The English literary critic and educator F.R. Leavis (1895–1978) was one of the most widely ready and provocative writers on literature in the middle of the 20th century. Although he championed such controversial modernist writers as D.H. Lawrence and T.S. Eliot early in his career, Leavis eventually turned his attention exclusively to the accepted classics of the English tradition.
F.R. Leavis is sometimes identified with the so-called New Criticism of the post–World War II era. This academic movement sought to examine literary works, particularly poetry, through close reading and to explicate works as self-contained entities rather than as part of stylistic schools or reflections of their author's social background. Leavis was not a member of any school of criticism for this would have reduced his work to a set of formulas. Instead, he regarded literary criticism almost as an art in itself, as a way of appreciating how literature responded to and was, in fact, an embodiment of everyday life. His ideas were concisely and colorfully expressed during the so-called Two Cultures controversy of the late 1950s and early 1960s, when he defended the study of literature against charges by novelist C.P. Snow that literary scholars had failed to come to grips with science and technology.
Frank Raymond Leavis (pronounced “LEAVE-is”) was born in Cambridge, England, on July 14, 1895. His parents were both of Huguenot (French Catholic) ancestry and his father, Harry Leavis, operated a music store. Leavis attended the Perse School in Cambridge—in American terms a private high school but in English terminology a public school—which was open to anyone who could pay the tuition. At Perse he studied under W.D. Rouse, a scholar of classical literature who carried on conversations with his students in Latin and ancient Greek. In 1914, Leavis enrolled at Emmanuel College Cambridge on a scholarship and declared a history major.
Like many young Englishmen of his generation, Leavis's education was interrupted by World War I. In 1915 he volunteered for service with a Quaker-run ambulance unit, undertaking training in York, England, before being sent to the front. In France, he served as a stretcher-carrier and always carried a book of John Milton's poetry in his pocket. During the war, Leavis's tasks were varied: sometimes he carried pots of hot chocolate along the roofs of ambulance trains packed with wounded English soldiers. He was hit with poison gas and would suffer health effects from his wartime experiences as a result. Leavis would later refer to war as “the great hiatus” in his life.
In 1921, just before Leavis was due to take his final exams, his father died in an automobile crash. He went directly from the funeral to his exam and graduated with first-class honors. For an aspiring academic, a research fellowship would have been the usual next step, but Leavis did not receive one; instead, he enrolled in a Ph.D. program in English. Soon his path of study would become typical. His Ph.D. thesis, for which he was granted a degree in 1924, dealt with the relationship between literature in journalism in the 18th century, especially examining Joseph Addison's daily newspaper The Spectator.
Leavis began teaching at Cambridge in the mid-1920s, and he was appointed a lecturer—never a full professor—there in 1929. Even at this early date, he saw literary criticism as an important cultural resource—neither as an exercise within a closed world nor as a tool in a larger social agenda, but as a form of writing informed by a full set of values pertaining to how life should be lived. Queenie Dorothy Roth, whom Leavis met while she was his student at Cambridge, shared these interests. The pair married in 1929, and Roth, who wrote criticism herself under the name Q.D. Roth and issued several books, worked closely with her husband on some of his major works as well as on the influential journal Scrutiny, which he founded in 1932. They had two sons, Ralph and Robin (the latter became a university lecturer in the Netherlands), as well as a daughter, Kate, who taught at the University of East Anglia.
Leavis's first book was Mass Civilization and Minority Culture, published in 1930, and he followed that up with a study of D.H. Lawrence's fiction the same year. The books for which he became best known were soon completed despite his heavy teaching load at Cambridge: 1932's New Bearings in English Poetry dealt with the poetry of William Butler Yeats, T.S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound, and Revaluation: Tradition and Development in English Poetry appeared four years later. Eliot and Pound, especially, were novel and controversial figures at the time, and Leavis's close readings and interpretations of their works would set the pattern for both academic literary critiques and collegiate English classes for several generations. He argued in these works that there was a standard of artistic perfection to which literary works could aspire; even in the 1930s this was a controversial idea.
Leavis's 1943 book Education and the University expanded on his belief that universities could provide an intellectual elite whose existence was crucial to cultural continuity. After World War II, he turned his critical attention to novels, publishing The Great Tradition (1948), a study of the works of George Eliot, Henry James, and Joseph Conrad. His 1952 book The Common Pursuit collected his essays from Scrutiny, which folded the following year, and 1955 saw the publication of his study D.H. Lawrence: Novelist. Leavis and his wife visited the United States on a lecture tour in 1966, and their talks there were compiled into the joint publication Lectures in America in 1969.
While Leavis was influential in determining how university studies of literature would be conducted in the future, he was sometime criticized by teachers and critics of other political and philosophical orientations. His focus was cited as relatively narrow: The Great Tradition, it was pointed out, dealt with only three novelists, one of whom (Conrad) was Polish born, while another (James) was American. His view of literature and literary criticism as being organic parts of cultural tradition seemed to some like reactionary idealizations of the English past. Yet the most serious criticism of Leavis had to do with his personal style in controversies: his cutting tone toward those who opposed him dismayed even his backers.
This tendency came to the fore in the most prominent public episode in Leavis's later life, the so-called Two Cultures controversy. The affair was sparked by novelist (and scientist) C.P. Snow's 1959 lecture “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution,” in which Snow faulted literature scholars for not coming to grips with the importance of science in the modern world (noting, for example, that few could describe the basic Second Law of Thermodynamics). Leavis's response, delivered as the Richmond Lecture in 1962 and later published, included ad hominem attacks on Snow and his work; according to Pat Coyne in New Statesman & Society, he called the scientist “as intellectually undistinguished as it is possible to be.” Leavis was widely criticized for the tone of his remarks, his critics including novelist Aldous Huxley, one of the deans of British letters. However, his wider contention—that literature and criticism have their own distinctive and necessary outlooks—continued to attract attention.
In his later years, Leavis remained popular as a visiting lecturer in Great Britain. He issued three more books of criticism, Nor Shall My Sword (1972), The Living Principle (1975), and Thought, Words and Creativity (1978). Among other awards, he was named a Companion of Honour, an elite group of 65 or fewer members, by Queen Elizabeth II in 1978. Leavis died on April 14, 1978, in Cambridge.
MacKillop, Ian, F.R. Leavis:A Life in Criticism, St. Martin's Press, 1997.
Storer, Richard, F.R. Leavis, Routledge, 2010.
Guardian (London, England), August 16, 2013, Stefan Collini, “Leavis v. Snow: The Two-Cultures Bust-up 50 Years On.”
New Statesman & Society, October 1, 1993, Pat Coyne, “Two Cultures Revisited,” p. 30.
Observer (London, England), John Naughton, “A Clash along the Great Rift,” p. 2.
Leavis Society website, https://www.theleavissociety.com (December 5, 2017).□