Under scrutiny

23rd August 1996 at 01:00
The critic F R Leavis virtually invented English literature as an academic discipline. In the light of two recent studies, Harry Ritchie reassesses his career.

A hypothesis: having been shunted off to become Minister of Education, Michael Portillo cuts costs by shutting every department of English literature in every university in the country. Crassly ignoring the human tragedy as thousands of lecturers are thrown on the dole, let's ask the following question: would our literary culture be any the worse off for this wholesale destruction of Eng Lit. Might it even be improved?

After much thought, I decided that this would, on the whole, be a bad thing. However, I do admit that I had to give the question much thought because a large part of Eng Lit, in its anxiety to be a proper subject, with its own jargon and arcane things to study and write essays on and ask intellectual exam questions about, is either daft or deplorable. It can reduce literature to a game of spot-the-significance or hunt-the-symbol, it encourages pseudo-intellectuality and, as in this sentence, it allows airy generalisations to exist unexamined.

A product of the many years I spent doing Eng Lit at school and university, my suspicions about the subject have been revived by two books about F R Leavis, now dreadfully unfashionable but once the most influential academic critic in the country. Such was his eminence that he achieved a kind of fame unique in the profession by being well-known outside it - so that, for example, in 1964, when the 69-year-old Leavis resigned his fellowship at Downing College, Cambridge, over yet another complex and piffling academic dispute, the event was faithfully reported in, of all places, the Daily Express.

Widely renowned though he was, Leavis was not always feted within academia. He spent his entire life in Cambridge, and almost his entire working life at Downing College, yet he struggled long and hard to gain recognition, or even a full-time post. Much of the time he relied for his income mainly on royalties from such books as New Bearings in English Poetry, The Great Tradition and Dickens the Novelist, the last being one of several studies he wrote with his wife and fellow-critic, the formidable Q D Leavis.

In his books, his teaching and in Scrutiny (the journal he edited from 1932 until 1953), Leavis disseminated his own brand of criticism at a vital time, for when he started out in the Twenties and Thirties, Eng Lit as we know it was in its infancy. Through a combination of fortuitous timing and his proselytising fervour, Leavis's impact on his subject and his colleagues was dramatic enough to justify the creation of a new term - "Leavisite".

As a noun, this tag referred to any critic who may well have been not so much a follower as a disciple, for Leavis and the Leavisites did indeed behave and sound like the leader and the members of a religious cult. They worshipped their sacred texts, preaching the significance of these and the unworthiness of all others. They fostered an embattled, us-versus-them mentality, ever alert to the symptoms of bad faith or signs of persecution. And, with Downing College as its base, the cult spread quickly as missionaries were sent forth to schools and universities to preach to the unconverted.

To appreciate the cult at work, it's worth looking at the cv of one Boris Ford. The young Boris attended Gresham's School in Norfolk, where he was taught by Denys Thompson, a former pupil of Leavis and the founder of the journal English in Schools, who indoctrinated his charge well enough for him to be admitted in 1935 to study English under Leavis at Downing College. Indeed, one of Ford's undergraduate essays (on Wuthering Heights) so pleased his master that Leavis published it in Scrutiny. Ford went on to pursue a successful and influential career in education. He also edited a series of paperbacks much favoured by Eng Lit students, The Pelican Guide to English Literature, which included essays by many leading Leavisites. So much so that Leavis blamed Ford (unfairly) for causing the closure of Scrutiny by enticing away favoured contributors. With the characteristic result that Ford was immediately excommunicated.

Leavis could attract such devotion partly because his own devotion to literature was so intense, and partly because he so virulently opposed any sign of bow-tied dilettantism, of the once-prevalent kind that regarded literature as an agreeable accessory to a civilised, posh lifestyle. Leavis insisted that easy waffle be replaced by critical rigour. Far from being an idle matter of skipping through some nice storybooks, "English" was a proper discipline and a demanding one, for only the elite were equipped to practise criticism. Moreover, Leavis's elite would concentrate on an elite group of authors (such as Lawrence, T S Eliot, and Dickens) who merited attention by being sufficiently "serious" and "mature".

