I write this from personal experience: as a student, I was lucky enough to see FR Leavis in action. My teacher had been taught by FR Leavis at Cambridge. Leavis was a literary critic who treated English literature as a secular religion, a kind of answer to what he thought was a post-Christian society. He had a fanatical assurance about literature… And my teacher at school felt something comparably zealous… It was conveyed to us that certain books really did matter and that you were involved in some rearguard action for the profound human values in these books.
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His father was a cultured man who ran a shop in Cambridge that sold pianos and other musical instruments,  and his son was to retain a respect for him throughout his life. Leavis was educated at a fee-paying independent school in English terms a minor public school , The Perse School , whose headmaster was Dr W.
Rouse was a classicist and known for his "direct method", a practice which required teachers to carry on classroom conversations with their pupils in Latin and classical Greek. Though he had some fluency in foreign languages, Leavis felt that his native language was the only one on which he was able to speak with authority. His extensive reading in the classical languages is not therefore strongly evident in his work.
Leavis is quoted as saying: "But after the Bloody Somme there could be no question for anyone who knew what modern war was like of joining the army. His wartime experiences had a lasting effect on him, making him prone to insomnia. He maintained that exposure to poison gas retained in the clothes of soldiers who had been gassed damaged his physical health, particularly his digestion.
He said: "The war, to put it egotistically, was bad luck for us. Despite graduating with first-class honours , Leavis was not seen as a strong candidate for a research fellowship and instead embarked on a PhD , then an unusual career move for an aspiring academic. In Leavis was appointed director of studies in English at Downing College where he was to teach for the next 30 years.
He soon founded Scrutiny, the critical quarterly that he edited until , using it as a vehicle for the new Cambridge criticism, upholding rigorous intellectual standards and attacking the dilettante elitism he believed to characterise the Bloomsbury Group. Scrutiny provided a forum for on occasion identifying important contemporary work and more commonly reviewing the traditional canon by serious criteria.
He has been frequently but often erroneously associated with the American school of New Critics , a group which advocated close reading and detailed textual analysis of poetry over, or even instead of, an interest in the mind and personality of the poet, sources, the history of ideas and political and social implications.
Eliot , and Ezra Pound , was an attempt to identify the essential new achievements in modern poetry. This publication, along with Culture and the Environment a joint effort with Denys Thompson , stressed the importance of an informed and discriminating, highly trained intellectual elite whose existence within university English departments would help preserve the cultural continuity of English life and literature.
In Education and the University , Leavis argued that "there is a prior cultural achievement of language; language is not a detachable instrument of thought and communication. Historians of the era have suggested that the idea was based on a misreading of history and that such communities had never existed.
In , Leavis focused his attention on fiction and made his general statement about the English novel in The Great Tradition , where he traced this claimed tradition through Jane Austen , George Eliot , Henry James , and Joseph Conrad. Contentiously, Leavis, and his followers, excluded major authors such as Charles Dickens , Laurence Sterne and Thomas Hardy from his canon, characterising Dickens as a "mere entertainer", but eventually, following the revaluation of Dickens by Edmund Wilson and George Orwell , Leavis changed his position, publishing Dickens the Novelist in Leavis found Bentham to epitomize the scientific drift of culture and social thinking, which was in his view the enemy of the holistic, humane understanding he championed.
A decade later Leavis was to earn much notoriety when he delivered his Richmond lecture, Two Cultures? The Significance of C. Snow at Downing College. Snow see The Two Cultures , that practitioners of the scientific and humanistic disciplines should have some significant understanding of each other, and that a lack of knowledge of 20th century physics was comparable to an ignorance of Shakespeare.
In he resigned his fellowship at Downing; however, he took up visiting professorships at the University of Bristol , the University of Wales and the University of York. Leavis, died in The story focuses on his relationship with his mentor, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch and the students.
More recently, in a revival of interest in his work, he has been the subject of a series of conferences at the University of York and at Downing College, Cambridge.
Eliot, who wrote I so strongly disagreed with Dr Leavis during the last days of Scrutiny , 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.
In a letter that Edith Sitwell wrote to Pamela Hansford Johnson in she described Leavis as "a tiresome, whining, pettyfogging little pipsqueak". In her novel Possession , A. Byatt who was herself taught by Leavis wrote of one of her characters Blackadder "Leavis did to Blackadder what he did to serious students: he showed him the terrible, the magnificent importance and urgency of English literature and simultaneously deprived him of any confidence in his own capacity to contribute to or change it.
Fry notes: by the time I arrived in Cambridge his influence had waned, and he and his kind had been almost entirely eclipsed Stories of Frank Leavis and his harridan of a wife Queenie snubbing, ostracising, casting out and calumniating anyone who offended them went the round, and those English academics at the university who had been in their orbit were callously dismissed by the elite as dead Leavisites.
Leavis appeared to possess a clear idea of literary criticism and he was well known for his decisive and often provocative, and idiosyncratic, judgements. Leavis insisted that valuation was the principal concern of criticism, and that it must ensure that English literature should be a living reality operating as an informing spirit in society, and that criticism should involve the shaping of contemporary sensibility.
The first is that of his early publications and essays including New Bearings in English Poetry and Revaluation Here he was concerned primarily with re-examining poetry from the 17th to 20th centuries, and this was accomplished under the strong influence of T.
Also during this early period Leavis sketched out his views about university education. Lawrence, Novelist Following this period Leavis pursued an increasingly complex treatment of literary, educational and social issues. Though the hub of his work remained literature, his perspective for commentary was noticeably broadening, and this was most visible in Nor Shall my Sword Although these later works have been sometimes called "philosophy", it has been argued that there is no abstract or theoretical context to justify such a description.
On poetry[ edit ] Leavis is often viewed as having been a better critic of poetry than of the novel. The influence of T. Eliot is easily identifiable in his criticism of Victorian poetry, and Leavis acknowledged this, saying in The Common Pursuit that, "It was Mr.
Eliot who made us fully conscious of the weakness of that tradition". Many of his finest analyses of poems were reprinted in the late work, The Living Principle. Lawrence , but excluded Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens. This proved to be a contentious issue in the critical world, as Leavis refused to separate art from life, or the aesthetic or formal from the moral.
The 100 best nonfiction books: No 31 – The Great Tradition by FR Leavis (1948)
Yes, I am talking about F. 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. 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.
FR Leavis’ Concept of Great Tradition