F.R. Leavis: A Literary Biography
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 selected passages, in a manner that was partly influenced by the “practical criticism” of I.A. Richards and that partly anticipated the American New Criticism of the 1940s. He was generally at his best in the analysis of verbal effects—or those to which he responded. (Where he was out of sympathy with a writer, he was often content to pounce on easily identified weaknesses.) At the same time, he set his face firmly against any suggestion of formalism or art for art’s sake. No twentieth-century critic of note has been more insistent that the function of literature is ultimately moral, and that criticism must always be to a large extent a form of moral discrimination.
The morality he invoked was never precisely formulated. Sometimes it seemed to be a modified version of traditional puritanism (minus its religious foundations), sometimes a vague form of vitalism (“art is on the side of life”). It also had a marked social dimension. He was the scourge of what he saw as degraded cultural standards; throughout his career he presented himself, to borrow the terms he used in the title of an early pamphlet, as the upholder of “minority culture” in a “mass civilization.” In this respect, he aspired to the mantle of Matthew Arnold.
To be reminded of such things is not, in 1996, an especially exciting business. Most of his views have long since been absorbed or rejected. But it is useful, I suppose, to have them sorted out systematically, as Singh and MacKillop do between them.
Even in his heyday, however, the views themselves were not enough to account for his legend. The excitement lay at least as much in the vehemence with which they were expressed and the effectiveness with which he imposed them. He accomplished whatever he did through force of personality, and it is his personality alone which is likely to sustain anyone’s interest in reading three hundred or four hundred pages about him today.
He himself, for all his aversion to biography, positively invites a personal approach in the truculent sentence quoted on the jacket of the MacKillop book: “I don’t believe in any ‘literary values,’ and you won’t find me talking about them; the judgments the literary critic is concerned with are judgments about life.” It is a characteristic sentiment. He was constantly invoking “life,” and not in any anodyne spirit, either: as often as not, his “judgments about life” took the form of ad hominem asperities and breathtaking condemnations. So how can we fail to be curious about his own life?
It is a curiosity which naturally extends to the personality of Queenie Dorothy Roth, whom he married in 1929. F.R. and Q.D. were a team (as they signaled, most embarrassingly, when they wrote a book on Dickens together and dedicated it to each other), and any biography of Leavis must also be to a large extent the portrait of a marriage.
A mass of gossip and folklore gathered around the pair during their lifetime, but only a relatively small amount of it found its way into print. In 1984, however, three years after Queenie’s death, Cambridge University Press published a volume of “recollections and impressions” edited by Denys Thompson, who had been the co-author, back in 1933, of one of Leavis’s earliest books, Culture and Environment. It is a revealing work, in many ways more revealing than the new biographies. Naturally it set out to commemorate the Leavises’ positive achievements, and some of the tributes it contains command considerable respect: the memoir by the psychologist and critic D.W. Harding, for instance, who had been a leading collaborator of Leavis in the early years of the Leavis house magazine Scrutiny. But it also provides extensive evidence—by no means all of it unintended—of the Leavises’ less admirable qualities. By the time you have finished reading it, in fact, you are left wondering whether the careers which it is ostensibly designed to celebrate weren’t something of a horror story.
One notable incident is recounted by Denys Thompson himself. In 1935 he mentioned in a letter to Queenie that he had got engaged to one of her husband’s former pupils, though not the one she had had in mind for him. Her response was “a letter of perhaps a thousand words in her small, spidery, legible hand, criticising my intended wife in abusive terms.” Out of regard for F.R., he decided to send her a restrained reply, giving her the chance to make some kind of withdrawal. This time his reward was “two closely-filled sides of a quarto sheet in which I was now the target.”
Admittedly this is a story about only one member of the team. It is something Leavis felt forced to collude with as a husband, rather than an instance of his own ill-will. But collude he did; there were apparently similar instances of interference on Queenie’s part; and in an extreme form the incident reflects the atmosphere which both Leavises created around them—an atmosphere of anathema and interdiction, of promised salvation and very real rejection.
