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The Great Tradition

Scrutiny, (1932-1953) with a Retrospect

by F.R. Leavis
Cambridge, single vol. pp., $6.50

I am damned critical—for it’s the only thing to be, and all else is damned humbug.”

—Henry James

I was at Downing College, Cambridge—Leavis’s college—when he announced the end of Scrutiny in 1953. Published for twenty-one years (uninterrupted even by the War), Scrutiny had earned more respect and more denunciation than any other quarterly in English. Its largest printing (in the Fifties) was only 1500 copies, yet these were circulated in school and college libraries in England and America, and were widely read. It was without official blessing of any kind, without financial assistance, without even a secretary to help the editors (most of whom were teaching at the same time), and without enough money to pay its contributors. Still Scrutiny managed to attract a remarkable group of critics—William Empson, I. A. Richards, Santayana, Herbert Read, to name a few. And the work of many distinguished younger critics appeared first in its pages: among them, Martin Turnell, Michael Oakeshott, L.C. Knights, Derek Traversi, Marlus Bewley. While Scrutiny published articles on politics and education, its most important achievement was a nearly complete revaluation of English literature. It was usually the first to make serious critical, rather than merely interpretative, examinations of the great writers of this century, especially Eliot and Lawrence.

But Scrutiny‘s accomplishment cannot be summarized by a list of its contributors nor by an account of its revisions of the history of English literature. Particularly for those of us who were directly exposed to Leavis, the magazine became a heroic enterprise. Its vitality arose from exactly those oppositions against which most enterprises would have collapsed. Though he was not the only editor, Leavis, with his wife Q. D. Leavis (whose reviews for Scrutiny were striking and resourceful), was in every way its most active and dominant force. Between them, the Leavises wrote almost 200 of the 900 reviews, as well as long essays. Both Leavises in their writing and in their talk were literally tense with life. They and the magazine advanced the business of criticism mostly by giving to a generation of students a standard of courage and judgment.

Courage, assertiveness, and life in the study of literature are not accounted academic virtues, and Scrutiny never had an easy time at the great university whose press, in a handsome and unprecedented gesture, now offers a reprint of the nineteen volumes of the magazine. The twentieth volume includes a splendidly thorough index and a “Retrospect” in which Leavis, despite some extravagant statements, magnificently sticks to his guns, even in his gratitude and triumph: the academic spirit, he insists, “will none the less remain what it is and be, in the academic world, always a present enemy.”

The complexity of Leavis’s feeling about the relation of modern Cambridge, and Scrutiny’s place in it, to the Cambridge of the past is an example of how the magazine approaches the subject of tradition as a force in contemporary life. Scrutiny constantly evokes the word “tradition” and it is this word that provides the justification for the critical toughness which Scrutiny brings to literature, especially to works of this century. However outlawed and embattled the Leavises felt themselves to be, they and Scrutiny could still claim to represent; the traditional Cambridge spirit, of which Leslie Stephen is the historical example, even in a Cambridge dominated by Maynard Keynes and pervaded by a taste for Lytton Strachey. Scrutiny and evenings at the Leavises’ gave an intensified and conscious life to traditions of moral seriousness which would otherwise have been lost, so they felt, in a modern Cambridge where, according to Leavis, articulateness and unreality are cultivated together, and where the “unreality as to whether one is serious or not takes itself for ironic poise.”

Scrutiny was thus conceived as an effort to invigorate a great tradition not only in English literature but in its own social and academic environment. Evidence for the contemporary vitality of that tradition was to be found, if at all, not in assertions or in the mere application to contemporary circumstance of a set of approved moral attitudes. It was to be found in the very sounds of the English language at Cambridge, or in a new book of poems. The threat to these traditions that Leavis found in Cambridge had a literary counterpart in what reviewers for Scrutiny often heard in, say, the poetry of Auden, especially in its pretensions to ironic poise. Much of the bite and zest, the passionate engagement in criticism as if it were a form of political action, derived from the conviction that no valid distinction could be made between involvement in literature and involvement in contemporary English life. The tradition of moral seriousness which is Scrutiny’s standard for literary judgment commits a writer or a critic to an experimental and self-critical struggle with responsibilities that are partly his literary heritage, and partly the substance of the English language itself as it takes its shape from Shakespeare, Donne, Bunyan, Pope, T. S. Eliot, and from the novelists of Leavis’s “great tradition”—Jane Austen, George Eliot, James, Conrad, and Lawrence.

Scrutiny makes claims for literature and for the function of literary criticism that seem extravagant, perhaps even unnecessary, to anyone who does not share its pessimism about capitalist civilization, with its destructive effects on language and its nullification of that consciousness which literature brings into being. Must one really insist so much on the inferiority of Auden to Eliot? Is it necessary to be that nasty about Dylan Thomas or Stephen Spender? Those of us who have followed Scrutiny have heard such questions. And the answer is yes, if one shares Scrutiny belief that literature is the last and only stronghold against those forces in society that substitute material well-being (and “articulateness”) for a humane concern with the moral conduct of life. The main task that Scrutiny set for itself was to locate in English literature “an autonomous culture, a culture independent of any economic or social system as none had been before.” And this phrase, “as none had been before,” reveals why Scrutiny and Leavis felt so embattled and why, in opposing the claims made for, say, the literary distinction of the Sitwells, they sounded as if they were fighting for survival rather than reviewing a book.

