Anna Karenina and Other Essays
by F.R. Leavis
Pantheon, 241 pp., $5.95
That F. R. Leavis is a first-rate critical personality is certain, but that is by no means the same thing as saying that he is a first-rate literary critic. No doubt he has at times achieved that stature; at other times not at all. I am here primarily concerned with him as a critic, not with his reputation as a formidable teacher, nor with his educational theories, nor with his standing as the charismatic head of the sectarian Scrutiny group, consisting in the later years of that periodical mostly of epigones who have for some years now acquired positions of influence in the British schools. In the America of the late 1940s and early 1950s the “new critics” tried to annex him by gratuitously referring to him as one of their own, a comrade-in-arms. That was a mistaken assessment, if not something worse.
Actually, the peculiar combination of formalism and traditionalist ideology (à la Eliot), characteristic of the “new criticism,” has always been foreign to Leavis. He has never committed himself to any kind of religiosity (covert or overt) and he has explicitly repudiated the formalist position. Typical of him is the following remark, repeated throughout his career in different critical contexts: “Questions of technique—versification, convention, relation of diction to the spoken language, and so on—cannot be isolated from considerations of fundamental purpose, essential ethos, and quality of life.” In his view, a “serious interest in literature” cannot be limited to the kind of local analysis, however intensive, associated with “practical criticism”—the effects of linguistic strategy, metaphor, symbol, etc. “A real literary interest is an interest in man, society and civilization, and its boundaries cannot be drawn.” Clearly, this position is wholly at odds with the circumscriptions imposed upon the theory and function of literary criticism by the “new critics.” Happily, their dominance of the American literary scene in the immediate postwar period is a thing of the past now and virtually forgotten; and my aim in recalling them in this discussion of Leavis is simply to set the record straight.
What I chiefly like about Leavis’s work are its Johnsonian qualities: the robustness, the firmness, the downrightness. He is not one to beat around the bush, to play the diplomat, to cultivate ambiguity, or to shun controversy. A critic in the Arnoldian tradition, he aspires, in his own words, “to the highest critical standards and the observance of the most scrupulous critical discipline”—an admirable aspiration in the attainment of which, however, he has, to my mind, failed quite as often as he has succeeded. For he is plagued by all the defects of his virtues. What I have in mind is not his plain speaking, of course, but rather the esprit de sérieux animating many of his critical pronouncements. It expresses itself in a kind of provincial moralism (by no means to be equated with the “marked moral intensity” he so esteems in his literary preferences), a protestant narrowness of sensibility, basically puritan, resulting …