Another contributor to the Thompson volume, Leavis’s niece Mary Pitter, recalls an episode which is much more trivial, but hardly less chilling in its lack of common forbearance. Her father (Leavis’s brother-in-law) was an architect. At some time during the early married life of the Leavises, knowing how poor they were, he thought that a touch of luxury would cheer them up and sent them a bottle of Cointreau. Given their ascetic tastes, this was no doubt rather obtuse of him; but he meant well, and the only acknowledgment he received was “a letter from F.R.L. not only not thanking him for the present but saying tersely ‘Don’t ever do such a thing again.”’ It was a letter that was intended to hurt, and it did.
It is only fair to add that Mary Pitter, while regretting many things about the Leavises’ behavior, described her own relationship with them as “wonderfully enriching.” Life is complicated. But for an outsider, the most striking aspect of the Cointreau affair is how much it chimes in with other incidents in Leavis’s career—gifts sent back, friendly gestures (when they came from the “wrong” quarter) not merely disregarded but rebuffed, good deeds soundly punished.
A particularly grisly instance of what you might call active ingratitude concerns I.A. Richards. Richards had been the most prominent figure in the modernization of English studies at Cambridge in the 1920s, and Leavis owed him a major debt. In 1935, however, they fell out—an estrangement brought about by Leavis’s hostile review of Richards’s book on Coleridge. There was genuine intellectual disagreement between them, but over the years Leavis gave it a sharp personal edge with scornful references to Richards as a “neo-Benthamite” and the like. Then, in 1978, Leavis (aged eighty-two) was made a Companion of Honour. Among those who wrote congratulating him was Richards (aged eighty-four), who had himself been made a C.H. some years earlier. Professor Singh describes his letter as the most significant sent on this occasion by anyone in the literary world, and even quotes from it: “Warm companion’s felicitations! You should have had them long before this….” But that is all that Singh tells us, and for a fuller version of what happened one must turn to his fellow biographer. “Richards,” MacKillop reports, “had wondered whether such a letter would be in order, but his wife persuaded him to write. He was right to hesitate, because an insulting one-sentence reply was returned.” MacKillop doesn’t try to justify this behavior; all he can offer by way of exculpation is the suggestion that it may have been Queenie who guided her husband’s faltering hand.
This isn’t the only episode in his book which a more discreet disciple would have tiptoed past. While he remains committed to the Leavisite enterprise, MacKillop isn’t wholly worshipful: every so often he adopts an independent perspective. He even has a kind word for C.P. Snow—and he reminds us that the lofty themes of Leavis’s celebrated 1962 lecture attacking Snow and The Two Cultures didn’t prevent him from indulging in some decidedly low-level ridicule: there was one joke in the lecture about Snow’s novels being written by “an electronic brain called Charlie.” (It comes as no great surprise, incidentally, to learn that in 1953, when Scrutiny closed down, Snow had sent Leavis a letter of sympathy. He should have known he was asking for trouble.)
MacKillop also provides some choice examples of Leavis’s intemperate language. The break with Richards, for instance, led to a rupture with Richards’s former pupil William Empson. In 1932, in New Bearings in English Poetry, Leavis had singled out Empson—his intelligence in particular—for exceptional praise. By 1935 he was letting it be known, in a letter, that he wasn’t “very intelligent”; later the verdict was revised downward to “not humanly intelligent.” Or, to take a more sledgehammer attack (which unlike the remarks about Empson he actually published), there were his comments on Scott Fitzgerald. He railed against him for apparently lacking a “sense of even the elementary decencies that one had thought of as making civilized intercourse possible,” and added that “there is nothing in his writings to contradict what we know of his life.”
