F.R. Leavis: The Critic as Moralist

Review of Ian Mackillop’s F.R. Leavis: A Life in Criticism (Allen Lane 1995), published in the UK as Being a Critic in Leavis, Dr Mackillop and ‘The Cambridge Quarterly ‘ (Brynmill 1998) and in the USA as F.R. Leavis: The Critic as Moralist in Modern Age Vol 39 No. 4 1997.

         Richard Stotesbury

Ian MacKillop’s biography of F.R. Leavis [1] is a substantial work. Subtitled A Life in Criticism, it is clearly meant to be a serious contribution to modern literary history, rather than a mere collection of anecdotes and reminiscences offering ‘human interest’. In the words of a well known reviewer, Dr MacKillop has set out to write ‘a lasting account’; [2] one which could be regarded as a definitive and’ enduring portrait of Leavis. However, in spite of much careful research, supplemented by copious notes, the book disappointingly fails to live up to the high expectations it encourages. The reasons for this will be examined in what follows.

The one indisputable fact that emerges from Dr MacKillop’s extensive study is that Leavis did not fit comfortably into the world he inhabited. Why this was so is the big question for any serious biographer; and it is explicitly raised by Dr MacKillop in a key discussion of Leavis’s relations with Cambridge. [3] He begins by observing that Leavis displayed throughout his life ‘what the lawyers call a lively sense of grievance’, but immediately concedes that ‘There was hostility to him’. Then, after warning that ‘the phenomenon (of Leavisophobia) is complex’, he offers an assessment of it which at first sight appears strikingly judicious and balanced. The charge that Leavis ‘ bit the hand that fed him’ is noted, and put to one side with the comment that this ‘already casts him in the role of dog’ and a reminder that the sentence of Buffon’s  ‘C’est animal est très méchant’, which he applied to himself, is followed by ‘Quand on l’attaque, il se défend’. Next, it is suggested that Cambridge may have found Leavis ‘unsettling’ because he was ‘much involved with American literature’, which implies parochialism on the one side while faintly hinting at a lack of centrality on the other. There follows a reference to Noel Annan’s complaint ‘more with regret than animosity’ that ‘Leavis was not “collegial”: he was a poor colleague’, which is countered with the remark that ‘In one sense he was too collegial, more committed to Downing, to the making of his own group, than to the institution of English in the university’. However, at this point it is impossible not to suspect that something is badly wrong. Dr MacKillop’s sense of ’collegial’, for all its looseness, plainly differs from Annan’s; and what superficially looks like argument is merely a play on words. This bland casualness strongly suggests that Dr MacKillop’s purpose Is not what it initially seems. He is not so much interested in scrupulously weighing up the rights and wrongs of ‘Leavisophobia’ as in keeping up an appearance of impartiality. His strategy is to play down contentious points, and dispense small tokens of favour to each side in almost equal proportions, usually letting the balance tilt slightly towards Leavis. Thus, after implying that Leavis’s commitment ‘to Downing’, and (what is not necessarily the same thing) ‘to the making of his own group’ may have been at the expense of ‘English in the university’, he immediately softens the force of this by insisting that ‘All college fellows…actively seek the best pupils; tripos results (matter) for college prestige’. The consequences for his study are far-reaching.

It is easy to understand how this approach might seem attractive to a biographer in Dr MacKillop’s situation. In the past, open support for Leavis has tended to be met with sneering accusations of discipleship and hero-worship. These taunts have been particularly barbed in the case of Leavis’s former students, of whom Dr MacKillop is one. By appearing neutral and more or less even-handed in his distribution of praise and blame, Dr MacKillop is able to fend off such attacks and guarantee himself a hearing. However, while this may look like a harmless tactical move, it is really one that defeats his essential purpose. As its title indicates, Dr MacKillop’s study sets out to elucidate the significance of Leavis’s life in terms of his work. But this calls for firm and unambiguous critical judgments about its character and importance. Because he does not wish to appear to be taking sides, Dr MacKillop cannot afford to adopt any clear-cut position in respect of the critical issues he comes up against, and is obliged to skirt around them as best he can. This prevents him from giving a satisfactory account of what it means to say that Leavis led ‘a life in criticism’; and drastically reduces the value of his study as a contribution to literary history.

