- F. R. Leavis (Modern Cultural Theorists)
If it is an overstatement to say that the waves of change currently disturbing the teaching of English in universities originated from the splash made by F. R. Leavis at Cambridge beginning in 1933, Anne Samson’s account of the theorist’s influence scarcely admits it. Her chapter titles—“Leavis and the Growth of English Studies,” “English as a University Subject,” “Literary ‘Theory’ and Constituting the Canon”—indicate not only the range of issues connected with F. R. Leavis’s name but also his significant involvement in their genesis.
Samson’s book portrays Leavis as the efficient cause in the establishment of university English as a critical, or more accurately a diagnostic, enterprise. At an early professional cost (he was denied faculty appointment at Cambridge for five years), Leavis helped cut English curricula free from philology, languages, and classical studies; a responsibility Samson partially excuses by connecting Leavis’s motivating principles back through Matthew Arnold to Dickens and Carlyle and even to one “Reverend H. J. Rose, a leading figure in the founding of King’s College, London . . . declaring in a sermon delivered in 1826 that literature teaches ‘the wisdom of men better and wiser than ourselves’ and prepares for the ‘examination of those moral and intellectual truths which are not only the worthiest exercise of our reason, but most concern our future destiny’” (p. 12).
This moralism Samson sees as the central and redeeming principle in Leavis’s system. Specifically, she identifies the Condition of England debate—over the state of culture and economics in a “‘technologico-Benthamite world’” (p. 63)—as the key to Leavis’s literary criticism, his influential journal Scrutiny, and his wide-ranging reform endeavors. “Literature mattered to Leavis because he believed it to be the means, above all others, of combating the ills of a mechanised, constantly changing world and of restoring the heritage of those dispossessed by the machine” (p. 3).
Professionally asserting the primacy of criticism over scholarship, then in his writings making no distinction between the literary and the social, Leavis ultimately refused any separation between literature and life. Samson carefully [End Page 360] traces this development in Leavis’s general theory in order to bring out its easily-overlooked implication for the social position of a literary academic. She quotes this crucial passage from Leavis: “The critic . . . is as much concerned with the health of the mind as any doctor with the health of the body. To set up as a critic is to set up as a judge of values . . . For the arts are inevitably and quite apart from any intentions of the artist an appraisal of existence” (pp. 15–16). No longer a mere scholar, or the type of irrelevant empiric Leavis so hated in the person of C. P. Snow, the Leavisite theorist is the grand physician diagnosing all society’s ills. Literary artists and their writings, so far from forming the most important part of literature, become perfectly irrelevant—“quite apart”—with the medicocritic prescribing universally “of existence.”
Samson’s treatment of Leavis is analytical, though enjoyably and consistently biographical. For instance, her final, and largest, chapter shows the moralist model of the literary critic (the “judge of values”) in action by detailing the history of Leavis’s complete reversal of estimation between T. S. Eliot and D. H. Lawrence. Leavis originally gave Eliot “hero-worship” (p. 162) and dismissed Lawrence as “mechanical” (p. 157). But concurrent with Eliot’s progress to Anglo-Catholicism, Leavis’s moral judgments overturned and, true to type, he increasingly censured Eliot’s writings by diagnosing problems in the man, while he grew to idolize Lawrence; ironically for “rescuing life from . . . inner mechanisation” (p. 169).
Such inconstancy, here expressed in every word, Samson sees as an historical mark of character which places Leavis among the “Great Men of Ideas” (p. 172).