Some of the sweeping condemnations which MacKillop quotes were transparent attempts on Leavis’s part to keep his chosen territory to himself. Scholarly work on D.H. Lawrence, for example—other people’s scholarly work—was dismissed en bloc as “the accumulation of impertinences.” Other quotations illustrate how easily the habit of verbal excess was picked up by disciples. It led to such things as the 1961 review in which one of his most trusted lieutenants at the time, Morris Shapira, described a collection of essays by Frank Kermode as “hateful.” (Running into Shapira shortly afterward, a friend of mine was moved to ask him, “Morris, what are you going to say when you meet Himmler?”)
No one would want to trawl through the whole range of Leavisite invective; but there are times, even so, when MacKillop could and should have gone further. The treatment of Dickens is a case in point—relegated to an appendix and the role of “great entertainer” in The Great Tradition (1948), praised to the skies, without any explanation of the intervening change, in Dickens the Novelist (1970). It is true that MacKillop tells us that in the latter book the Leavises “trivialized” previous commentators on Dickens; but to give the full flavor of what was happening you would have to discuss specific instances—the case of Edmund Wilson, say. And you would have to go beyond the book itself, to Leavis’s role as a teacher. In Clive James’s memoir May Week Was in June, for example, there is a vivid glimpse of Leavis lecturing in Cambridge in the Sixties, pouring “an avalanche of abuse” on Humphry House. House, who isn’t mentioned by MacKillop, was dead by then; his offense was to have written an important book on Dickens, and—even more unforgivably—to have published it as early as 1941.
Many other potential themes remain relatively unexplored by MacKillop. He cites only a limited range of reactions to Leavis from the literary world at large. (You will look in vain for John Berryman’s response in the 1930s—“a vacant popularizer, vacant and impudent”—or Sylvia Plath’s in the 1950s: “a magnificent, acid, malevolently humorous little man who looks exactly like a bandy-legged leprechaun.”) The cooling-off of relations between Leavis and his two most distinguished early followers, D.W. Harding and L.C. Knights, is merely referred to in passing, without any explanation; there is nothing at all about some of the more interesting minor Scrutineers. Still, it would be asking the impossible to expect any one book to cover the full ramifications of the story. Perhaps we can look forward to a Review of Leavis Studies. (Universities have sponsored sillier things.) Until then, MacKillop has given us something to be getting on with.
By contrast, Singh’s vision of Leavis is as bland as a boardroom portrait. The great man can do no wrong. What makes this degree of adulation puzzling is that, far from being some dim camp follower, Singh is a cosmopolitan, widely cultivated scholar (the author of, among other things, a study of Eugenio Montale). And there is a deeper mystery. It turns out that he serves not one god but two, the second being Ezra Pound. “Courage, integrity and disinterestedness,” he proclaims, “characterised everything Pound said, did or wrote.” (Yes, everything.) How he manages to square his twin loyalties with each other we never find out, since except at those points where they naturally intersect, such as Leavis’s admiration for Mauberley, he keeps them in separate compartments. Certainly nothing seems to hinder his Leavis-worship from burning ever more brightly as the book progresses. Occasionally it even blinds him to what he is saying—when he describes one of Leavis’s lectures, for example, as “another brilliant example of his polemical prowess and brilliance.”
But if he doesn’t criticize, he quotes; and many of his quotations produce a less favorable impression than he assumes. The immoderate Leavis is well represented in his pages (Balzac “is clearly not discussible as great in any way”; René Wellek “doesn’t know what literature is”), while a less devout adherent to the cause might have hesitated before reprinting some of the disobliging remarks about colleagues and collaborators which he quotes from Leavis’s correspondence. Did Harding ever find out, for instance, that Leavis privately dismissed his much-admired essay on Jane Austen, which had originally appeared in Scrutiny, as naive, ill-informed, “in the bad sense a psychologist’s”? Another Scrutiny veteran, H.A. Mason, was described behind his back as “plausibly glib and superficially intelligent.” “We used him,” Leavis explained, with what sounds very like cynicism, “because of his languages and his journalistic facility, which could be kept, or raised, to a reasonably intelligent informational level which was in close touch with the conversation in my drawing-room.”