The charge that Leavis was ‘difficult’ is commonly made in order to explain the conflicts in which he was involved. This places the blame for them on Leavis’s temperament. Leavis is seen as an aggressive and demanding personality, ungrateful for what he received, resentful to a degree bordering on persecution mania, and a bad colleague. What Dr MacKillop shows that the details of this picture of Leavis are often selective and distorted, his reluctance to make a stand on the critical issues leaves him unable to decisively challenge its basic outlines. What needs to be clearly acknowledged is that Leavis was one of the greatest critics of this or any other time. That is why his life is worth contemplating, and a study such as Dr MacKillop’s has significance and point. It is essential to recognize this if justice is to be done to him. Although Dr MacKillop’s legal allusion is no doubt part of his studiously judicial pose, it provides a valuable, if unintended, that in any equitable system of law, the question of whether Leavis’s ‘lively sense of grievance’ was justified depends on what he was entitled to expect from Cambridge; and this in turn requires a proper recognition of his contribution to the study of literature. The verdict must take account of all the evidence, including the critical testimony.

As ‘the lawyers’ to whom Dr Mackillop owes his phraseology will confirm, the facts of a case are often simple, and the problem is to see them for what they are through a shifting fog of allegations and counterclaims, pretences, evasions and sophistries. What, then, are they? Despite his modest disclaimers, which Dr MacKillop is at pains to note, [4] Leavis was a revolutionizing genius, who, through his own articles and books from the late 1920s onward and Scrutiny which he ran from 1932 to 1953, brought about a profoundly important and far-reaching revaluation of the English Tradition; and in doing so, provided criticism with a model or paradigm of the profitable discussion of literature. Yet, in his own words, he only ‘ attained to an Assistant Lectureship in (his) forties, and a full Lectureship ten years later, and was made a Reader in (his) sixty-fifth year’; [5] and the record confirms this. After holding a temporary Lectureship from 1927 to 1931, Leavis was denied any University appointment for five years in what he once described to Ronald Bottrall as ‘an attempt to starve (him) out’. When ‘by don’t of activating Q’s natural manly decency’, [6] he eventually obtained a permanent post in 1936, it was for part-time work. He was obliged to wait ten more years for a full-time Lectureship; and twelve before being appointed a Reader on the brink of his retirement. Instead, the Cambridge English Faculty gave Lectureships to Lucas, Tillyard, Downs, Atwater and Bennett in 1926; Henn, Potts and Welsford in 1928; Rylands in 1935; and Hugh Sykes Davies in 1936. In 1944, Basil Willey was appointed to the Chair in English, and Lucas and Bennett to Readerships more than ten years before Leavis.

