1Although most academics and scholars would readily agree that there is no such thing as a stable literary canon, and that the fame of individual authors and texts may be subject to considerable reappraisal according to the prevailing tastes of a given period, the assessment of literary criticism is perhaps a more sensitive field. There is indeed some irony in the fact that this article should propose to revaluate F.R. and Q.D. Leavis, i.e. two academic figures who devoted so much time in their lives to the revaluation of literature and culture - or, to put it like Michael Bell, figures "best known for [their] radical revaluation of the canon of English literature" (Bell 389). Although they are both extremely well-known English critics and academics, their contribution to the redefinition of "culture" in the 1930s, '40s and early '50s needs close scrutiny – a term that takes of course pride of place in Leavisite studies. Several blind spots remain about the Leavises, either because, with the benefit of hindsight, it is tempting to dismiss many of their views as preposterous, or because some of their methods were never fully defined in their lifetime.
2My project, therefore, is a revaluation of the Leavises' position in twentieth-century literary studies that will look first to their relations with each other and with other major Cambridge academics of the 1920s and '30s, with particular reference to Arthur Quiller-Couch and I.A. Richards. This will give me the opportunity to analyse the Leavises' vexed but constant relationships with the world of the print media, and to ask whether they should be regarded as proper critics, or as mere representatives of a higher form of journalism. All along my argument will be guided by Terry Eagleton's Aristotelian distinction between "phronesis" and "theoria", when he wrote in 1998: "For [F.R. Leavis], literary judgements were a matter of phronesis rather than theoria because they sprang from what he idealised as a collaborative form of social life." (Eagleton 50)
3The purpose of this paper is not to provide an extensive survey of the career and critical output of the Leavises – they span too many decades and cover too many fields. I will limit myself instead to the period between 1932 and 1945. 1932 is the year when Scrutiny was launched, and with it a whole cultural and literary scheme. 1945 is also a significant date for the Cambridge academy, with the return from the war of many former students whose initial enthusiasm over the Leavises' educational project had been somewhat dampened by the realities of the conflict and of post-war England. Lastly a short development on The Great Tradition (1948) is required, since the crucial question of Leavis's "morality" is discussed at great length in and through that book.
- 1 A late instance of this is to be found in their joint collection Lectures in America (1969), in wh (...)
- 2 "My sense of my immeasurable indebtedness, in every page of this book, to my wife cannot be adequa (...)
- 3 The names on Scrutiny's masthead were: D.W. Harding, L.C. Knights, F.R. Leavis, Denys Thompson, th (...)
- 4 Downing College, where F.R. Leavis spent his whole career, did not admit women until 1978. Magdale (...)
4Frank Raymond (1895-1978) and Queenie Dorothy (1906-1981) Leavis have long been household names of English literary criticism. Yet the exact nature of their individual contribution to literary studies is difficult to define. I will begin with a few down-to-earth but hopefully useful biographical remarks. On some occasions publishing houses make it clear that this essay was written by F.R., and that essay by his wife.1More often than not however authorship is blurred. F.R. Leavis's biographer Ian MacKillop shows the profound indebtedness of The Great Tradition to Q.D. Leavis, whom he believes to have written parts of the book (MacKillop 254-255). Why, then, despite her husband's official acknowledgements in the paratext,2 doesn't her name appear on the cover? Similarly Q.D. Leavis contributed quite a few articles and reviews to Scrutiny, and was largely responsible for the editing, but her name is nowhere to be found on the journal's masthead.3 Q.D.'s relative invisibility in texts where her role seems to have been essential, so that one may even wonder whether Scrutiny and The Great Tradition would have existed at all without her constant presence, begs the question of the link between women and the Cambridge academy in the 1930s and '40s. Because she was a woman, Q.D. Leavis could not, like her husband, become a Cambridge lecturer, use a Cambridge library, or publish an affiliated journal.4 This distinction between F.R. and Q.D. is fundamental, insofar as the question as to whether these two critics should be studied together or separately needs to be posed on an institutional level before anything else. One may suspect at this early stage of the article that Q.D.'s role is doomed to be marginal, or at least unofficially acknowledged.
5It has been claimed often enough that F.R. and Q.D. Leavis's views on literature in general, and on the function of literary criticism in particular, were reactionary and narrowly elitist. This dismissal is disingenuous if one fails to place their conception of literature within the broader context of the relationship between academia and the print media on the one hand, and of the English "anthropological turn" in both cultural doctrine and literary style in the early decades of the twentieth century on the other hand.
6My contention as a starting point is that no one seriously interested in the critical method of F.R. and Q.D. Leavis can hope to understand its fundamentals if they do not realise how much it owes to the views and method of two equally famous Cambridge academics, their senior Arthur Quiller-Couch (1863-1944), and their contemporary I.A. Richards (1893-1979). In 1919 Quiller-Couch, who was then Fellow of Jesus College and King Edward VII Professor of English Literature at the University of Cambridge, published a set of lectures entitled Studies in Literature. Some of those essays turn out to be relevant to an analysis of the Leavises' approach to criticism. In the opening essay, "The Commerce of Thought", some of the future characteristic features of F.R. Leavis's writing may be identified: the outspoken statement about the "absurdities" (3) of "Professor So-and-So" (1) due to a conception of human history that disregards plain facts and material realities; the fearless assertion that "in the commerce and transmission of thought the true carrier is neither the linotype machine, nor the telegraph [...] but the old, subtle, winding, caressing, omnipresent wind of man's aspiration." (23) This is exactly the mixture of commonsensical straightforwardness and idealistic, disinterested praise of human virtues one will find in many of Leavis's reviews and articles.
