Frank Raymond (F R) Leavis (1895-1978) is now recognized as one of the most influential literary critics and teachers of his time and among the major intellectual figures of the 20th century.
Frank Raymond Leavis was born in Cambridge on 14th July 1895 and attended the Perse School there. He went up to Emmanuel College in 1914, where (resuming studies after the Great War) he read History and English, the latter being then new as a university discipline at Cambridge. He would recall those early years of the English tripos in his 1967 Clark Lectures (published in 1969 as English Literature in our Time and the University), evoking vividly the pioneering spirit of the new venture.
He served in the war in the Friends’ Ambulance Unit, carrying a pocket Milton throughout the ordeal. Though he rarely spoke of them, his wartime experiences affected him deeply and remained with him for the rest of his life. He would much later recall carrying buckets of cocoa along the roofs of ambulance trains (without corridors) ‘to men who would have died without it’ and ‘the innumerable boy subalterns who … had climbed out and gone forward, playing their part in the attacking wave, to be mown down with the swathes that fell to the uneliminated machine guns.’
Early Intellectual Influences
In another autobiographical passage he remembered ‘those early years after the great hiatus’ when he had ‘struggled to achieve the beginnings of articulate thought about literature’. The figures who ‘really counted’ then were George Santayana (though ‘not fundamentally congenial’) and Matthew Arnold, to be followed soon by T.S.Eliot: he bought The Sacred Wood when it came out in 1920. (Eliot’s paradoxical distinction would preoccupy him for much of his life.) Along with these went the influence of Ford Madox Ford’s (or Hueffer’s) English Review to which Leavis had subscribed as a schoolboy in 1912.
It was here that he first came on the writing of D. H. Lawrence (‘the necessary opposite’, as he would later call him, in relation to Eliot). Leavis was impressed by Ford’s recognition that in the ‘irreversible new conditions’ of modern industrial civilisation the concern for ‘the higher cultural values’ must reside with a small minority, while at the same time that concern must concede nothing to ‘the preciousness, fatuity or spirit of Aestheticism’. That view was to be a cornerstone of his own periodical Scrutiny (1932-53). An important aspect of the Scrutiny ‘manifesto’ also, in a Marxising era, would be its freedom from organised ideology: a ‘space’ for disinterested intellectual enquiry founded in the ‘autonomy of the human spirit’.
In Mansfield Forbes, one of the early lecturers for the tripos, Leavis found an inspiring example of critical and teaching method. He also found stimulation in the early work of I.A.Richards (though he would part company with him when Richards developed interests in semiology). In 1924 he took one of the earliest PhDs in the School with a thesis on the periodical literature of the eighteenth century with particular reference to Addison’s Spectator. He retained a lifelong interest in the sociology of literature and a profound concern for cultural continuity. His wife would exemplify similar interests in her classic study (which grew out of her PhD thesis), Fiction and the Reading Public (1932). He collaborated with Denys Thompson on a small primer for schools aimed at encouraging critical awareness: Culture and Environment (1933).
He also admired The Calendar of Modern Letters edited by Edgell Rickword, a quarterly which ran from 1925 to 1927. Leavis was to see its failure to win a sufficient public as an index of cultural decline. Its concern with the maintenance of critical standards was to be an important inspiration behind Scrutiny. The Calendar ran a series of intelligent deflations of what it saw as the exaggerated reputations of such contemporary figures as H.G.Wells, J.M.Barrie, G.K.Chesterton and John Galsworthy (the Galsworthy critique was written by D.H.Lawrence): these articles were later collected by Edgell Rickword under the title Scrutinies.
In 1933 Leavis published a selection from The Calendar, with an appreciative introduction, under the title Towards Standards of Criticism (re-printed in 1976 with both the original and a new introduction – in effect a retrospect – by Leavis). It contains one of his most important and original formulations: a reference point for the many subsequent assaults he made on the problem of value-judgement:
Literary criticism provides the test for life and concreteness; where it degenerates, the instruments of thought degenerate too, and thinking, released from the testing and energizing contact with the full living consciousness, is debilitated, and betrayed to the academic, the abstract and the verbal. It is of little use to discuss values if the sense for value in the concrete – the experience and perception of value – is absent.
Teaching at Cambridge
By 1925 he was doing some part-time teaching at Emmanuel. D.W.Harding, who was later to be a fellow editor of Scrutiny, recalled his qualities as a teacher when, looking back fifty years in a broadcast symposium in 1975, he said:
He was really superb. I remember the feelings with which this other man and I would come away. We would be partly exhilarated and partly a bit subdued and rueful, perhaps. Exhilarated because of the new insights and the fine discriminations he had made, and sobered because he kept such extremely high standards in insight and one just realised how unskilled one was as a reader. At the same time, there was no feeling that he belittled you in any way – if you had difficulties or raised objections, then he met you on those. He could scrap what he was going to say and just meet you on whatever you were interested in.
Another pupil, William Walsh, recalled:
One always had the feeling that one wasn’t simply discussing what was there on the page. This was taking place, of course, but the discussion was deeply rooted and far-reaching, dealing with all that one felt was really important in life … Leavis’s teaching always seemed to engage both these facets: one’s personal life, and the life of the mind – the search for the significance of life itself.
In 1929 he married the vivacious and prodigiously clever Queenie Dorothy Roth, whom he had supervised at Girton. The next few years brought a wonderful harvest of critical work culminating in the annus mirabilis of 1932 when Leavis published New Bearings in English Poetry (with its perceptive discussions of Yeats, Pound and Eliot), Q.D.L. published Fiction and the Reading Public, and the quarterly periodical Scrutiny was founded.
It is sometimes suggested that that Scrutiny in its later years was indifferent to contemporary literature, but it is worth recalling that Leavis in his earlier years was in the vanguard. He incurred the displeasure of the public authorities by lecturing on the banned Ulysses in the mid-1920s. As to the teaching of contemporary work in the 1930s, Muriel Bradbrook recalled Leavis’s interest in the poetry of I.A.Richards’s pupil, the ex-student of mathematics, William Empson. She recalled: ‘It cannot be very often that undergraduates are taught the poetry of a fellow undergraduate, but we were taught about some of Empson’s poems by Leavis.’ He was also writing on Eliot and on Lawrence in the 1920s and early ’30s.
Leavis had enemies in the English Faculty, however; his outstanding abilities and the Scrutiny project did not enable him to obtain a permanent Faculty post (the latter may even have militated against him). In 1936, however, (the year in which Revaluation appeared) he was made a Lecturer (though on a part-time salary), at the age of 41, after having been a Probationary (or Assistant) Lecturer since 1927.
This situation continued until 1947 when, at the age of 52, he achieved a full-time Lectureship. He had seen younger and less able candidates given precedence. All this (and the lack of academic recognition accorded his wife) was to be a source of bitterness to him both at the time and in later years: a bitterness contained by his high intelligence and powers of self-sufficiency. ‘In his youth’, noted The Times’ obituarist, ‘he had shown prowess at cross-country racing and the loneliness of the long-distance runner adhered.’