Dr MacKillop paints a liberal coat of varnish over these plain truths. He bows to Tillyard (‘the admirable’), doffs his cap to Lucas (‘a prolific and entertaining writer’) and Rylands (‘successful, interesting fellowship dissertation’) and gives Bennett (‘modest and charming…appointed early and deservedly to a lectureship’) a friendly nod. Nevertheless, when ‘pausing over the justice of (Leavis’s) complaint’ (about ‘the harsh treatment meted out to him by Cambridge’), he makes the important admission that ‘with hindsight it does not seem that the Cambridge English Faculty was one of memorable ability’. [7] Unfortunately, his chronic inability to adopt a definite critical position prevents him from taking this further. He asks if ‘Leavis was ill-treated by the Cambridge system’, and embarks on a discussion of a letter written by Noel Annan to The Times Literary Supplement in 1976 with the object of exposing ‘(as it seemed to him’ Leavis’s exaggeration of his hardships’). Annan argued, firstly, that Leavis’s probationary post in 1927 was a fixed term contract, and that ‘although it was tough for Leavis not be appointed permanently after (its) expiry…it was not unexpected or unjust’; and that his position in 1936 was permanent, and therefore a full rather than an Assistant Lectureship. After declaring that Annan was ‘clearly arguing in good faith’, Dr MacKillop proceeds to deal with this piece of disingenuousness by observing that even though the 1927 appointment ‘technically…was fixed term…traditionally (such) posts led to permanencies’, and that ‘the point about Leavis’s lectureship (in 1936) was not that there was a three year probation, but that it was part-time, and went on being so for an unconscionably long period’. Having done what he can for Leavis within the limits of his approach, he reverts to his policy of glossing over the harsh reality. As well as suggesting that ‘Leavis’s peers did not take his part and believe that he was unjustly kept waiting for promotion…because so few people understood the informal practices of the middle to late 1920s’, he asks ‘why Leavis was not taken out of “part work” sooner’, decides that ‘a reasonable person cannot attribute his position to spite or conspiracy’ (while admitting in the same breath that ‘the printed evidence indicates strong dislike on Tillyard’s part’), follows this up with a fumbling excuse about ‘lack of funds…enhanced by quotidian inertia’, and ends by cautiously reiterating the claim that Leavis lacked esprit de corps.

While Dr MacKillop hastens to show that no one is to blame for Leavis’s treatment, he does not stop to see the injustice for what it is. The trouble is that his approach will not let him consider the question of what was due to Leavis from a system allegedly based on merit. It is not just that routine promotion was ‘unconscionably’ slow in his case, but that talent and ability were neither recognized nor rewarded. Faced with a string of unmemorable names, whose bearers would no doubt have sunk without trace by now were it not for their connection with Leavis’s life, [8] it is impossible not to be struck by the astonishing unfairness with which these men were consistently favoured while a supremely gifted teacher and critic was snubbed and held back. The suggestion that Leavis’s greater stature can only be perceived ‘with hindsight’ is simply false, as the list of his publications from the late 1920s onwards, as well as the foundation of Scrutiny in 1932, makes clear. Against this background, Leavis’s sense of grievance seems not only justifiable but moderate in proportion to the injury, which, let it be remembered, carried a financial penalty as well as loss of status; and Dr MacKillop’s handling of the matter of responsibility is clearly revealed as a cover-up. There is no doubt whatever that the Cambridge English Faculty was at least culpably blind in its attitude towards Leavis; but (pace Dr MacKillop) a reasonable person cannot avoid the overwhelming suspicion that there was more to it than a sheer failure to recognize genuine distinction.

When all the facts about Leavis’s treatment have been acknowledged, the accusations of ingratitude and resentment cannot be sustained. Indeed, the suggestion that he should have showed more appreciation of the grudging, belated and inadequate gestures with which his efforts as a critic and teacher were rewarded shamelessly adds insult to injury. However, there is the further charge, articulated by Annan, that Leavis was an unsatisfactory colleague; and it is in this that the clue to the behaviour of the Cambridge English Faculty lies. Although Dr MacKillop makes a show of dissent, he is at this point sufficiently in sympathy with the Faculty to say that ’Leavis was more committed to the making of his own group than to the institution of English in the university’, and later accuse him of ‘being so much a College man, (who) so frankly ran a system within the system, that there must have always been a splinter of doubt about having him join the others’.[9] This puts the cart before the horse. Leavis’s unpopularity with the Cambridge English Faculty goes back at least to 1928 when he experienced his ‘first professional disappointment’; and by January 1931 it had completely turned its back on him, declaring ‘that there would be no reappointment for the coming October’. His association with Downing College began in mid-1931, and it was not until the end of the year that ‘his group of the early 30s’ came together as the English Research Society. If, therefore, he was ‘a college man’ and ‘more committed to the making of his own group than the institution of English in the university’, it was after he had been rejected and ostracised by the Faculty. Nevertheless, while Dr MacKillop’s official explanation of ‘the splinter of doubt’ is clearly wrong, it is not hard to see what is behind the view he shares with the Cambridge English Faculty that Leavis was insufficiently ‘collegial’.