7I.A. Richards, who was only two years Leavis’s senior, was himself educated at Cambridge, where he became a lecturer as of 1925. His direct influence on the Leavises may be felt in several ways. In the first place, he was Q.D. Leavis’s Ph.D director, and it is a fact that, to a large extent, her ground-breaking (if controversial) Fiction and the Reading Public, the published version of her 1930 thesis, largely reflects Richards’s wistful views on the disappearance of small communities and “the Decline in Speech”. Here is Richards’s text:
For a decline can be noticed in perhaps every department of literature, from the Epic to the ephemeral Magazine. The most probable reasons for this are the increased size of our ‘communities’ (if they can still be so called, when there remains so little in common), and the mixtures of culture that the printed word has caused. Our everyday reading and speech now handles scraps from a score of different cultures. [...] More troubling still, our handling of these materials varies from column to column of the newspaper, descending from the scholar’s level to the kitchen-maid’s. (Richards 339)
8Feminists and Marxist sympathisers probably won't relish the fact that Richards views the handling of the materials across genders and classes as a form of debasement rather of expansion. Here is how, two years later, Q.D. Leavis puts the contemporary situation in her own words:
The substitution for village and small-town community of cities composed of units whose main contact with each other outside the home is in the dance-hall, the cinema, the theatre, social but not co-operative amusements, has left only fiction to fill the gap. (Q.D. Leavis 57-58)
9Taking stock of the situation of the book market in the early decades of the twentieth century, Q.D. Leavis exposes the radical shortcomings of the two prevailing approaches to literary studies so far: literary criticism on the one hand (involving for instance a discussion of Henry James’s and Marcel Proust’s poetics along strictly literary lines), the scholarly method on the other (as it is reflected by most literary anthologies and official histories of literature). Highlighting that "there is no indication that they ever had readers, much less that they played any part in shaping the human spirit and were shaped by it," she advocates an "anthropological" method of investigation (Q.D. Leavis xiv; italics mine), which considers shifts in taste and changes in the socio-cultural background as proper yardsticks for an assessment of the contemporary world. Q.D. Leavis's so-called "anthropological" method for the evaluation of literature, of the literary field and of the reading public, both heralds and differs from the thought-provoking thesis of the American critic Jed Esty in 2004. In his study entitled A Shrinking Island: Modernism and National Culture in England, Esty coins the phrase "anthropological turn" in order to describe the discursive process by which mid-twentieth-century English intellectuals, in particular the late modernists, translated the end of the British Empire into a resurgent concept of national culture:
Defined against the assumptions of traditional English literary criticism, the anthropological turn more or less corresponds to the rise of "culturalism", that is to an ethnographic and anti-elitist approach to symbolic practices whose classic institutional form is Birmingham-school Cultural Studies. By tracing the turn back to the thirties, we can see how canonical English writing of the pre-war period established key tropes and concepts for the reclamation of England's cultural integrity and authenticity. (Esty 2)
10Q.D.'s awareness of the "anthropological turn" is evidenced by the way she situates the state of the English book market and reading public within a context that facilitates its ethnographic scrutiny. Unlike Esty though, who considers that the end of imperialism led to the repair of the social divides that had conditioned high modernism's aesthetics of failure and fragmentation, Q.D. merely displaces the fragmentation from the imperial metropolis to a shrinking, but equally alienated nation of "cities". Her "anthropological" method, which is certainly not "anti-elitist" - but the word "elite" is yet to be defined - is therefore applied within a context where division still prevails, although in different forms:
The purely literary periodicals alone can be divided on internal evidence into three classes, serving three different levels of reading public, and each would be of little use to the other’s readers. [...] It will be convenient to call these levels “highbrow”, “middlebrow” and “lowbrow”. [...] A novel received with unqualified enthusiasm in a lowbrow paper will be coolly treated by the middlebrow and contemptuously dismissed if mentioned at all by the highbrow Press; and the kind of book that the middlebrow Press will admire wholeheartedly the highbrow reviewer will diagnose as pernicious; each has a following that forms a different level of public. (Q.D. Leavis 20-21).
- 5 See Ian MacKillop, F.R. Leavis: a Life in Criticism, 70-71.