There is a good deal of black comedy in all this, as there is in many other episodes recounted by both biographers. Leavis may have tried to maintain a stony facade, for instance, but in private he could be almost disarmingly boastful. Not content with claiming that his attack on Snow was going to be a classic, he described it to someone else as “a poem.” Discussing one of his collections of essays, he wrote: “I don’t think ill of the book. In fact, it impresses me very favourably indeed.” It is at moments like these that I feel renewed admiration for the genius of Ivy Compton-Burnett.
Still, we mustn’t overplay the comic aspects. In his History of Modern Criticism, René Wellek devotes more space to Leavis than to any other twentieth-century British critic apart from Eliot, and I don’t take this as a sign that Wellek didn’t know what literature is. Leavis demands to be understood as well as gossiped about, and the impact he had on his contemporaries adds substantial social and psychological interest to the facts that MacKillop (in particular) has assembled.
Because of his name, people who didn’t know him sometimes assumed that he was Jewish. Au contraire, as you might say; when he married Queenie, who was Jewish, and came from an Orthodox background, her parents disowned her for “marrying out.” The name Leavis was in fact Huguenot in origin, though the family had long been settled in East Anglia. Leavis’s paternal grandfather was a piano-tuner based in a village in the Fens; his father, Harry Leavis, established a business selling pianos in Cambridge, the town where he himself was to spend his entire life apart from the First World War.
Harry Leavis was a rationalist, a republican, a man of firm views and considerable culture. His son admired him, and in old age wrote about him in terms which suggest a strong residual feeling of awe. “He dominated every company he was in, though he wasn’t overbearing. Simply a centre of human power.” Perhaps it wasn’t quite as simple as that. There are hints in the record of a more oppressive parental presence: as long as his daughter lived at home, for instance, he insisted on her keeping her hair short, “for hygienic reasons.” Still, there can be no doubt that he had a lasting influence on his son’s outlook, and that he helped to shape his nonconformist stance toward the world. By contrast, Leavis’s mother, as is often the case with mothers in biographies, remains a shadowy figure. But a few additional facts about her can be gleaned from a fragmentary memoir of Leavis by Queenie, which is reprinted by Singh. Her father’s family were originally Anglo-Irish; she was connected (whether she was actually related isn’t made clear) to Sir John Moore, the Peninsular War general whose death at the battle of Corunna is commemorated in a poem (“Not a drum was heard, not a funeral note”) which was once familiar to countless English schoolchildren.
One thing that emerges from both biographies is that Leavis’s learning was much wider than you would gather from the narrow range of subjects to which he restricted himself in his writing. He impressed Singh, when they first met, with his spontaneous recital of a poem by Leopardi; MacKillop demonstrates that he had a considerable knowledge of classical Greek—a legacy of his school days at the Perse School in Cambridge under a great headmaster, W.H.D. Rouse (translator of Homer and general editor of the Loeb Classical Library).
In the autumn of 1914 Leavis went up to the university to read history—in reality it meant going just down the road. War had been declared two months earlier. He wasn’t a pacifist (“I knew that the Germans mustn’t be allowed to win”), but his principles didn’t allow him to become a soldier, either. Instead, he applied to join the Quakers’ medical brigade; he was assigned to the ambulance unit, and spent two years in France, in the front line. It was an experience which left him with insomnia, an impaired digestive system, and who knows what else. He seldom spoke about it in later life.