Although there was probably always ‘a splinter of doubt about having him join the others’, the lack of enthusiasm for Leavis at Cambridge became open and undisguised after he ‘wrote a price criticizing a member of the English Faculty’, namely Lucas. It is in the light of this fact that the complaint that he was not ’collegial’ must be interpreted. Leavis’s unforgivable mistake was to break ranks and demolish the pretensions of a colleague, in spite of the unwritten code that forbade it. His exposure of another member of the Faculty to the free play of criticism was undoubtedly greeted with apprehension and outrage, perhaps crystallizing earlier suspicions that he was not a ‘team player’. The code demanded solidarity at all costs; and Leavis’s readiness to put criticism first was a serious challenge against which punitive measures were needed. His determination to remain first and foremost a critic under strong pressure to fall in line compounded the offence, underlining his lack of ‘collegial’ feeling. The spirit of resolute self-sufficiency with which he faced marginalization and exclusion led him to create his own group and run ‘a system within a system’, of which he was later able to say ‘We were, and we knew we were, Cambridge – the essential Cambridge in spite of Cambridge’. [10] This stand against the Faculty powers, triumphantly vindicated by a superb critical achievement, is what Dr MacKillop is in reality objecting to when he taxes Leavis with being ‘more committed to the making of his own group than to the institution of English in the university’. [11]

A similar point must be made about Marius Bewley’s complaint that ‘undergraduates have expended years, energy and money to study with (Leavis)’, and consequently the ‘least he could have done would have been not to cultivate a position in the academic world that wouldn’t have made association with him a positive liability when it came time for those people to make a living’. [12] Dr MacKillop, who describes this as ‘pertinent’, does not disagree. But to ‘cultivate a position in the academic world’ would have meant accepting its terms and surrendering the independence on which Leavis’s whole achievement depended. Leavis was aware of the plight of his students, although he stopped short of helping them ‘to make a living’ at the price of his critical integrity; and it is no less ‘pertinent’ to ask whether it would have been worth expending ‘years, energy and money to study with him’ if he had been willing to pay it. It is Leavis’s distinction to have recognized that criticism requires complete disinterestedness and honesty of purpose, and to have steadfastly refused to give up his freedom to speak out without fear or favour in order to ‘get on’ in the academic world.

The English metropolitan literary world rested as much on solidarity as its academic counterpart, and regarded Leavis with the same fear and hostility. These common reactions and the identity of outlook they reflect are evidence of the overarching influence of Bloomsbury, with ‘a well-known annexe’ [13] at King’s College, Cambridge, extensive connections in publishing and reviewing, and control over the machinery of publicity and sponsorship. Its moving force, Keynes, ‘the most formidable promoter of the coterie spirit that England has ever known’, used his great patronage and power to foster ‘in enormously influential ways the habit of substituting social-personal values’ for ‘the essential intellectual standards’. The result was ‘the triumph of the…”club”…principle’ of putting group loyalty before ‘critical conscience’; and the establishment of ‘a system of relations’ that completely controlled ‘the organs and institutions through which the currency values are established and circulated’, and ‘enforced conformity on pain of exclusion’. [14]

The nature and workings of this ‘system of relations’ are well described in a passage from Cyril Connolly’s Enemies of Promise which Q.D. Leavis quotes: ‘Critics in England do not accept bribes, but they discover one day that in a sense their whole life is an accepted bribe, a fabric of compromises based on personal relations’. [15] This is to reduce criticism to the politics of expediency by transforming the pursuit of truth into a search for compromise. An analogous point about the corruption of evaluative discourse is made by Stanley Cavell in his seminal account of the later Wittgenstein:

If we asked, ‘In what kind of world would decision be unrelated to commitment and responsibility?’ we might answer, ‘In a world where morality has been politicalized.’ It is no secret that this is what has been happening to our world, and that we are perhaps incapable of what would make it stop happening. [16]

Cavell speaks of this projection of a familiar model of political decision making into contexts where it has no legitimate business as a general and progressive tendency of the age; and in doing so, he points to the fact that Connolly’s ‘fabric of compromises’ is not an isolated development. The literary culture that Connolly describes is part of a world where conviction has given place to the moral scepticism of the Marabar echo, for which ‘Everything exits. Nothing has value.’; and has no place within it for the critical ideals of dedication to the cause of true judgement and readiness to follow the argument wherever it leads that Leavis, like Socrates, lived by.

