Tuesday, 30 December 2014

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

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

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