The Twenties are in many ways the most elusive period of his career. In literary terms the great event was undoubtedly the discovery of Eliot—an enormous influence, which over the next fifty years was to be refined on, wrestled with, rejected, returned to, brooded over, resented, reaffirmed. Professionally he moved forward toward his Ph.D., which he was awarded in 1924. (His thesis, scaled down after an overambitious start, was on the relationship between journalism and literature in the eighteenth century; the external examiner who gave it his approval was the aged George Saintsbury.) Then he joined the pool of college lecturers, though without having a permanent position. The facts seem clear as far as they go, but they are mostly the facts of his c.v. His personal life remains more of an enigma, and even his intellectual development during these years is hard to reconstruct—largely, no doubt, because he didn’t publish anything. It was only after his marriage that he began writing. His first work of any note, a pamphlet, was published in 1930; when his first book, New Bearings in English Poetry, came out two years later, he was already thirty-seven.
In the same year he was appointed director of studies at Downing College, Cambridge, but by this time he was nursing a major grievance. He was not appointed to a lectureship in the Cambridge English faculty until 1936, and then it was only a part-time one; he had to wait until 1947, when he was over fifty, for a full-time position, and until 1954 for an invitation to join the faculty board. These disappointments were descanted on, bitterly and frequently; and though his version of events has been disputed, there was plainly something wrong. One would sympathize more, however, if he hadn’t complained quite so insistently about his injuries (worse things happen), and if he hadn’t done quite so much to provoke them.
You can’t help feeling, too, that Leavis found something gratifying about the situation. One shouldn’t underestimate the practical consequences; they included prolonged financial insecurity. But there was also powerful compensation, for someone of his temperament, in having such palpable proof that he was right and the others were wrong, and in rallying yet others to his cause. By the mid-Thirties, the pattern was firmly fixed. Cambridge was the university that counted most (he never considered going anywhere else), and within the university what counted most was “Cambridge English.” But Cambridge English as it existed, or appeared to, was false, an illusion; there was a real Cambridge English, to which he alone held the key.
It was an almost mystical vision, one that the Gnostics would have recognized, and the movement which developed around Leavis has often been compared to a religious sect. In a secular age, its appeal was all the more effective for avoiding any show of dogma: if we were to believe Leavis’s protestations, readers and pupils were simply presented with propositions which they were free to debate. (“This is so,” as a favorite formula ran, “is it not?”) But in practice there were initiates, rules, prohibitions, a special language, sacred texts. Deviations were punished, heretics were purged. And there were missionaries, too. In Britain the movement attained a much wider influence than its university following (always small in numbers) would suggest, thanks to the preaching of the word in colleges of education and schools.
None of this means that Leavis attracted followers simply by peddling his own charisma, as enemies often alleged. He had something to say. Readers of Somerset Maugham’s Cakes and Ale will recall the character of the popular novelist Alroy Kear. He was a smooth platform performer; the only trouble was that whenever he gave a literary lecture, people left the lecture hall with their thoughts running on Alroy Kear rather than on the author he had been talking about. Leavis wasn’t like that. When he lectured on Wordsworth, say, or Gerard Manley Hopkins, you came away thinking about Wordsworth or Hopkins. But you also came away thinking at least as much about Leavis—and as the years went by, the balance tilted increasingly in his direction.
Much of his power, whether as a teacher or writer, came from his ability to communicate tension. No judgment was arrived at without great cost—or so you were led to feel; no definition was achieved without an “intolerable wrestle with words.” One of his paradoxes was that his sweeping assertions coexisted with an ingrained defensiveness. The contortions of his style, the edgy qualifications and sideways glances, were those of a man searching for an impregnable position, determined not to be caught out. And while people often complained about it, or mocked its inelegance, it is an admirable style in its way. A genuine style, at all events: no one could doubt that it faithfully reflects his character.
Writing never came easily to him (though in the end he wrote a great deal). He spent at least fifteen years planning a big book on criticism, to be called Authority and Method—it was even announced in his Who’s Who entry; but he found that he couldn’t go through with it. And his Ph.D. dissertation gave him exceptional trouble. According to Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, who supervised him, “no small part of that job was steering him clear of nervous breakdown.”
