Thursday, 11 June 2009

The Great Tradition

Having started to look through approaches to teaching fiction, I can't avoid F. R. Leavis, who edited the journal Scrutiny, and became a formidable influence on literature in mid-20th-century Britain. A close friend of mine was an undergraduate in Leavis's group, at Downing College, Cambridge. I would sometimes go to Leavis's lectures, and occasionally I would join the group in the evenings, and listen to the discussions. Leavis wasn't an especially good lecturer, but he encouraged an atmosphere among his students of engaged excitement and moral seriousness. I was a medical student at the time, taking courses that were largely without intellectual content. The atmosphere that Leavis created was closer to what I felt I'd come to university for. The sense I acquired, already germinating in my schooldays and encouraged by my propinquity with the Downing group, was that nothing else is quite as important as literature. It's like being infected with a chronic disease which, although it comes and goes, is difficult entirely to shake off. My additional, and secret, thought—an indication no doubt that the infection had spread dangerously—was that the only really worthwhile thing to do in life is to write a novel.

Leavisite education stressed evaluation. Charles Winder (2005) kept notes on Leavis's undergraduate seminars between 1957 and 1961. He reports, for instance, on Leavis's discussion of T.S. Eliot's proposal that after the Metaphysical poets such as John Donne and Andrew Marvell, there was a dissociation of sensibility: the intellectual became disconnected from the emotional. I remember this issue being talked about in the group. Winder's notes capture Leavis's evaluation of John Donne's originality, his statement that Donne was concerned with the individual in relation to other individuals, and his disapproving judgement that Donne's work was "without social context." Next, Winder's notes say, Leavis announced that "a comparison can be made with Marvell [who was influenced by Donne, but] who was, however, not a great poet" (p. 73). Students were expected to become knowledgeable about movements of theme and style over four hundred years of English poetry, drama, and prose fiction, to know who influenced whom, to be able to evaluate who was significant and who was of no account. Like the New Critics such as Cleanth Brook and Robert Penn Warren (see my post of 25 May) based in the South of the USA, who offered a kind of intellectual refuge from the onslaughts of the modern world (which seemed to be coming from somewhere to the north of them), Leavis set his face against the vulgarization of society, with its headlines and comics.

Leavis's most influential book was on the novel: The great tradition. It starts like this:
The great English novelists are Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James, and Joseph Conrad—to stop for a moment at that comparatively safe point in history ... it is as well to start by distinguishing the few really great—the major novelists who count in the same way as the major poets, in the sense that they not only change the possibilities of the art for practitioners and readers, but that they are significant in terms of that human awareness they promote; awareness of the possibilities of life (pp. 9-10).
This last word, "life" is significant. Thus, said Leavis:
As a matter of fact, when we examine the formal perfection of [Jane Austen's] Emma, we find that it can be appreciated only in terms of the moral preoccupations that characterize the novelist's peculiar interest in life ... the same is true of the other great English novelists ... they are all distinguished by a vital capacity for experience, a kind of reverent openness before life, and a marked moral intensity (p. 17).
Leavis was combative, opinionated, and self-righteous. But when one contracts the infection one acquires with it the conviction that up to the early years of the Twentieth Century, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James, and Joseph Conrad were indeed—indisputably—the great novelists in English.

F. R. Leavis (1948). The great tradition. London: Chatto & Windus (Current edition Peregrine, 1962).

Charles Winder (2005). Leavis's Downing seminars: A student's notes. In I. D. MacKillop & R. Storer (Eds.), F.R. Leavis: Essays and documents (pp. 71-91). Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press.

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