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…

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