Don't have an account? Leavis's book of that title in , had 19th-century origins in the concern of many critics — among them Henry James and Leslie Stephen — to distinguish superior from inferior literature and to define a canon of works of permanent value. This was considered a patriotic as well as educative duty. However, the membership and pecking order of the canon caused much debate; and its constituents looked different in , not only from Leavis's in , but from those on whom critics could agree in or The assessment made of writers in The Dictionary of National Biography provides one such measure. Oxford Scholarship Online requires a subscription or purchase to access the full text of books within the service.
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F or about half of the 20th century, the English literary tradition was arbitrated by a critic whose ideas transformed the intellectual landscape of his time, and whose influence lingers still. I write this from personal experience: as a student, I was lucky enough to see FR Leavis in action. To understand the hold Leavis had over the minds of students who came of age in the 60s and 70s, I want to quote from an interview given to The Paris Review by the writer and psychoanalyst, Adam Phillips, in which he describes the impact of Leavisite teaching on his adolescence:.
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.
This was conveyed very powerfully — that the way to learn how to live and to live properly was to read English literature — and it worked for me. I was taught close, attentive reading, and to ironize the ambitions of grand theory.
In his prime, his criticism was distinctive for its uncompromising association of literature and morality. Having served in the ambulance corps during the first world war, he went on to pioneer a new literary critical aesthetic from the early s when, as a young don, he founded the quarterly review, Scrutiny. Leavis would edit this extraordinarily influential journal from to At the same time, he published the works that established his reputation, New Bearings in English Poetry , Revaluation , the immensely important essays from The Common Pursuit and, before that, perhaps his best-known critical statement, The Great Tradition.
To some in the academic critical establishment, Leavis was anathema. In the broader evaluation of the English literary tradition, Leavis never took prisoners. The knockabout opening chapter of The Great Tradition is still an entertaining, sometimes shocking, read:. The impact of Leavis on the literary imaginations of some late 20th century writers is possibly exemplified by the response of his former student, the Man Booker prizewinning novelist Howard Jacobson, who confesses, in a self-lacerating account of his tutorials with Leavis, the agony he suffered at the feet of the master critic.
Were not timid scholarship and dim-sighted scrupulosity precisely the shortcomings he found in the Cambridge of which, in the early days, he was the scourge? I came late to the writing of novels, though it was the only thing I had ever wanted to do. To be intimidated by the literature you have been taught to love is no bad thing: the proof of a good education is not the unembarrassed production of tosh.
But we owe it to him to show that, so far, nobody has told a better one, or told it with a braver conviction of why it matters to tell it at all. Topics Literary criticism best nonfiction books of all time.
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The Great Tradition
Leavis disparaged Dickens except for his novel Hard Times , as lacking the "mature standards and interests" found in the works of Henry James. There was a similar contrast on the aspect of using melodrama in the novels, as compared to Joseph Conrad. In one statement on page 19, Leavis places Dickens among classic writers, but not in the great tradition: "That Dickens was a great genius and is permanently among the classics is certain. But the genius was that of a great entertainer, and he had for the most part no profounder responsibility as a creative artist than this description suggests. Leavis held great sway over literary criticism of English literature until his death in
FR Leavis’ Concept of Great Tradition