- 6 Desmond MacCarthy became reviewer for the Sunday Times after the death of Sir Edmund Gosse in 1928
11This division reflects the growth of the print industries in the early twentieth century, and the parallel creation of high-, low-, and middlebrow niches, each designed for exclusive readership groups.5The chief problem Q.D. Leavis points out is the fact that, while the level of literacy is comparatively high in 1930s Britain, most of the people who subscribe to a circulating library “are prepared to have their reading determined for them.” (ibid., 6) Her investigation soon leads her to find out that within a market of forty-three million book buyers and borrowers, “it needs as vast an organisation as the modern Press to serve as middleman between author and reader, with its book-reviews, -advertisements and literary articles.” (ibid., 19; italics mine) In the second issue of Scrutiny, Q.D.’s husband expounds the predicament of literary criticism in the same characteristically uncomprising terms, saying apropos of Desmond MacCarthy,6 that he is “not an original critic; he is the journalist-middleman of cultivated talk” (F.R. Leavis, “What’s Wrong With Criticism?” Scrutiny (Vol. I, n° 2, Sept. 1932): 134). For both F.R. and Q.D. then, the increasing level of literacy has not coincided with an improvement in taste. This failure is to be put down to the fact that the unprecedented expansion of the print media - to be understood here as the popular press, even if in actual fact middle-class papers like the Times and the Observer tended to be conservative in their tastes - in 1920s and '30s Britain "encouraged a mindset in which sales and circulation became essential markers of value" (Bingham 65).
- 7 Bingham gives the example of James Douglas's denunciation of Radclyffe Hall's novel The Well of Lo (...)
12In a recent scholarly article, Adrian Bingham has convincingly shown how the development of the print media in the early decades of the twentieth century entirely reshaped book culture in four major ways. First, newspapers acted as guides for the public by reviewing new books and plays; secondly, they claimed the role of moral guardian by seeking to protect readers from "indecent" forms of cultural expression; thirdly, they offered a platform for leading authors to offer contributions on key issues of the day; lastly, they operated as suppliers of fiction by serialising books believed to be suitable for their audience (Bingham 56). Bingham's well-documented article demonstrates to what extent the conservatism of the popular press - The Sunday Express and The Evening Standard in particular - enforced standards of decency and decorum, threatening some publishers into withdrawing controversial novels on charges of obscenity.7 In this light then, Q.D. Leavis's assessment of the print media's negative influence on serious prose fiction is hardly to be contradicted:
One must be aware that when an editor writes "Nothing heavy, morbid or neurotic," he is condemning by implication (for the terms are accepted counters and used for the sake of delicacy) the living tradition of the novel. [...] What it really means is that the young writer who is potentially a serious novelist and is obliged to earn part or all of his living by his pen is in a far worse position than Trollope, Dickens, Thackeray; if he submits and trains himself to produce acceptable short stories and serials, then he is spoilt for literature. (Q.D. Leavis 27-28)
13But Adrian Bingham clearly, and explicitly, parts company with Q.D. Leavis in his global evaluation of the role of the print media, emphasising how Q.D.'s presumption of cultural decline is mistaken:
One is struck not by [the newspapers'] philistinism but by their commitment to the world of books. Many lower-middle- and working-class readers with little knowledge of literature were exposed to reviews of the latest works, the opinions of leading authors and serializations of notable novels. By paying well for articles and reviews, moreover, the press enabled many young and upcoming writers to sustain themselves. (Bingham 65)
14One could also argue that, symptomatically, neither Q.D. nor F.R. Leavis seemed to pay any attention to the fact that the serialisation of fiction in the British press did not necessarily imply that the literature serialised in such a way was inferior in quality to the one published by prestigious reviews. For example, in 1949 the Evening Standard - hardly a highbrow newspaper - undertook the serialisation of Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire. This move, no doubt motivated by gain, boosted the sales. Yet can the commercial aspect of the serialisation of a major work of American drama be said to detract from its literary quality?
15The title of F.R. Leavis’s own Ph.D. dissertation was The Relationship of Journalism to Literature: Studies in the Rise and Earlier Development of the Press in England, which means that he also had an unflagging interest in the complex connections between journalism and literature, especially from a sociological angle. But F.R. Leavis was clearly more interested than his wife in the cultural role of poetry, which also explains the specific influence of I.A. Richards on his approach to criticism. As of 1925, Richards, then a Fellow of Magdalene College, brought into the English curriculum an experimental course which was to provide the basic material for his well-known 1929 book Practical Criticism. In that course, which Leavis himself attended, the students were required to express their genuine opinions on a seemingly random selection of poems, whose authorship was not revealed. Richards noticed that, without the help of authoritative guidelines (authorship, historical context, artistic movement and so on), the vast majority of his students were totally unable not only to correctly interpret the interdependence of tone, feeling and intention, but even to understand the literal meaning of the poems. Richards’s answer to all the stock responses he read shows the extent, as well as the limits, of Leavis’s indebtedness to him:
This construing [of the meaning of poetry] is not nearly so easy and “natural” a performance as we tend to assume. It is a craft, in the sense that mathematics, cooking, and shoemaking are crafts. It can be taught. [...] At present, [...] no attempt at imparting a reasoned general technique for construing has yet been made. If we wish for a population easy to control by suggestion we shall decide what repertory of suggestions it shall be susceptible to and encourage this tendency except in the few. But if we wish for a high and diffused civilisation, with its attendant risks, we shall combat this form of mental inertia. (Richards 312-314; italics mine)
- 8 Cleanth Brooks. The Well-Wrought Urn. Studies in the Structure of Poetry. 1947.
