The Highest of Highbrows: F. R. Leavis and the life of literature

Leavis“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 mid-century, 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.”

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