Placing Leavis

Geoffrey Hartman

  • The Leavises: Recollections and Impressions edited by Denys Thompson
    Cambridge, 207 pp, £15.00, October 1984, ISBN 0 521 25494 9
  • The Social Mission of English Criticism: 1848-1932 by Chris Baldick
    Oxford, 264 pp, £19.50, August 1983, ISBN 0 19 812821 5
  • Radical Earnestness: English Social Theory 1880-1980 by Fred Inglis
    Robertson, 253 pp, £16.50, November 1982, ISBN 0 85520 328 5
  • The Critic as Anti-Philosopher: Essays and Papers by F.R. Leavis edited by G. Singh
    Chatto, 208 pp, £9.95, November 1982, ISBN 0 7011 2644 2

The astonishing importance of Leavis in the English academic consciousness does not seem to be a passing fad. The scandal-maker of the 1930s became, by a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, part of the saving remnant on which the future of reading would depend. The photo on the cover of Denys Thompson’s The Leavises shows him in a jacket impermeable to the insults of time and with the open shirt of a Labour leader. He looks indeed, as his wife wrote of both of them, ‘grey-haired and worn down with battling for survival in a hostile environment’. Queenie Leavis stands beside him, also dressed simply, sharing his pursed lips and focused eyes that tilt only slightly towards a better world. Together they make a painful hendiadys, an icon of the threadbare, indomitable British intellectual. The snapshot catches something grim and mortal: an embattled uniformity, rather than their spirit active for half a century to save a culture that had lost, so Leavis wrote, ‘any sense of the difference between life and electricity’.

That phrase characterises the consistency of a career totally within the contracted sphere of the English university, and devoted to making it reflect a ‘human world’ instead of lusting after technological improvements that ‘promised to abstract the hopes of Man / Out of his feelings’ (Wordsworth). Cambridge was the right place for this pursuit: here the sciences were valued and – in Leavis’s eyes – over-valued; here the first School of English took hold.

One cannot separate Leavis from his university environment. The man found his lair, and never faltered in his attempt to conform it to a vision that was as simple in its outlines as it was complex in its outcome. He called for the ‘re-establishment of an educated reading public’, which implied that there had been, once, such a public; that education, especially through the agency of the university, might restore it; and that ‘reading’ English was both the means to reform and perhaps its best result. This concern for reading was drummed in relentlessly, and supported early on by Mrs Leavis, whose Fiction and the Reading Public (1932) provided an official version of the rise and fall of the class-integrated audience. It also pioneered a direction which social analysis was to take by focusing like I.A. Richards on problems of communication and reception.

Leavis himself wrote a PhD thesis on the emergence of magazines like the Spectator and the Tatler which inspired the ideal of the educated or ‘Common Reader’. Modern critical prose was founded by their periodical essays, which also prepared for the great English novel. Keeping up the pretence of a ‘correspondence’ between equals, Steele and Addison – and a few others like them – removed matters of taste from the heat of religious and political controversy. Art, as Schiller was to argue in his Letters on Aesthetic Education, was not simply a higher form of play that restored the illusion of wholeness to persons fragmented by the specialised demands of the modern world. Art mediated between two distinct tyrannies that always threatened human freedom: the tyranny of nature or instinct, and the tyranny of the state. It would not be an exaggeration to say that for Leavis the University institutionalised Schiller’s ideal of Aesthetic Education. If there could be an organisational arrangement to sustain rather than stifle the ‘organic community’, it was the university as Leavis envisaged it in Education and the University (1943).

While in the America of the 1920s and 30s the university became linked to democratic hopes for bringing literacy (both scientific and humanistic) to all classes, Leavis placed his trust in a small meritocracy of skilled readers. Whitehead and Dewey, who stressed the university’s contribution to the quality of life as much as he did, must have been anathema to him. Their optimism concerning the huddled masses was far removed from his fears about pseudo-literacy, the herd instinct, journalism, the application of technology to learning, and unfounded hopes as to the ‘culture’ of science. As Baldick writes in his fine The Social Mission of English Criticism, the educational model of the Leavises ‘revolves around the opposition between society at large and “society” in the 18th-century sense; between an unconscious mass and its conscious embodiment or guardian’.

Leavis’s sense of the 18th century was indeed crucial. His views were not very different from those of Establishment scholars, though more nuanced and critical, as his deft comparison of Dryden and Pope in Revaluation showed. Eighteenth-century journals, in creating the educated or Common reader, also laid the ground for what Leavis’s early tract (1930) would call ‘mass civilisation’ in contrast to ‘minority culture’. A plague of words, unleashed by Grub Street scribblers and the proliferating tribe of virtuosi (comparable perhaps to our dons), prompted Pope’s Dunciad with its climactic vision of the eclipse of culture and the triumph of an ‘uncreating word’. Eliot’s notion of a dissociation of sensibility from thought, accelerating after Donne and Shakespeare, seemed only to confirm Pope’s diagnosis.

The Augustan virtues of gentility, correctness and refinement were merely, in this context, ‘a sublime singerie’ – to quote Voltaire on the art of the French dancing-masters. Leavis could not forget how quickly the vernacular genius of English declined, after Shakespeare, into a mannered language. There was, however, nothing deterministic or fatalistic in his view of literary history: he held no overt thesis on the precise causes of that decline. He may have regretted that an independent peasantry (also Wordsworth’s desideratum) did not grow strong enough to survive the Industrial Revolution. But he relied less on social history than on his sense for the growth of an anti-word. The decline happened once, and perhaps happens always. Literature betrayed itself in Milton, Leavis’s favourite bogey, while prose, when not downright journalistic or crude, began to walk on Johnsonian stilts. ‘There is no Common Reader,’ Leavis declared in the 1960s. ‘The tradition is dead.’ Yet one wonders whether that tradition ever existed except as a compelling social fantasy.

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