Tuesday, 30 December 2014

On F.R. Leavis (ii): a close shave

(The following discussion is a continuation of my previous post, On F.R. Leavis (i): Dangerous Driving.)

Ray’s Barber Shop in All Saints Passage used to be a Cambridge institution. I only went there once, but Ray greeted me cheerfully and, after chatting for a few minutes, suddenly said, ‘I believe, Sir, you may be an English teacher.’ Disconcerted, I admitted this was true. ‘Don’t worry,’ said Ray, ‘I can always tell. Lots of English teachers come to me. Can you guess my most famous teacher? Dr Leavis himself!’ Ray waited to see how I would react to this news, before continuing, ‘Yes, he always came here. You’re sitting in the very chair he sat in. And this, Sir,’ he added, suddenly brandishing an ancient barber’s cut-throat, ‘is the very razor which I shaved him with!’

Leavis was himself a Cambridge institution. As Clive James wrote in Always Unreliable,  ‘He was part of the landscape. You became accustomed to seeing him walk briskly along Trinity Street, gown blown out horizontal in his slipstream. He looked as if walking briskly was something he had practised in a wind-tunnel.’ He was usually tieless, in an age when open-necked shirts were frowned upon, unless you were wearing a cravat. He had grown up in Cambridge, gone to school and university there, and spent virtually his whole life teaching at Downing. So why had he said, when I interviewed him, that he was ‘an outsider in Cambridge now’ and that he had ‘never really belonged there’?

Biographers and critics have often suggested that Leavis saw himself as an exile; and if an exile is someone who has to leave his native home (voluntarily or otherwise) because he cannot in conscience reconcile himself to the prevailing climate – political, cultural, religious etc. - this seems to me to describe Leavis’s position precisely. He was simply never comfortable with Cambridge University and its English Faculty, or the literary establishment at large.  His stance was always oppositional, though he believed that the business of criticism was, in one of his favourite phrases (borrowed, with acknowledgement, from TS Eliot), ‘the common pursuit of true judgment’:

‘ "The common pursuit of true judgment": that is how the critic should see his business, and what it should be for him. His perceptions and judgments are his, or they are nothing; but whether or not he has consciously addressed himself to co-operative labour, they are inevitably collaborative. Collaboration may take the form of disagreement, and one is grateful to the critic whom one has found worth disagreeing with.’ (The Common Pursuit, Preface)

‘Collaboration may take the form of disagreement’: this is the key to Leavis’s dialectical method. He came to believe that the essence of Cambridge lay in a willingness to say ‘Yes, but …’, questioning everything as a way of challenging intellectual complacency. This complacency was for him the cardinal sin into which British academic life had strayed, and outside academia he also found it everywhere embodied by England’s literary establishment: the BBC, the newspapers, and professional bodies such as (I’m sorry to have to say) the English Association (EA). He greatly admired Henry James for turning down, in 1912, an invitation to become chairman of the EA. Reading Leavis’s account of this in Scrutiny, (vol. XIV, 1946) you can hear him cheering James on when the novelist replies to the Association, ‘I am a mere stony, ugly monster of Dissociation and Detachment’.  This was Leavis, too.

As often happens with exiles, Leavis acquired a certain glamour among those who admired his principles and shared his contempts. I suspect he played up to this a little; at least it enabled him to claim of himself, his wife Q.D. Leavis and their collaborators on Scrutiny, that ‘We were – and we knew we were – Cambridge – the essential Cambridge in spite of Cambridge’. He even had a definition of what ‘we’ meant in this context: in an Appendix to his Clark Lectures, delivered in 1967 and published two years later as English Literature in our time and the University, Leavis described ‘we’ as ‘a suitably indeterminate word, suggesting as it does the unofficial, informal and non-authoritative’. And true it is that this unofficial group of exiles (‘No pupil of mine was ever appointed to a post in the Cambridge English Faculty’ he once claimed with a combination of outrage and satisfaction) came to exemplify an approach to English that teachers, sixth-form pupils and university students would learn to think of as Cambridge English.

I have to admit that, rather than Leavis’s own best-known texts (The Great Tradition, Revaluations, et al.), it was books such as L.C. Knights’ Explorations (1946) and, from a generation later, David Holbrook’s English for Maturity (1961) which gave me a keener sense of what the study of English Literature could be; of why close reading is a creative and ‘re-creative’ as well as critical activity, and of why teaching literature is an important vocation. But these convictions had first been articulated by Leavis and, long after he had sat to be shaved for the last time in Ray’s Barber Shop, they continued to animate some of the best English teaching in schools and HE departments. Do they still?


It has always been my instinct to distrust people as aggressively confident of their own opinions as Leavis was; and many of his dismissive judgments about writers seem to me at odds with the idea of a common (i.e. collaborative) pursuit of true judgment.  Here, though, I must pause and reply ‘Yes, but…’ to my own judgment, for I want at least to say, unambiguously, that Leavis’s conception of English as ‘a discipline of thought’ should still resonate wherever the teaching of English is taken seriously. It’s time, too, to acknowledge that Leavis was the first academic in England to recognize Eliot and Lawrence as writers of ‘major creativity’ whom English studies could not ignore if English was to be taken seriously. Who else of his generation could have written New Bearings in English Poetry? It was published in 1932, the same year his wife, Q.D. Leavis, published Fiction and the Reading Public?  1932 was also the year in which together they launched Scrutiny. From then until his death he believed as he made clear in the lecture I attended as a na├»ve undergraduate that universities must strive to become ‘anti-academic’ in order to regain their status as true creative centres of civilization’. By anti-academic he meant outward-facing, not inward-looking; self-critical, not complacent.  He insisted, above all, that you cannot be really thoughtful about literature if you are not, at the same time, thoughtful about life. I am surprised, but glad, that it has taken the rediscovery of my interview with him so long ago to make me, at last, say plainly why I think he still matters so much.