16The two men believe in the teaching of literature rather than in a dilettante conception that they both despise. Yet Richards was a precursor of the New Criticism, and his wish to teach criticism like a "craft" announces Cleanth Brooks's famous definition of poetry - and of its interpretation - as a "well-wrought urn".8 The difference between Leavis and Richards lies in the fact that, while Richards judges context and "background" to be detrimental to a formal analysis whereby the poetic object is to reveal its full coherence and artistry, F.R. Leavis - like his wife - claims that the study of literature is not separable from a global "anthropological" method.
- 9 The twofold indebtedness of Scrutiny to Richards and Eliot is explicitly acknowledged in "What’s W (...)
17Even though he never failed to pay tribute to his other mentor T.S. Eliot, whose theories largely inform the critical framework of Scrutiny,9 Leavis waited until the winter of 1943 before expounding at great length his Eliotic views on literature in an essay entitled “Literature and Society”. This essay, largely made up of the reconstructed notes of an address to the Students’ Union of the London School of Economics, defines the position of Scrutiny in relation to the Romantic tradition of the individual genius, which it rejects, and to Eliot’s idea of tradition, whose tenets it appears to support and revive:
Something like the idea of Tradition so incisively and provocatively formulated by him plays, I think, an essential part in the thinking of everyone to-day who is seriously interested in literature. [...] A literature, that is, must be thought of as essentially something more than an accumulation of separate works: it has an organic form, or constitutes an organic order, in relation to which the individual writer has his significance and being. (F.R. Leavis, "Literature and Society", Scrutiny (Winter 1943, Vol. XII, n° 1): 3)
18This is, almost word for word, the argument of Eliot’s famous piece "Tradition and the Individual Talent", in which he claims:
Tradition [...] involves, in the first place, the historical sense, which we may call nearly indispensable to anyone who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year; and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. (T.S. Eliot 38)
- 10 For this development on Eliot and Leavis I have relied heavily on David Gervais's chapter "Contend (...)
19On closer examination however, the resemblance between Leavis and Eliot turns out to be more superficial than real. Although both men perceive the development of English studies as a response to a cultural crisis, and probably too as a "rearguard action against 'mass civilisation'" (Gervais 133), Eliot and Leavis part company on major points: Eliot is a right-wing modernist, cosmopolitan and Europe-oriented, whereas Leavis's allegiance is to English provincial life. In "East Coker", Eliot seems to ignore the mundane drudgery of peasant life; only the voice of his sixteenth-century ancestor Sir Thomas Elyot is to be heard. Eliot's aristocratic Anglo-Catholicism holds little appeal for Leavis, whose sympathies are clearly for another, non-middle-class England.10
20The organicism of Leavis's "tradition" is not depicted as a seamless, consensual whole. In order to grasp the historical premise and the pedagogical purpose of his definition of culture, one should bear in mind that the English seventeenth century occupies centre stage in his "anthropology". In "Literature and Society", Leavis analyses the fundamental difference between the seventeenth and the eighteenth century to the effect that, while the age of Bunyan exemplifies "a real culture of the people", the Augustan age involves "a separation, new and abrupt, between sophisticated culture and popular." ("Literature and Society", 6-7) The Pilgrim’s Progress may therefore be read as a masterpiece whose style "concentrates and intensifies the life of popular idiom." (ibid., 8) Behind the book, the palpable presence of a genuine social culture and art of living may be felt. On the contrary, through "the exclusive, or insulating, efficacy of the politeness of Augustan verse," of which Alexander Pope is a typical exemplar, "sophisticated culture cuts itself off from the traditional culture of the people." (ibid., 10) By the end of the eighteenth century, culture has taken a wrong turn and forked into rival paths which might as well be called dead-ends: William Blake, whose poetry has nothing Augustan about it but has no readers, and William Wordsworth, whose much-proclaimed interest in humble and rustic life is in fact "external to the world to which he himself belongs, and very remote from it." (ibid., 10)
The reaction that Wordsworth represents against the Augustan century doesn’t mean any movement towards re-establishing the old organic relations between literary culture and the sources of vitality in the general life. By Wordsworth’s death, the Industrial Revolution had done its work, and the traditional culture of the people was no longer there, except vestigially. (ibid., 10)
21Under the circumstances, the substitution of a Book Club culture and of a cultural industry controlled by Big Business - to take up Q.D.'s own words - requires that the university should have a new role: that of reversing this predicament.
What one has to suggest in general by way of urging on students of politics and society the claims of literary studies [...] to be regarded as relevant and important is that thinking about political and social matters ought to be done by minds of some real literary education, and done in an intellectual climate informed by a vital literary culture. (ibid., 11)
- 11 Is Scrutiny a journal, a review or a magazine? While the first term seems to address a readership (...)
22This task began in fact with the creation of Scrutiny in the spring of 1932. Throughout its existence (1932-1953), this journal11 always had difficult relationships with institutions in general, and the Cambridge world in particular. The first issue published a manifesto in order to explain the function of the journal, and to underline the close connection between Scrutiny’s contents and the kind of training the new Cambridge students would ideally receive.