Just what did this all really mean? Unfortunately, rather than explain or justify his key points and terms, Leavis preferred to bawl and bluster. At best he could only refer one set of abstractions to another: the best literature, he said, promoted "awareness of the possibilities of life"; the purpose of criticism, he claimed, was "the common pursuit of true judgment". He was just as vague in his style of analysis, which usually consisted of assertions mingled with illustrative quotes - of such length that he ran into copyright problems with his study of D H Lawrence.

Leavis's ability to avoid examining his various certainties was the real secret behind his tremendous impact. First it enabled him to pick out some writers as great and claim that they alone constituted the true canon of Eng Lit. Second, it allowed him to preach about the moral purport and deep significance of this canon (as opposed to the mindless drivel of mass culture consumed by the ungifted) without thinking about the implications of this stupid elitism. When, for instance, he announced that "out of triviality comes evil", did he really mean that all those people who don't read, or read the wrong books, or the right books but in the wrong way, are evil, or at least bad, and does reading the right books in the right way really help you be a good person?

A moment's thought provides the most thoroughgoing and pertinent objection to Leavis's work: whence did he derive his absolutist authority? He was forwarding personal, subjective preferences and prejudices as unquestionable facts.

Hence his reaction to Peter Greenham, who, while painting Leavis's portrait, remarked that he liked the novels of Arnold Bennett. Leavis's reply was, "No, you don't". In the exchange that followed, Leavis insisted that Greenham was simply wrong, as though enjoying Bennett was like thinking Paris was the capital of Germany.

It was only in the 1980s when a new generation of loudly relativist critics assumed some ascendancy that Leavis was finally discredited, although his star had been on the wane for long before that. However, Leavis had continued to exert a huge influence, from the specific choice of authors in the canon (I can blame Leavis for the fact that I had to study, for example, Gerard Manley Hopkins at school) to general assumptions endemic in Eng Lit - that, say, there are such things as "themes" and that these are more important than stories, or that there are such things as a ghastly mass culture and a sophisticated highbrow civilisation. Now that we have seen the centenary of Leavis's birth last year, and the publication of these two studies, both called F R Leavis, it might seem time to brace ourselves for an attempt at a Leavisite revival.

Fortunately, this hasn't happened. Ian MacKillop's biography is a well-researched and well-written work which presents a sympathetic but fair-minded account that eschews propaganda and is able to admit, for example, that Leavis was "intemperately observant of slights". Just how intemperate is unwittingly revealed in G Singh's uncompromisingly tedious, comically partisan effort. Singh's book mainly consists of no more than dutiful, plodding summaries of Leavis's work, punctuated with unvarying acclaim. The rest amounts to an astonishing shambles of memoirs, tributes, letters exchanged between the author and his subject, whatever comes to hand - but such is Singh's gaucherie that he allows Leavis to emerge from this mess as a maniac. An egotist for a start, regularly praising himself, complaining that his books require gruellingly hard work compared to others' easy nonsense. And a paranoiac, constantly detecting insults and heinous conspiracies. And as a very ungifted writer, for the private prose quoted by Singh often descends to the semi-literate.

From both books, the picture that emerges of Q D Leavis is even more damning. She was indeed the arch-Leavisite, using free-flowing prejudice to condemn "mass" culture, nurturing hatreds and cultivating feuds with dons, critics, writers, her son Ralph (she fell out with him when he was 20 and never talked to him again) and then, amazingly, her husband, accusing him after his death of publishing her work under his name.

F R and Q D were not, it seems, living adverts for the benefits they were sure accrued from following the "common pursuit" of appreciating "the great tradition". But, then again, as a joyless, elitist, woolly thinking, narrowly donnish couple with a tenuous grasp on reality, they were the very embodiments of many of the values Eng Lit has long held dear.

F R Leavis: A Life in Criticism By Ian MacKillop Allen Lane Pounds 25

F R Leavis: A Literary Biography By G Singh Duckworth Pounds 35

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