Adrian Barlow



I have written about F.R. Leavis before:






On F.R. Leavis (i): dangerous driving

A single sheet of folded, faded, yellow paper; a page of inexpertly typed text, the last line scored through in ink; a scribbled sentence underneath, with a signature and date. This is one of my most precious pieces of personal memorabilia. I had lost sight of it long ago, but now it has come to hand again, retrieved after many years from the pages of a book into which I had tucked it. Here, word for word, is what is written on that yellow paper:

    WHEN PROFESSOR F.R. LEAVIS gave a lecture to the English Society at Newcastle upon Tyne on January 30th, he prefaced his talk with a call for universities to re-establish and cultivate a responsible and educated public. He said that universities must strive to become ‘anti-academic’ in order to regain their status as true creative centres of civilization.

    However, Professor Leavis stressed that he was not optimistic of the future: ‘Don’t regard me as an optimist,’ he said, ‘I have spent my life in a university.’ Questioned at the end of the lecture, he returned to this theme: ‘The battle will never be won, but it shan’t be lost while I’m alive.’

    Professor Leavis, probably the most influential and controversial literary critic of the 20th century, was speaking on ‘Eliot and Lawrence on Hamlet’.  Describing Eliot and Lawrence as the last writers of major creativity this century, Professor Leavis qualified this by saying that Eliot’s criticism was weakest where he needed to make a serious self-committal. Lawrence, on the other hand, approached his criticism, and that of Hamlet in particular, with a novelist’s sensibility: ‘Lawrence,’ he said, ‘was only marginally a critic, but his margin was so wide.’

    Speaking to Palatinate before the lecture, Professor Leavis said that he had by no means retired from academic life. In addition to his work at York University, where he is Visiting Professor, and numerous engagements which take him all over the country, he is still busy writing. Lectures in America, his most recent book, has just been published and May will see the publication of his Clarke Lectures, given in Cambridge. He is at present collaborating with his wife on a book on Charles Dickens, which he hopes will be ready in time for the Dickens centenary. ‘I hope it will appear before the others,’ he added.

    Professor Leavis would not comment on the academic life of Cambridge to-day. Although he has lived nearly all his life there, he claims, ‘I am an outsider in Cambridge now – I have never really belonged there. But my wife and I feel we are Cambridge, in spite of Cambridge.  In our family,’ he concluded,  ‘we go on until we are killed on the roads.’

I wish you’d leave this last sentence out. I don’t want to disturb my wife gratuitously.
                                    FR Leavis
                                        Feb-3.

I wrote this for the Durham University student newspaper in 1969. I had joined Palatinate as a fresher, spending my first term reviewing student drama productions before graduating to interview the aspiring founder of a new literary journal. Loftily, this would-be Cyril Connolly – I don’t think the journal ever got off the ground - had told me, ‘We aim to become Durham’s Encounter. We shan’t be like Scrutiny: we don’t intend to wash our intellectual dirty linen in public.’ I included this line in my report; but, back in the Palatinate office and typing up my report, I admitted I’d never heard of Scrutiny. ‘You must have done! It’s Leavis’s journal!’ exclaimed my editor, a bearded third-year Eng. Lit. student of whom I was both nervous and in awe. I didn’t dare admit I’d never heard of Leavis either.

I would soon find out. Discovering that Leavis was due to speak at Newcastle in the New Year, my editor sent me to report on the lecture – ‘And try and get an interview with him, while you’re there,’ he added. Looking back now from a great distance at my nineteen-year-old-self, I’m impressed I had the courage to speak to Leavis at all. But I did, and he was willing to be interviewed - on condition I let him vet my article before it was published. Hence the draft on yellow paper, which I typed up as soon as I got back to Durham, posted to Bulstrode Gardens, Cambridge, and received back almost by return.  My editor was impressed. ‘Keep that,’ he said, handing the yellow page back to me, ‘it may be worth something one day.’ And so it is, to me at any rate.

Re-reading it now, I’m struck by the number of times I refer to Leavis as ‘Professor’. He was never a Professor at Cambridge – indeed his lack of promotion was not the least of his grievances against the University. In the same year that I met him, he would note bitterly that he had only ‘attained to an Assistant Lectureship in my forties and a full lectureship ten years later, and was made a Reader in my sixty-fifth year.’* But I knew that he had just been appointed Visiting Professor at York, and so I sought advice from my own Professor at Durham (T.S. Dorsch, a debonair editor of Shakespeare, never without a cigarette holder and his own silver ashtray; he represented, I suspect, everything Leavis most disliked about the English establishment). Dorsch said to me, ‘I’m sure he’d love to be called Professor: you’d be his friend for life!’

I’m struck, too, by my last sentence, the one Leavis asked me to omit. I remember being pleased he’d fed me such a good line to end with, and disappointed he wanted me to excise it. But his comment was truer than I knew - and probably than he’d intended: not until many years afterwards did I discover that Leavis’s own father had died following a road accident, on the very day of his son’s last finals paper. I doubt now whether not wanting to offend his wife had had anything to do with it. (To be continued.)

Adrian Barlow

*This comment appears in the Introduction to Leavis’s Clark Lectures, English Literature in our time and the University (1969), p.22.

[illustration: Leavis’s comment and signature at the end of the document discussed above.

I have written about F.R. Leavis before:



            Read the continuation of this post:

            On F.R. Leavis (ii): a close shave

Text and illustration © Adrian Barlow