Leavis’s concern at the dissolution of values within contemporary civilization and its literary culture is of key significance for any account of his life and work. Dr MacKillop notes his early interest In Spengler’s Decline of the West, [17] and use of the Marabar passage in A Passage to India as ‘a touchstone account of disintegration (or dis-integration) in the modern world’ in lectures and articles in 1930. [18] However, the preoccupation to which Dr MacKillop points is bound up with much else in Leavis, including his later emphasis on Lawrence, [19] whose infinitely more powerful analysis of the modern world replaces Forster’s as the ‘touchstone account’. A deep sense of the age as ‘a period marked by the collapse of standards’,[20] together with an overwhelming conviction of the need to maintain the creative and critical effort to make discriminations of value in the common language of literature and life in the face of its indifference or active hostility, runs through the whole fabric of Leavis’s thought; and it is here that the true explanation of his troubled relations with Cambridge, Bloomsbury and the metropolitan literary establishment must be sought.

The unsatisfactoriness of Dr MacKillop’s study is closely connected with its facile attitude towards Leavis’s disturbing vision of a decaying civilization in which standards break down and are replaced by expediency and compromise. Where Leavis points to a literary culture without belief, hiding its nihilism under an ‘easy’ surface of mutual approbation and encouragement, [21] Dr MacKillop speaks of ‘gallant individualism’. [22] This clearly illustrates his refusal to take the concern that constitutes a central link between Leavis’s life and work seriously, or to even properly acknowledge it for what it is. If Leavis’s was ‘a life in criticism’, it is because the conflicts that marked it can be seen as a prolonged struggle against the relativism – or ‘enlightenment’ as Leavis ironically called it [23] – of an age without values. Unfortunately, in spite of its promising sub-title, Dr MacKillop’s book poses no serious challenge to the popular view that they are mere expressions of an exceptionally ‘difficult’ personality. [24]

1. Ian MacKillop F.R. Leavis: A Life in Criticism (Allen Lane, 1995).

2. Michael Black in The Cambridge Review (Nov. 1995), p 125.

3. MacKillop, pp. 171-181.

4. Ibid, p. 182.

5. F.R. Leavis English Literature in Our Time and the University (Chatto and Windus 1969,p. 22.

6. Ibid, p. 22.

7. MacKillop, pp. 225-228.

8. Cf. Black The Cambridge Review, p. 125.

9. MacKillop p. 228.

10. F.R. Leavis (with Michael Yudkin) Two Cultures? (Chatto and Windus 1962), p. 29.

11. MacKillop p. 178.

12. Ibid, p. 269.

13. F.R. Leavis A Selection from ‘Scrutiny’ (CUP 1968), Vol. 1, p. 140.

14. Ibid, p 190-196.

15. Ibid, p 164.

16. S Cavell The Availability of Wittgenstein’s Later Philosophy in G Pitcher (ed.) Wittgenstein (Macmillan 1970), p. 162.

17. MacKillop, p. 13 (see also p. 204).

18. Ibid, p. 122-123.

19. F.R. Leavis D.H. Lawrence: Novelist (Penguin 1970), pp. 174-176.

20. English Literature in Our Time and the University, p. 26.

21. D.H. Lawrence: Novelist, p. 251.

22. MacKillop, p. 232.

23. English Literature in Our Time and the University, p. 26.

24. I should like to take this opportunity to thank Dr G.A. Panichas for his support and encouragement.