The reader will have gathered by now that Scrutiny is not to be a purely literary review. But what exactly, he may wonder, is meant by that hint of a generous interest in “modern affairs” at large? There are politics, for instance. Well, a devotion to them at the party level is, no doubt, somewhere necessary. But something else is necessary – and prior: a play of the free intelligence upon the underlying issues. This is to desiderate a cultivated historical sense, a familiarity with the ‘anthropological’ approach to contemporary civilization [...], and a catholic apprehension of the humane values. (F.R. Leavis, "Scrutiny: A Manifesto", Scrutiny (May 1932, Vol. 1, N° 1): 3)
23This passage contains certain terms which, transparent or self-evident as they may seem, are problematic: "the free intelligence" (or elsewhere, and repeatedly, "sensibility"), "the humane values", as well as the uncapitalised adjective "catholic", meaning universal and versatile. The other point to make concerns the status of Scrutiny as a cultural medium. Leavis is of course careful to reject an openly elitist conception whereby his review might be perceived as the mouthpiece of a clique of snooty highbrows. He emphasises its educational function instead.
The first duty is to publish good criticism judiciously directed. And inseparable from this is a conscious critical policy, if anything is to be effected in the present state of culture. For to-day there are anti-highbrow publics and "modernist" publics, but there is no public of Common Readers with whom the critic can rejoice to concur. (ibid., 4)
24To what extent can the desire to address "Common Readers" be taken for granted, and what does this notion mean exactly? As Michael Bell points out, "[Scrutiny's] ideal Cambridge became increasingly isolated from the actual university" (Bell 390). In his first-rate biography of F.R Leavis, Ian MacKillop rather mischievously points out that Scrutiny fell short of its ambition to match the audiences of such journals as Eliot’s Criterion in Britain or the Symposium in America, and had to fall back on an average readership of rather "practical" intellectuals, for example schoolteachers in need of concrete pedagogical advice (MacKillop 207-208). The profile of Leavis’s "Common Reader", at any rate, is a far cry from the average reader "responding to the demand for culture in organized, manageable parcels" (Shelley Rubin xii). But a major irony is to be found here: while Leavis has in mind an enlightened readership endowed with enough energy to revive the function of literary culture, he is also taking up the title of a 1925 collection of essays by Virginia Woolf – Woolf, the Leavises’ lifelong enemy, whose perception of reality as "moments of being" runs counter to their view that literature is first and foremost a social structure. Woolf’s common reader, as she understands Dr Johnson’s definition, "reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others" (Virginia Woolf, "The Common Reader", 1). Leavis despises what he regards as the belletrism of Bloomsbury. Woolf’s position on the relationship between high-, low- and middlebrow culture is of course easier to attack than that of the Leavises. The main flaw in her argument is that, although she was a fierce opponent of middlebrow culture, she was, contrary to them, a defender of popular fiction and of lowbrow entertainements. Her essay "Middlebrow" (1920) idealises Britain’s working class in a most ambiguous way:
These lowbrows are waiting, after the day’s work, in the rain, sometimes for hours, to get into the cheap seats and sit in hot theatres in order to see what their lives look like. Since they are lowbrows, engaged magnificently and adventurously in riding full tilt from one end of life to the other in pursuit of a living, they cannot see themselves doing it… It is one of the prime necessities of life to them—to be shown what life looks like. And the highbrows, of course, are the only people who can show them. (Woolf, "Middlebrow", in The Death of the Moth and Other Essays, 1942)
25The tone is rather patronising here, Woolf being convinced that it is the highbrows' responsibility to accomplish their "educational mission" with the lower classes; on the other hand, she savagely exposes the thinly disguised commercial purposes of the middlebrow industry, whose chief representatives she perceives to be the Book Clubs of course, but also the BBC – derisively dubbed the "Betwixt and Between Company". Yet her contempt for the BBC doesn’t stop her from using this media when it suits her. In a July 1927 radio debate with her husband Leonard, Virginia famously supported omnivorous reading even of the most light and frivolous fiction, believing that an impetus for knowledge may start at the most basic level. To her disgruntled husband, lamenting the quick disappearance of hand-made books, she retorted:
Books ought to be so cheap that we can throw them away if we do not like them, or give them away if we do. Moreover, it is absurd to print every book as if it were fated to last a hundred years. The life of the average book is perhaps three months. Why not face this fact? Why not print the first edition on some perishable material which would crumble to a little heap of perfectly clean dust in about six months time? If a second edition were needed, this could be printed on good paper and well bound. Thus by far the greater number of books would die a natural death in three months or so. No space would be wasted and no dirt would be collected.
(Woolf, BBC Radio Debate, 15 July 1927)
- 12 F.R. Leavis for instance stated wistfully that Arnold Bennett, who wrote reviews for the Evening S (...)
