his view that literature should inspire and shape society towards a moral vision.

    He semi-retired in 1964 and took a number of visiting professorships in the UK. He continued to write in the years up to his death in 1978, producing three books: Nor Shall My Sword (1972), The Living Principle (1975) and Thought, Words and Creativity (1976).

    Leavis died in 1978 after being made a Companion of Honour.

    F. R. Leavis - Key takeaways

    • F.R. Leavis was a Cambridge professor and literary critic, who rose to prominence in the 1950s and 1960s.
    • Leavis set up a journal called Scrutiny which acted as a kind of arbiter of 'good literature'.
    • Leavis’ first book of criticism was called New Bearings in English Poetry (published in 1932).
    • Leavis stressed the contents of a literary work rather than its form or aesthetic beauty.
    • Leavis died in 1978 after being made a Companion of Honour.

    References

    1. Terry Eagleton, Literary Criticism, 1983
    2. FR Leavis’ Concept of Great Tradition BY NASRULLAH MAMBROL, at literariness.org, 2016
    Frequently Asked Questions about F. R. Leavis

    How is F. R. Leavis different from other literary critics?

    Leavis was known for 'close reading'. This differed from his contemporaries who focussed on contextual readings. 

    When did F.R. Leavis found the quarterly review scrutiny?

    1932.

    What books did F. R. Leavis write?

    New Bearings in English Poetry (1932)

    Revaluation: Tradition and Development in English Poetry (1936)

    The Great Tradition (1948)

    Which writers are in F.R. Leavis' great tradition?

    George Eliot, Henry James, and Joseph Conrad

    What is Leavis' method?

    He paid close attention to the words on the page. He talked about a 'noble tradition of excellence'. In his method, he looked for the moral vision of the writer, rather than merely their creative or artistic abilities. 

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