Authors: F. R. Leavis

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

English critic

Author Works

Nonfiction:

Mass Civilization and Minority Culture, 1930

D. H. Lawrence, 1930

New Bearings in English Poetry: A Study of the Contemporary Situation, 1932

How to Teach Reading: A Primer for Ezra Pound, 1932

For Continuity, 1933

Culture and Environment: The Training of Critical Awareness, 1933 (with Denys Thompson)

Revaluation: Tradition and Development in English Poetry, 1936

Education and the University: A Sketch for an “English School,” 1943

The Great Tradition: George Eliot, Henry James, Joseph Conrad, 1948

The Common Pursuit, 1952

D. H. Lawrence: Novelist, 1955

Two Cultures? The Significance of C. P. Snow, 1962

Anna Karenina, and Other Essays, 1967

Lectures in America, 1969 (with Q. D. Leavis)

English Literature in Our Time and the University, 1969

Dickens the Novelist, 1970 (with Q. D. Leavis)

Nor Shall My Sword: Discourses on Pluralism, Compassion, and Social Hope, 1972

Letters in Criticism, 1974

The Living Principle: “English” as a Discipline of Thought, 1975

Thoughts,Words, and Creativity: Art and Thought in Lawrence, 1976

F. R. Leavis: Essays and Documents, 1995 (Ian MacKillop and Richard Storer, editors)

Edited Texts:

Scrutiny: A Quarterly Review, 1932-1953 (with others)

Towards Standards of Criticism: Selections from “The Calendar of Modern Letters,” 1933

Determinations: Critical Essays, 1934

A Selection from Scrutiny, 1968.

Biography

Frank Raymond Leavis (LEE-vuhs) was educated at the Perse School and Cambridge University, and he spent virtually his entire life in this university town. He had great admiration for and was deeply attached to his father, a sensitive, cultivated, deeply musical man, who owned a musical-instrument shop in Cambridge. After serving in the Ambulance Corps during World War I, Leavis won a scholarship to Emmanuel College. As an undergraduate, he began specializing in history but changed to English. The works that influenced his thoughts about literature, culture, and society were those by George Santayana, Matthew Arnold, T. S. Eliot, and Ford Madox Ford. As a schoolboy in 1912, he had subscribed to Ford’s The English Review. He was attracted to Ford’s belief that in the contemporary industrial world, the higher cultural values should be preserved by a small minority, which, however, should resist removing itself from life.{$I[AN]9810000992}{$I[A]Leavis, F. R.}{$I[geo]ENGLAND;Leavis, F. R.}{$I[tim]1895;Leavis, F. R.}

As a student at Cambridge University, Leavis was fascinated by such teachers as Mansfield Forbes and I. A. Richards, the advocate of “practical criticism.” Leavis was impressed by the periodical The Calendar of Modern Letters, which insisted on maintaining high critical standards. In 1924, he wrote his doctoral thesis on the periodical literature of the eighteenth century, “The Relationship of Journalism to Literature: Studies in the Rise and Earlier Development of the Press in England.” In 1925, Leavis began tutoring English literature at Emmanuel College and became an assistant lecturer in 1927. He continued teaching at Cambridge until his retirement in 1962. As a lecturer, he challenged the establishment with his theories on literature and the university. He annoyed the English faculty in the 1930’s when he began lecturing to his class on contemporary writings, such as James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922).

Leavis published his first book in 1930 and continued to produce numerous books, essays, and reviews, publishing his last book two years before his death. Among his most important and influential literary studies are New Bearings in English Poetry, Revaluation, The Great Tradition, and The Common Pursuit, works that examine the writers he considered the most important in English literature. Leavis believed strongly that English literature is an indispensable discipline in the university and wrote many essays defending his position. In one of his last books, The Living Principle, he argues that the study of English literature is a discipline of rigorous thought, not merely an exercise of emotions.