26Judging from these two quotations, one might be tempted to conclude that while Woolf's views are patronising and quirky, the Leavises are far more consistent and their own views are poles apart from hers. Far from condoning the lowbrows' need for light fiction and innocuous movies on the grounds that even the cheapest forms of entertainment can foster critical thinking, they both adamantly maintain that in mass civilisation only minority culture is possible.12 This said, the gap between Virginia Woolf's and the Leavises' lines of thought is not as wide as one might believe. Woolf's description of the "lowbrows" patiently waiting in the rain to get into theatres may be patronising, as is her call for the "highbrows" to show these poor benighted creatures the right way; but so is Q.D.'s claim about minority culture. Even more disturbingly, so does F.R.'s obsessive idealisation of the seventeenth-century "organic community" seem to be, as we shall now see.
- 13 Once again, one must keep in mind that women were by no means allowed to study at Cambridge in the (...)
- 14 A Tripos is divided into two parts: Part I, which is broadly based, and Part II, which allows spec (...)
27The educational blueprint that F.R. Leavis had in mind for his "English School" may be analysed through the study of three articles published in Scrutiny between September 1940 and March 1941, all under the title "Education and the University", but each addressing the issue from a certain angle: "Sketch for an English School", "Criticism and Comment", "Literary Studies". Interestingly, these articles bear the fruit of the long campaign for educational reform that led to the Education Act of 1944. As Michael Bell aptly suggests, Leavis's proposals were to be embodied in the new generation of red-brick universities in the 1950s and '60s (Bell 392). Article number one offers a long critical survey of the unsatisfactory state of English studies in British universities, with special reference to Cambridge, explaining in what way the "educational possibilities of the literary-critical discipline" should be reformed. The chief difficulty of Leavis’s argument has to do with the fact that, while he describes the introduction of external subjects like linguistics, philology and semiology into the curriculum as "Ersatz" subjects (F.R. Leavis, "Sketch for and English School", Scrutiny (Vol. IX, n° 3, Dec. 1940): 98), he nevertheless supports a "comprehensive" course of study, one that "would be a study in concrete terms of the relations between the economic, the political, the moral, the spiritual, religion, art and literature" (ibid., 107). The other ambiguity has to do with the type of audience13 the reformed English school would address: "For the reformed Part II [of the English Tripos at Cambridge14] – this would be a condition of its influence and importance – would be essentially designed for an élite" (ibid., 103). Concretely, Leavis explains that part I of the Tripos would undergo no changes – a vast survey course of English literature from Chaucer to the present day. Part II, on the contrary, would bring all the advanced undergraduate students' capacities into play, and its principles would be largely indebted to I.A. Richards’ Practical Criticism, on at least two scores: the focus on the close reading of texts from one particular period, rather than an extensive reading course which ultimately leaves most students unprepared for proper critical judgement; the firm belief – and this is perhaps Leavis and Richards’s greatest joint contribution to the transmission of culture in the 1930s and '40s– that culture, despite appearances to the contrary, is not the preserve of a natural-born élite. More precisely, an élite of some kind should finally emerge, but it would be the outcome of a demanding training scheme. The themes students would be allowed to choose for their extended pieces of writing are not strictly literary, but range from "the rise of Capitalism" through "the causes of the Civil War" to "the changing relations between sophisticated and popular culture". Review-writing would be a further requirement. As a matter of fact, the work of the students of Downing College, where Leavis taught, often flowed into Scrutiny. Boris Ford for example, who was to become editor of the Pelican Guide to English Literature (1957), wrote an essay on Wuthering Heights as an undergraduate student in 1935; that essay was published in Scrutiny in March 1939.
28One can easily understand now what Terry Eagleton had in mind when he wrote in 1998 that "literary judgements were a matter of phronesis rather than theoria" for F.R. Leavis (Eagleton 50). This passing reference to Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics is fundamental, because "phronesis" has mostly to do with how to bring about change in the world, whereas "sophia" is synonymous with theoretical wisdom. In other words the study of literature may be "catholic" (emphasis mine) and "disinterested", but its function is redemptive. Its proper understanding should save one from the alienating effects of mass culture. One strong objection to the Leavises' educational blueprint is that "their radical vision was hard to institutionalise" (Bell 391). The Leavises' "anthropological" method is apparently aware of the "anthropological turn", yet - as Jed Esty himself underlines - the redemptive task of the study of literature implicitly appears as a losing battle:
Leavis and his house journal Scrutiny stood for the redemption of a corrupt world by heroic literary individuals. [...] It is hard to overestimate Leavis's importance to the literary culture of midcentury England, especially since he was both a champion of native English writing and a liberal defender of what he called "minority culture": an antagonist, then, of both cosmopolitan modernism and a degraded "mass civilization." Leavis's defense of great literature takes place in the context of a belief in England's more or less irreversible (and more or less generically modern) decline. (Esty 184 & 222)
29Logically enough, Leavis and his wife did not become instantly famous, and their ideas, far from meeting with the approval of the whole academic community, earned them the antagonism of a good many of their well-established colleagues. That Leavis was not appointed full-time lecturer before the age of fifty-two and never became a professor, despite publishing a dozen books and over one hundred articles, is proof that the response to his educational project from those who pulled the strings was one of hostility. In point of fact, Leavis never shied away from criticism. Article number two on "Education and the University", published in Scrutiny in December 1940, is entitled "Criticism and Comment", because Leavis quotes at great length adverse reactions from those who read his “Sketch for an English School”. One of those readers blames Leavis for ignoring the realities of the war and concentrating instead on the long-range effects of an education in which the people whose business it is to run society on a day-to-day basis – Cabinet ministers, business magnates, higher civil servants and so on – cannot take part. Leavis does not deny the charge that, when the Blitzkrieg rages and Britain’s future is at stake, his own preoccupations with an English School may seem "irrelevant" (F.R. Leavis, "Criticism and Comment", Scrutiny (Vol. IX, n° 3, Dec. 1940): 263). Yet he maintains that a course of "humane studies", which he promotes, is not designed to deal with emergencies of that kind. Coming back to the English Tripos, which in their current form merely promote a middlebrow conception of culture, he declares:
The English Tripos as things are tend to foster a glib superficiality, a "literary culture" too like that of those milieux in which literary fashions are the social currency – milieux of which the frequenters cultivate quickness in the uptake, knowingness about the latest market-quotations and an impressive range of reference, all at the expense of real intelligence and disinterested understanding (or interest in anything but kudos). (ibid., 263)
30Leavis is brave enough to face the charges, but somewhat at pains to dispel suspicions that the course of studies he advertises is not meant for a natural élite. In my own case I must confess that it was the reading of I.A. Richards’s Practical Criticism, rather than of Leavis’s own books and articles, that made me understand what Leavis really had in mind.
