(born July 14, 1895, Cambridge, Cambridgeshire, Eng.—died April 14, 1978, Cambridge) British literary critic. He attended and later taught at Cambridge University. He brought a new seriousness to criticism, believing that the critic's duty is to assess works according to the author's moral position. He cofounded Scrutiny, a journal (published 1932–53) often regarded as his greatest contribution to English letters. His books include New Bearings in English Poetry (1932) and The Great Tradition (1948), in which he reassessed the English novel.
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Leavis was nineteen when Britain declared war on Germany in 1914. Not wanting to kill, he volunteered for the Friends Ambulance Unit, FAU, working in France immediately behind the Western Front, and carrying a copy of Milton's poems with him. On the introduction of conscription in 1916, he benefitted from the blanket recognition of FAU members as conscientious objectors. This experience had a lasting effect on Leavis; mentally he was prone to insomnia, and suffered from intermittent nightmares, whilst exposure to gas permanently damaged his physical health, primarily his digestive system.
Leavis was slow to recover from the war, and he was later to refer to it as "the great hiatus." He had won a scholarship from the Perse School to Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and in 1919 began to read for a degree in History. In his second year he changed to English, and became a pupil at the newly founded English School at Cambridge. Despite graduating with first-class honours, Leavis was not seen as a strong candidate for a research fellowship, and instead embarked on a PhD, a lowly career move for an aspiring academic in those days. In 1924 Leavis presented a thesis on ‘The Relationship of Journalism to Literature', which 'studied the rise and earlier development of the press in England’ (Bell 4). This work contributed to his lifelong concern with the way in which the ethos of a periodical can both reflect and mould the cultural aspirations of a wider public (Greenwood 8). In 1927 Leavis was appointed as a probationary lecturer for the university, and when his first substantial publications began to appear a few years later, their style was very much influenced by the demands of teaching.
New Bearings in English Poetry was the first major volume of criticism Leavis was to publish, and it provides insight into his own critical positions. Leavis has been frequently (but often erroneously) associated with the American school of New Critics, a group which advocated close reading and detailed textual analysis of poetry over an interest in the mind and personality of the poet, sources, the history of ideas and political and social implications. Although there are undoubtly similarities between Leavis's approach to criticism and that of the New Critics (most particularly in that both take the work of art itself as the primary focus of critical discussion), Leavis is ultimately distinguishable from them, since he never adopted (and was explicitly hostile to) a theory of the poem as a self-contained and self-sufficient aesthetic and formal artefact, isolated from the society, culture and tradition from which it emerged. New Bearings, devoted principally to Gerard Manley Hopkins, William Butler Yeats, T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, was an attempt to identify the essential new achievements in modern poetry (Bell 6). It also discussed at length and praised the work of Ronald Bottrall, whose importance was not to be confirmed by readers and critics.
In 1933 Leavis published For Continuity, which was a selection of Scrutiny essays. This publication, along with Culture and the Environment (a joint effort with Denys Thompson), stressed the importance of an informed and discriminating, highly-trained intellectual elite whose existence within university English departments would help preserve the cultural continuity of English life and literature. In Education and the University (1943), Leavis argued that ‘there is a prior cultural achievement of language; language is not a detachable instrument of thought and communication. It is the historical embodiment of its community’s assumptions and aspirations at levels which are so subliminal much of the time that language is their only index’ (Bell 9).
In 1948, Leavis focused his attention on fiction and made his general statement about the English novel in The Great Tradition where he traced this tradition through Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James, and Joseph Conrad. Leavis purposely excluded major authors such as Laurence Sterne and Thomas Hardy, but eventually changed his position on Charles Dickens, publishing Dickens the Novelist in 1970.
In 1950, in the introduction to Mill on Bentham and Coleridge, a publication he edited, Leavis set out the historical importance of utilitarian thought. Leavis found Bentham to epitomize the scientific drift of culture and social thinking, which was in his view the enemy of the holistic, humane understanding he championed (Bell 9).
1952 saw the publication of another collection of essays from Scrutiny: The Common Pursuit. Outside of his work on English poetry and the novel, this is Leavis’s best-known and most influential work. A decade later Leavis was to earn much notoriety when he delivered his Richmond lecture, Two cultures? The significance of C. P. Snow at Downing College. Leavis vigorously attacked Snow's suggestion, from a 1959 lecture and book by C. P. Snow (see The Two Cultures), that practitioners of the scientific and humanistic disciplines should have some significant understanding of each other, and that a lack of knowledge of twentieth-century physics was comparable to an ignorance of Shakespeare (Bell 10). Leavis's ad hominem attacks on Snow's intelligence and abilities were widely decried in the British press by public figures such as Lord Boothby and Lionel Trilling (Kimball) Leavis introduced the idea of the 'third realm' as a name for the method of existence of literature; works which are not private like a dream or public in the sense of something that can be tripped over, but exist in human minds as a work of collaborative re-constitution (Greenwood 11).
In 1962 his readership and fellowship at Downing were terminated; however, he took up Visiting Professorships at the University of Bristol, the University of Wales and the University of York. His final volumes of criticism were Nor Shall My Sword (1972), The Living Principle (1975) and Thought, Words and Creativity (1976). These later works are generally accepted as the weaker part of his canon, his best cultural criticism having shown itself in the form of his literary critical practices.
Leavis died in 1978, at the age of 82, having been made a Companion of Honour in the previous New Year Honours. His wife, Queenie D. Leavis, died in 1981. He features as a main character, played by Sir Ian Holm, in the 1991 BBC TV feature, The Last Romantics The story focuses on his relationship with his mentor, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch and the students.
Leavis's criticism is difficult to directly classify, but it can be grouped into four chronological stages. The first is that of his early publications and essays including New Bearings in English Poetry (1932) and Revaluation (1936). Here he was concerned primarily with reexamining poetry from the seventeenth to twentieth centuries, and this was accomplished under the strong influence of T. S. Eliot. Also during this early period Leavis sketched out his views about university education.
He then turned his attention to fiction and the novel, producing The Great Tradition (1948) and D. H. Lawrence, Novelist (1955). Following this period Leavis pursued an increasingly complex treatment of literary, educational and social issues. Though the hub of his work remained literature, his perspective for commentary was noticeably broadening, and this was most visible in Nor Shall my Sword (1972).
Two of his last publications embodied the critical sentiments of his final years; The Living Principle: ‘English’ as a Discipline of Thought (1975), and Thought, Words and Creativity: Art and Thought in Lawrence (1976). Although these later works have been sometimes called "philosophy", there is no abstract or theoretical context to justify such a description. In discussing the nature of language and value, Leavis implicitly treats the sceptical questioning that philosophical reflection starts from as an irrelevance from his standpoint as a literary critic - a position set out in his famous early exchange with Rene Wellek (Stotesbury)
The early reception of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound's poetry, and also the reading of Gerard Manley Hopkins, were considerably enhanced by Leavis's proclamation of their greatness. His dislike of John Milton, on the other hand, had no great impact on Milton's popular esteem.