Quiller-Couch was a figure from another age, who had begun his career as a literary journalist and a historical novelist, Stevenson-style, in the 1880s. That didn’t prevent him from seeing the point of Leavis, or treating him generously: it was his intervention which secured the part-time lectureship for him in 1936. But earlier on he had felt that the course Leavis’s life had taken was “a tragedy”; and the root of the trouble, as he explained in a letter to I.A. Richards, written in 1929, seemed to him “the man’s Self-Sufficiency.”
It isn’t a bad diagnosis, as far as it goes, but later generations are hardly likely to accept it as the last word. The questions prompted by Leavis’s career as a whole, if we are tempted to follow the path of psychological speculation, are altogether more elaborate. What are we to make of his cult of D.H. Lawrence, for example? Much of the praise he lavished on Lawrence is incandescent in its fervor: no other modern writer (except Eliot very occasionally) is assigned remotely the same importance. Yet at the same time he backs away from Lawrence’s specific themes, the sexual themes in particular, into generalized talk about seriousness and “life.” And then there are the “idiosyncratic” Leavisites, as MacKillop calls them, a tiny number of “eccentric” pupils (another MacKillop term for them) who were treated with more respect than the docile ones, and permitted what was by Leavis’s standards an unusual amount of independence. Most of the figures MacKillop cites in this connection were homosexuals: one of them, Morris Shapira, was murdered (in 1981) by a youth he had picked up while out cruising. What was Leavis’s own attitude to homosexuality? “Complicated” seems the safest guess. Some have discerned deep homophobia in his hostility to Bloomsbury and the Auden group; I’m not quite sure. How much did he know—or choose to know—about Shapira? It is a question which we can hardly help asking. The two men had been very close, until the almost inevitable breach; Shapira had also enjoyed an unusually warm friendship with Queenie. But it is not a question about which MacKillop offers us any guidance. Rather strangely, he alludes to Shapira’s death in the caption to a photograph but not in his main text. Readers who don’t know the story already will be baffled.
He gives a much fuller account—a lively one—of Marius Bewley, who had first come to study at Downing in 1937. Bewley was another “idiosyncratic” disciple, and (very openly) another homosexual. He was also an American: the most significant, from a Leavisian point of view, of Leavis’s transatlantic students and admirers. One only wishes MacKillop had had something to say about some of the others. He does, however, discuss the Leavises’ interest in American literature, rightly pointing out that it was one of the things that conventional colleagues found unsettling about them in the 1930s. As far as English universities were concerned, they were well ahead of their time in this respect, and they went on to write a number of essays on American themes. Queenie wrote rewardingly about Edith Wharton, Leavis interestingly about Pudd’nhead Wilson. (Queenie also had an utterly unpredictable weakness, in private life, for the stories of Damon Runyon.)
But their interest gradually waned, and as it did Leavis began giving in to commonplace anti-American prejudices. The late Donald Davie describes a ludicrous scene in his memoirs—Leavis and C.S. Lewis engaged in conversation, agreeing that American universities couldn’t be taken seriously because the United States was a plutocracy: “Sagely nodding and capping each other’s observations, Lewis and Leavis would hear nothing from me, or from another of the company lately returned from a year in the States.” (Lewis and Leavis seemed to have established a détente of sorts in their later years, incidentally. Lewis used to say that Leavis would be saved, in spite of everything, because he didn’t care about money.)
America was far from being the only subject on which he showed an increasingly closed mind. True, there were a few late-flowering enthusiasms—for Dickens; for Montale, with the encouragement of Professor Singh. But much the strongest impression you get from the second half of his career is of narrowing, hardening, repetition.