31The third article on "Education and the University", entitled "Literary Studies" (Scrutiny, March 1941), is a long and stunning illustration of what Leavis means by "the training of perception, judgment and analytic skill" (F.R. Leavis, "Literary Studies", Scrutiny (Vol. IX, n° 4, March 1941): 308). Leavis convincingly demolishes "To Shakespeare", a contrived, rhetorical sonnet by Matthew Arnold, and pits it against an excerpt from Macbeth, Act I, scene 7.
32The concept of "morality" has always taken centre stage in Leavisite studies, so that this rather hazy word has come to cling to their definition of criticism. The responsibility for a misleading use of "morality" is chiefly Leavis’s own. His concern for a "moral" conception of literature and culture is a constant preoccupation of the book that was to become his best-known critical achievement, The Great Tradition, published in 1948 but some chapters of which had been written as early as 1937. The arch-famous opening paragraph apparently sets the tone for the whole study, but only makes sense if quoted at length:
It passes as fact (in spite of the printed evidence) that I pronounce Milton negligible, dismiss "the Romantics", and hold that, since Donne, there is no poet we need bother about except Hopkins and Eliot. The view, I suppose, will be as confidently attributed to me that, except Jane Austen, George Eliot, James, and Conrad, there are no novelists in English worth reading. (F.R. Leavis, The Great Tradition, 1948. Harmondsworth, 1986, 9)
33The segments that really matter in these two sentences are "It passes as fact [...] that", and "The view [...] will be as confidently attributed to me that..." Although these lines were written in 1948, to this day, Leavis is often perceived as an overbearing, castrating literary figure whose sole enjoyment in life was to eliminate dozens of poets and novelists from the canon according to criteria that remain partly arbitrary. It would be fairly easy for example to come to his rescue by objecting that Milton was never "negligible" to him, and that in 1938 he published a review in Scrutiny entitled "In Defence of Milton". The force Milton had to be defended against was "the academic mind" and the spirit of barren scholarship embodied by Leavis’s old enemy E.M.W. Tillyard (Scrutiny Vol. VII, n° 1, 1938, "In Defence of Milton" 32, repr. The Common Pursuit). What Leavis did blame Milton for was this: "Milton invented a medium the distinction of which is to have denied itself the life of the living language," in contrast to such poets and dramatists as Shakespeare, Donne, Ben Jonson and Marvell, who all have "a vital relation to speech, to the living language of the time." (ibid., 42) This remark is now leading us to the heart of the matter: "morality", for Leavis, has nothing to do with decorum or decency (if that were so why should he have spent thirty years of his life defending D.H. Lawrence’s banned Lady Chatterley’s Lover?); it has to do with a notion which informs The Great Tradition and yet, ironically enough, is never fully explicated: "a vital capacity for experience, a kind of reverent openness before life, and a marked moral intensity." (Leavis, The Great Tradition, 18) This life-force, which inhabits the spirit of Jane Austen’s and George Eliot’s novels, is first and foremost a "preoccupation with form", one that runs counter to the formal and stylistic concerns of Flaubert for instance (ibid., 17-18). While in Austen and Eliot the form of their novels stems from their moral, social and –in George Eliot’s case – religious preoccupations, a novel like Madame Bovary strikes us for "the discrepancy between the technical ('aesthetic') intensity, with the implied attribution of interest to the subject, and the actual moral and human paucity of this subject on any mature valuation." (ibid., 22)
- 15 The view that Jane Austen is everything except a gentle, consensual novelist catering for a harmle (...)