Given the historical aims of Scrutiny, how could Leavis avoid his criticism, which some mistook for merely personal animus, of the reputation and pretensions of C. P. Snow? The praise Snow’s novels received was to Leavis evidence of that loss of literary standards which would accompany exactly those social and economic processes Snow advocates in his essays. Scrutiny had made this attack before in its pieces on Bentham, Lord Russell, and H. G. Wells, and, earlier still, in its first issue in 1932, where it berated Max Eastman for claiming that “Science has put out of date the literary culture represented by critical journals.”

No cultural situation could be so unhealthy as that in which Scrutiny found itself, no magazine could feel itself compelled to repeat again and again its criticisms of particular writers and its defense of general positions, without becoming in some ways shrill, predictable, and dogmatic. (As late as 1952 the Times Literary Supplement said that Scrutiny was trying to make criticism a science.) The treatment of Auden and Lawrence illustrate this point. The helpful, considered tone of Auden’s early notices is often ignored (and the fact that Auden also wrote reviews for the first four volumes of Scrutiny), and the later nagging reviews are used as evidence of the magazine’s consistent destructiveness. But almost all of these later pieces were written by Leavis’s students, and are embarrassingly imitative of their teacher; they show what Henry Adams meant when he remarked that a teacher can never know where his influence will end. Leavis’s personality, persuasive and charming, is also immensely powerful; its strength derives partly from his having, in Scrutiny, argued with himself, argued with his enemies, argued with other contributors, not merely to establish criteria, but to discover them. What many of the later contributors to Scrutiny seemed to take from Leavis was an attitude and a tone that only he had earned. There are therefore violations in the final years of Scrutiny of precisely what it stood for: the idea that unless literary judgments are personal they are nothing, and that they cannot in any case profitably derive from the abstraction and application of “inherited” standards.

In his treatment of Lawrence, the supreme genius of English literature in this century, according to Leavis, it is Leavis himself who betrays the flexibility he displayed in his earlier essays. That this should have happened is understandable enough in view of the shameful unwillingness of those in positions of literary and academic power to enter into the responsible discussion of Lawrence that Scrutiny proposed. (Eliot’s assertion that Lawrence at Cambridge would have had a disastrous effect, “rotten and rotting others” is a case in point.) But the hardening of the essays on Lawrence in the post-war issues of Scrutiny is nonetheless unfortunate, resulting in an excessive adulation through which it is difficult to see Lawrence as the struggling genius that he was. Gone are the discriminations of Leavis’s earlier statement that: “The preoccupation with sex in Lawrence’s work is, no doubt, excessive by any standards of health, or in his beautifully modulated reply to Eliot:

No one who sees in what way Lawrence is “serious” and “improving” will attribute the sum of wisdom or anything like it to him. And for attributing to him “spiritual sickness” Mr. Eliot can make out a strong case. But it is characteristic of the world as it is that health cannot anywhere be found whole; and the sense in which Lawrence stands for health is an important one. He stands at any rate for something without which the preoccupation (necessary as it is) with order, forms, and deliberate construction cannot produce health.

It is wonderfully revealing of Leavis’s instinctive critical genius for literary history that while making an effort to accomodate Eliot’s view he manages, in describing a “preoccupation” with order, to articulate his objections to Joyce, Lawrence’s rival for acclaim and the object of Eliot’s preference. That he does this almost without premeditation is, in fact, one measure of how criticism for Leavis is a Laurentian act.

Such suppleness, the ease of discipline which has become instinct, is often absent from the “Retrospect” with its assertions and unjustifiable claims (e.g., that Scrutiny started “the modern cult of James” and the “quickening interest in Dickens”). And at times we hear a disturbingly imperial sweep and accent:

I will record here, as a relevant and representative datum, this: we had a great influence—and not the less because Scrutiny was known to be an outlaw enterprise—on generations of Cambridge students from the Indian sub-continent who now from key élites in India and Pakistan. How measure the effect of such influence? And who will pronounce it negligible?

Perhaps Leavis would not write in such a lonely way were he as fully aware as one would like him to be of the effect his magazine has had on teachers, students, and writers all over the world, who discovered only in Scrutiny an encouragement to be critically responsible and alive about modern literature. There was something we’d all been taught to call “critical analysis,” which turned out to be nothing more than intimidated interpretation, and there has since developed, in Northrop Frye’s mythopoeic criticism, still another way of evading the critical task to which Scrutiny dedicated itself.

For it is a task, not a set of general formulations, which the magazine most nobly exemplifies. Lawrence himself wrote of tradition that “It cannot be interited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour.” What admirers of Scrutiny wanted from it—what anyone who reads these volumes cannot help but want now—was not the opinions to which, in its last days, it seemed to demand our assent, but rather the example it gave of how to act courageously with our minds. In the study of American literature this could mean the discovery of critical standards quite different, in their social application, from those of Scrutiny. In fact, except for the essays by Marius Bewley and Leavis’s own essays on James, most of the articles flounder in their evaluation of American literature. MacLeish gets more attention than Frost and Stevens combined, while Farrell and Dos Passos are preferred to Faulkner. (The Sound And The Fury is dismissed as a “technical stunt.”) It is not then always the resulting judgment that makes an essay in Scrutiny admirable. Scrutiny and Leavis call upon us not to dogmatize, but to join in “that which the academic mind in the ‘humanities’ hates: the creative interplay of real judgments—genuine personal judgements, that is, of engaged minds fully alive in the present.”


Scrutiny January 23, 1964

Scrutiny January 23, 1964

Scrutiny January 23, 1964

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