Meanwhile he was now a famous man. He had an international reputation which none of his Cambridge colleagues could begin to match. His influence made itself felt in the work of scores of younger critics, and in the enhanced status of authors whom he had championed: George Eliot, for example. In Britain, the new multivolume Pelican Guide to English Literature, the most popular work of its kind, was heavily committed to spreading Leavisite views. Most gratifying of all, or so one would have supposed, in 1963 Cambridge University Press reprinted the entire run of Scrutiny, in twenty volumes. In 1968 they followed this up with a two-volume selection, edited by Leavis himself.
He could be quite funny at times about the aura he had acquired in middle age (“Gladstonian grandeur”), and about dissociating himself from developments of which he might have been expected to approve—the legal proceedings which resulted in the lifting of the ban on Lady Chatterley’s Lover, for instance. (He described them, not altogether unfairly, as “Gilbertian.”) But his overwhelming need was to maintain his sense of grievance. Bitterness, exasperation, and the urge to dominate, thinly disguised as the urge to resist, remained the order of the day. As L.C. Knights has written, “it was as though he was driven by some force with a built-in guarantee of disappointment.” What was a twenty-volume reprint in comparison with his unassuaged pride?
External enemies still had to be fought, of course; but to the extent that the revolution had succeeded, it isn’t surprising that his wrath was more and more directed against defectors, real or supposed. His efforts to maintain complete control came to a head in 1964- 1965, after his retirement. Two years earlier a group of admirers, including some of his closest associates, had set up an F.R. Leavis trust, with the aim of endowing a lectureship at Cambridge which could be relied on to promulgate his ideas. Support was enlisted and funds were raised. (One early donor was Mary McCarthy.) The subsequent sequence of events, recounted by MacKillop in somber detail, is an extremely tangled one, but it ended with Leavis, convinced that the trustees had misled him, turning on them and rending them with a savagery which was startling even by his standards. According to MacKillop, much of the language he used about them, and went on using, was legally actionable.
When you look back at the debris he left, his achievements seem secondary: you wonder whether the price was worth paying. It is an essential part of the story, too—and on the whole one that weighs against him—that he was a teacher. If he has been an unattached critic, or a literary journalist, his opinions would have had to take their chance in the world, like anyone else’s. As it was, every year brought him a fresh supply of youthful minds to get to work on. Some people may not see any great problem in this: he was a strong teacher, and strong teachers usually have strong views. But there is a line between powerful teaching and authoritarian teaching, and it is a line he crossed early in his career. What makes one bristle at so many of his judgments is not their severity (lots of critics are severe, and we are all capable of finding this great book unreadable or that great author overrated) but their grindingly pedagogic tone: every verdict is made to sound systematic and absolute. Discussing the classic English critics, for instance, in the course of his book Education and the University (1942), he issues a curt command: the student “will have no use at all for Hazlitt or Lamb.” All wrapped up in a single sentence; and similar sentences—death sentences, really—are scattered throughout his work. For every door he opened, there must have been twenty he closed.
The sensible solution is to take him piecemeal, to get what one can out of individual essays and analyses without feeling obliged to fret over the general Leavis line. It is a solution which has always been easy for Americans to adopt (they didn’t have to live with him), though it has also become much easier for the English to adopt with the passage of time. And it brings its rewards: there are dozens of passages in his work which can still be read with illumination and even pleasure. They may not be enough to raise him above the rank of critic in the limited conventional sense—he was no Hazlitt or Lamb; but within their limits they are of lasting interest.
With time, too, some of his underlying assumptions have come to seem more congenial, if only by contrast with what has happened since. Well before he died, new ideologies and methodologies were flooding into literature departments; and if you welcome their triumph, you are bound to conclude that he was innocent, or primitive, or amateurish. Others, however, may feel grateful that he remained as immune as he did to the lure of theory, and that he was never tempted to turn criticism into a pseudoscience. The old common-sense core beliefs which everyone used to share still hold good in his work: an author is still an author, a book is still a book, literature is still itself and not the raw material for something else. And for this at least we can raise a small glass of something—Cointreau, perhaps—and propose a small toast to his memory.