Leavis was closely associated with the launching of the influential literary journal Scrutiny in 1932. He was actively involved as editor and contributor throughout the life of the journal, contributing the valedictory issue in October, 1953. In addition, he collaborated on numerous critical studies with Queenie Roth, whom he married in 1929 and who, as Q. D. Leavis, published many works in her own right. During the 1960’s, F. R. Leavis was involved in a controversy with C. P. Snow, the scientist-novelist, over the relationship in contemporary society between the scientific and the literary cultures. Leavis outlined his position in Two Cultures? The Significance of C. P. Snow, the most famous of his social essays, in which he attacks unsparingly Snow’s idea of a separate scientific culture distinct from the traditional humanistic culture. In 1966, Leavis undertook a lecture tour of the United States. He later held visiting professorships at the Universities of York, Wales, and Bristol. Several universities, including Aberdeen, Belfast, Delhi, Leeds, and York, awarded him honorary doctorates. He was made a Companion of Honour in 1978, just prior to his death on April 14, 1978.

For Leavis, literature and literary criticism do not operate in a social vacuum; they derive from a concern for maintaining cultural standards. He envisioned English literary studies as a distinct discipline at the center of the intellectual and cultural life of civilized society, with evaluation of the text as its principal function: The focus must always be the “words on the page.” Leavis rejected the concentration on literary biography and history that was still prevalent at the beginning of the twentieth century. He stressed the need for firm, decisive assessments while allowing room for disagreement and collaboration. In providing decisive and insightful literary evaluation, Leavis believed, the critic helps to educate the public and to shape contemporary cultural and intellectual life. In his studies of the novel, Leavis argues that the great novels affirm “the possibilities of life”–a quality which he regarded as a fundamental criterion. This quality unites the diverse writers who, in his judgment, constitute the “great tradition” of the English novel, among them Jane Austen, George Eliot, Charles Dickens, Henry James, Joseph Conrad, and D. H. Lawrence. Indeed, much of Leavis’s praise of Lawrence, with whose work he was preoccupied throughout his career as a critic and whom he considered the greatest novelist of the century, has to do with the affirmative values he perceives in Lawrence’s work.

Both as a man and as a critic, Leavis was no stranger to controversy, and by the end of his life he was a deeply embattled figure. Nevertheless, he made lasting contributions to the study of English literature and is perceived by many as the most influential British critic of the twentieth century. Leavis’s advocacy of close, analytical reading of the text combined with a firm awareness of the value and importance of what it has to say about life established the dominant pattern of British criticism and the dominant approach to English literature in many universities until the 1970’s.

BibliographyBell, Michael. F. R. Leavis. New York: Routledge, 1988. From the series Critics of the Twentieth Century. Inclues an index and a bibliography.Bilan, R. P. The Literary Criticism of F. R. Leavis. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979. An extended discussion of Leavis’s literary and social criticism.Boyers, Robert. F. R. Leavis: Judgment and the Discipline of Thought. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1978. A fine introductory text.Buckley, V. Poetry and Morality: Studies in the Criticism of Matthew Arnold, T. S. Eliot, and F. R. Leavis. London: Chatto & Windus, 1959. With an introduction by Basil Willey.Day, Gary. Re-reading Leavis: Culture and Literary Criticism. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996. A reevaluation.Ferns, John. F. R. Leavis. New York: Twayne, 2000. From the Twayne’s English Authors series.Greenwood, Edward. F. R. Leavis. Harlow, England: Longman Group, 1978. A good introduction.Kinch, M. B., William Baker, and John Kimber. F. R. Leavis and Q. D. Leavis: An Annotated Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1989. Covers Leavis and his wife. Includes indexes.McKenzie, D. F., and M. P. Allum. F. R. Leavis: A Check-List, 1924-1964. London: Chatto & Windus, 1966. A useful reference text.MacKillop, I. D. F. R. Leavis: A Life in Criticism. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997. A biography.Robertson, P. J. M. The Leavises on Fiction: An Historic Partnership. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1981. Covers Leavis and his wife. Includes a bibliography and an index.Samson, Anne. F. R. Leavis. Buffalo. N.Y.: University of Toronto Press, 1992. From the series Modern Cultural Theorists.Sauerberg, Lars Ole. Versions of the Past–Visions of the Future: The Canonical in the Criticism of T. S. Eliot, F. R. Leavis, Northrop Frye, and Harold Bloom. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997. A critical study. Includes bibliographical references and an index.Singh, G. F. R. Leavis: A Literary Biography. London: Duckworth, 1995. Includes Q. D. Leavis’s “memoir” of her husband.Walsh, William. F. R. Leavis. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980. A thorough discussion of Leavis’s literary and social criticism.
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