34The form of a novel (or poem) is deemed to be organic every time it is the expression of a voice that stands up for life within a community. Such a voice need not be consensual. As a matter of fact it is often confrontational and rebellious;15 D.H. Lawrence’s novels are proof of that. But it loses its organicity whenever it cuts itself off from all forms of collaborative action and takes refuge in futile disenchantment, as in the case of Flaubert.
- 16 F.R. Leavis, "Luddites? There is Only One Culture", F.R. & Q.D. Leavis, Lectures in America (1969)
- 17 F.R. Leavis, Two Cultures? The Significance of C.P. Snow (1962).
35More than sixty years after The Great Tradition, and sixty years after the demise of Scrutiny, what is left of the Leavises’ cultural legacy? F.R. Leavis himself did not wait so long to offer an assessment of his own contribution to the redefinition of culture. In October 1966 he gave a lecture at Cornell and Harvard University,16 within the context of the huge controversy roused by his ferocious attack17 on C.P. Snow’s essay entitled The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution (1959). His purpose was to demolish Snow’s argument once and for all by driving home the idea that the binary opposition between "scientific culture" and "literary culture" is harmful to both:
What Snow proposes to condemn the scientist to when he points to the really educated man as combining the "two cultures", what he condemns the scientist to for his cultural needs [...] is the culture of the New Statesman and the Sunday papers, which is what Snow’s "literary intellectual" actually represents. (F.R. Leavis, "Luddites? Or There is Only One Culture", in Lectures in America, 14-15)
- 18 See J.B. Priestley's famous article "High, Low, Broad", published in the Saturday Review of Februa (...)
36In a sense one can say that the loop is looped, or that the intellectual and ideological continuity between F.R. and Q.D. – the author of Fiction and the Reading Public thirty-four years earlier – is now almost seamless. Each has their favourite field of study, despite crossovers and cross-border incursions, but the chief common denominators are: a deep-seated contempt for middlebrow culture and the commodification of literary culture – it will be obvious by now, as I hope, that their views on "middlebrow" were biased and reductive, and failed to embrace its more socially inclusive and ethically positive revaluation by some of their own contemporaries18 - and their belief that, even in its most uncompromisingly highbrow form, literature "must speak for life and growth, amid all this mass of destruction and disintegration", instead of "'doing dirt' on life" (The Great Tradition, 38); and lastly:
If literature [...] matters, [...] there should be a public intelligently responsive and decisively influential. It is through such a public, and through the conditions of general education implied in the existence of such a public, that literature, as the critic is concerned with it, can reasonably be thought of as influencing contemporary affairs and telling in realms in which literary critics are not commonly supposed to count for much. (F.R. Leavis, "The Responsible Critic, or the Function of Criticism at Any Time", Scrutiny (Vol. XIX, n° 3, Spring 1953): 178-179; italics mine)
37The implicit - or possibly unconscious? - reference to Nichomachean Ethics, and to Aristotle's distinction between "phronesis" (the stress on the "influential" role of literary studies) and "sophia", is one that has already been pointed out in this study. But one may try to explain in different terms why the redemptive - "phronetic" - function of literary criticism was doomed to fail for the Leavises' English School. In 1963 the poet Stephen Spender savaged the "great tradition" advocated by F.R. Leavis in the following terms: "It is vulgar and wrong, though perhaps high-minded, to think that the tradition can be encarcased in the Hundred Best Books, a six-foot shelf, or the approved works of the Great Tradition" (Spender 232). Spender's major charge was that since the 1920s and the great works of high modernism, the meaning and scope of tradition had been narrowing to the point of becoming synonymous with a form of conservative and ultimately stultifying Englishness. That Spender is targeting the Leavises is unmistakable in the following passage:
The revolutionary traditionalists were eclectic, drawing on the whole European Hellenic and biblical culture, and sometimes going still further afield to the art and literature of China and other parts of Asia, to Buddhism and well as Christianity. The neo-traditionalists narrowed down their interest in the past to the channels of tradition they regarded as available for conversion into critical dogma, determining the tastes of students of English literature (Spender 225-226; italics mine).
- 19 For a convincing argument on the legitimate place of the middlebrow in academic curricula, see Jan (...)
38I wish to conclude this open-ended debate on the Leavises with a double question: should their approach to literature be dismissed as a case study in universalism, essentialism and middle-class individualism, as a good many of their successors in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have done? Shouldn't one keep in mind that their views on the function of literary criticism were also "in its day of course a full-blooded revolutionary doctrine, at the sound of whose now-modishly discarded beliefs [...] the ancien [sic.] régimes looked nervously to their armies" (Eagleton 50)? My contention is that, despite its long-lasting influence, the "English School" F.R. Leavis tried to establish never was in a secure position - it never won over the Cambridge academics who really mattered in the academy; as a Cambridge institution prior to the 1980s it could not admit the one person - his wife - who would have prevented F.R. from sounding like a lonely voice raving in the wilderness; last but not least, one of the chief reasons why the Leavises are often remembered as cultural snobs is because "middlebrow" culture (or what they took it to be) was the one culture they consistently but unfairly wouldn't transmit. Here is a lesson they - and their contemporary I.A. Richards for that matter - could learn posthumously: the middlebrow, like highbrow literature, can be taught.19