"I can be pretty handy in a roughhouse.” So said F. R. Leavis, all five-foot-six, 125 pounds of him, when offering to support some of his arty students at Downing College, Cambridge, whose protest meeting during the Suez Crisis of 1956 was threatened by members of the Boat Club. We may have trouble imagining this bantam don putting any oarsman against the wall, but in a literary critical fight there was, at midcentury, no one better.
Leavis (1895-1978) taught at Downing from the early 1930s until 1962; he wrote brilliant books like Revaluation (of poets, 1947) and The Great Tradition (of novelists, 1948), and, most important, he edited Scrutiny (1932-53), the indispensable quarterly of those decades. By 1964, though, David Holbrook, a left-oriented Leavisite, wondered if the campaign wasn’t over: “When I see old Leavis walking along Trumpington Street with a glazed look of denying the rest of the world on his face, then I recognize the dangers.”
The dangers, that is, of disdaining the rest of the world’s pop culture, which that year saw hits like Mary Poppins and My Fair Lady in movies and John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Saul Bellow’s Herzog in fiction. The bag was mixed enough to invite some respectful attention. Still, the aim of criticism—what T. S. Eliot had called “the common pursuit of true judgment”—hadn’t changed. For a loyal Leavisite such as Holbrook, life was too short for “ ‘pop’-chasing.”
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Leavis’s friend at Cambridge, may have chased a little pop by going to the movies when he tired of the philosophical investigations that made him famous, but Leavis declined “intellectual slumming” of any sort. If he got winded, he put Schubert on the gramophone or read a neglected classic. We wonder which: He notoriously, and sensibly, insisted that some classics should be neglected—many titles in Robert M. Hutchins’s “Great Books” series, for instance, which sold by the crate along with sets of the Britannica. Not only would Leavis “never read them,” but, since they included such nonliterary tomes as Aquinas’s Summa Theologica and Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, it seemed safe to say that Hutchins himself hadn’t read most of them, either.
To help students and self-improving adults, Leavis had to point to the great books that are essential, the products of the creative imagination—poems, plays, and novels—that had grown out of the living speech of the past and that, crucially, could contribute to the living speech of the present.
Actually, though, the speech of the present wasn’t very “living.” That diagnosis had begun to take root in the late 1920s, when, as Christopher Hilliard recounts in his finely researched, wide-ranging book, the English degree was established at Cambridge. I. A. Richards’s lectures in “practical criticism” revealed the subjective maunderings in students’ responses to poems they hadn’t seen before, by poets whose names were withheld. Blinkered by “stock responses,” students clearly didn’t know “how to read,” the phrase used by Ezra Pound in a 1931 pamphlet and echoed the next year by Leavis in How to Teach Reading. “Cambridge English” became synonymous with tactically delimited “close reading,” and, under Leavis’s inspiration, it could be distinguished from the New Criticism in America, with its seemingly inexhaustible attention to “the words on the page.” Leavis’s close readings were in the service of “sensibility,” notably the moral sense, and “value judgment,” assessing the play of words and sensibility in a given work and ranking it in relation to others.
Hilliard also covers the “culture and environment” concerns that preoccupied Leavis, Denys Thompson, L. C. Knights, and other early Scrutiny critics, whose students went on to found not just English programs but also media studies programs in British and Commonwealth universities. By “culture” Leavis meant something high—what, in mid-Victorian days, Matthew Arnold called “the best which has been thought and said.” By “environment” Leavis meant the modern conditions distracting the many from attending to culture—the “tradition”—and discouraging the few from creating worthy additions to it.