His father was a cultured man who ran a shop in Cambridge that sold pianos and other musical instruments, [1] and his son was to retain a respect for him throughout his life. Leavis was educated at a fee-paying independent school in English terms a minor public school , The Perse School , whose headmaster was Dr W. Rouse was a classicist and known for his "direct method", a practice which required teachers to carry on classroom conversations with their pupils in Latin and classical Greek. Though he had some fluency in foreign languages, Leavis felt that his native language was the only one on which he was able to speak with authority. His extensive reading in the classical languages is not therefore strongly evident in his work. Leavis is quoted as saying: "But after the Bloody Somme there could be no question for anyone who knew what modern war was like of joining the army.

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I write this from personal experience: as a student, I was lucky enough to see FR Leavis in action. My teacher had been taught by FR Leavis at Cambridge.

Leavis was a literary critic who treated English literature as a secular religion, a kind of answer to what he thought was a post-Christian society. He had a fanatical assurance about literature… And my teacher at school felt something comparably zealous… It was conveyed to us that certain books really did matter and that you were involved in some rearguard action for the profound human values in these books.

This was conveyed very powerfully — that the way to learn how to live and to live properly was to read English literature — and it worked for me. I was taught close, attentive reading, and to ironize the ambitions of grand theory. In his prime, his criticism was distinctive for its uncompromising association of literature and morality.

Having served in the ambulance corps during the first world war, he went on to pioneer a new literary critical aesthetic from the early s when, as a young don, he founded the quarterly review, Scrutiny.

Leavis would edit this extraordinarily influential journal from to At the same time, he published the works that established his reputation, New Bearings in English Poetry , Revaluation , the immensely important essays from The Common Pursuit and, before that, perhaps his best-known critical statement, The Great Tradition.

To some in the academic critical establishment, Leavis was anathema. In the broader evaluation of the English literary tradition, Leavis never took prisoners. The impact of Leavis on the literary imaginations of some late 20th century writers is possibly exemplified by the response of his former student, the Man Booker prizewinning novelist Howard Jacobson, who confesses, in a self-lacerating account of his tutorials with Leavis, the agony he suffered at the feet of the master critic.

Were not timid scholarship and dim-sighted scrupulosity precisely the shortcomings he found in the Cambridge of which, in the early days, he was the scourge? I came late to the writing of novels, though it was the only thing I had ever wanted to do. To be intimidated by the literature you have been taught to love is no bad thing: the proof of a good education is not the unembarrassed production of tosh. But we owe it to him to show that, so far, nobody has told a better one, or told it with a braver conviction of why it matters to tell it at all.


The Great Tradition



FR Leavis’ Concept of Great Tradition



The 100 best nonfiction books: No 31 – The Great Tradition by FR Leavis (1948)


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