Lessons of an Immoderate Master

F.R. Leavis: A Literary Biography

by G. Singh
Duckworth, 300 pp., £35.00


Few critics are accorded the compliment of a biography; very few indeed can ever have been accorded the compliment of two, as F.R. Leavis has been in the UK—one following the other in quick succession. But then Leavis was not as other critics. He was a guru, a leader, a master of those who know; he was also, in his time, a major hate figure. One way or another, he succeeded in obsessing a large number of people; and although, nearly twenty years after his death, the passions he aroused have inevitably subsided, they are by no means extinct.

Of the two biographies, MacKillop’s, which has now appeared in the US, is the more conventional, and the more interesting. A former pupil of Leavis, he writes, for the most part, as a disciple; at the same time he is at pains to point out that his book isn’t “authorized,” that he hasn’t had the Leavis family’s blessing. Singh, on the other hand, has written a book which is authorized in all but name. He is one of Leavis’s literary executors, and his dust jacket carries an endorsement from his fellow executor, Leavis’s son Robin. Above all his approach is the only one you can imagine Leavis himself—assuming there had to be a biography—finding remotely acceptable: he concentrates overwhelmingly on books, articles, ideas, teaching activities, and literary attitudes, on publications and the public man. Leavis liked to call himself an “anti-philosopher,” and Singh’s book might well be termed an anti-biography. But a certain amount of life can’t help leaking in, even so.

Leavis was an important critic on a number of counts. His views defy easy summary, and until the later stages of his career he quite often shifted his ground, or his interests; but three of his books (he published some twenty in all) stand out in particular. New Bearings in English Poetry (1932) proclaimed a revolutionary break in the English poetic tradition. It contained a bleak survey of the situation before the advent of T.S. Eliot, long pioneering studies of Eliot and Gerard Manley Hopkins, and a much more guarded appreciation of Ezra Pound. Revaluation (1936) examined the course of earlier English poetry in the light of post-Eliot insights and standards, though its estimate of individual authors was not necessarily the same as Eliot’s. Famous names, most notoriously Milton, were demoted; a number of others—Pope, for example, and Wordsworth—were sympathetically reappraised. The Great Tradition (1948), probably his most influential book, was a comparable attempt to redraw the map of classic English fiction. Once again, many established figures were downgraded, and in some cases virtually written out of the script. The “great tradition” itself was held to consist of Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James, Joseph Conrad, and D.H. Lawrence; of these only Eliot, James, and Conrad were considered at length, although Leavis was to publish a separate study of Lawrence’s fiction in 1955.

From early on his work was distinguished by the close reading of texts or…

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