1956 - Thoughts on Dr Leavis

It seems that Dr Leavis gave a lecture at Nottingham University on "Literature In My Time" and declared that apart from D H Lawrence there has been no literature in his time. He knocked hell out of everybody, and no doubt had all the Lucky Jims rolling down the aisles. Like Groucho Marx on another academic occasion, whatever it was he was against it. Virginia Woolf was a "slender talent"; Lytton Strachey "irresponsible and unscrupulous"; W H Auden "the type career" fixed at "the undergraduate stage"; Spender " no talent whatsoever"; Day-Lewis "Book Society author"; the whole age "dismal," the outlook "very poor". By the time Dr Leavis caught his train back to Cambridge, there was hardly anything left to read in Nottingham.

I have not the pleasure of the doctor's acquaintance - he was up at Cambridge just after me - but I have a vague but impressive vision of him, pale and glittering-eyed, shining with integrity, marching out of Downing to close whole departments of libraries, to snatch books out of people's hands, to proclaim the bitter truth that nobody writes anything worth reading. There is Lawrence; there is Leavis on Lawrence; perhaps a disciple, Jones, is writing something - let us say, Jones on Leavis on Lawrence; after that, nothing.

Years ago, just after he was appointed Chief Controller of Literary Passports, Dr Leavis announced one morning - playing for a laugh, for the boys and girls love this sort of thing - that no time need be wasted on Priestley. He was quite right, too. Suppose a man said to me: "My boy's up at Cambridge doing English. It's a struggle for us to keep him there - that's why I've stopped smoking - so I don't want him to waste a minute of his time. Now, honestly, old man, do you think he ought to read your stuff?" I would reply without hesitation: "No, old man, he oughtn't. Leavis is quite right. If your boy's committed to Eng. Lit., and at such a sacrifice too, he must be careful what he reads. But as we're being honest, old man, I must add one thing. For my part I wouldn't swap a pound of tobacco for all the Eng. Lit. courses in the country. If it's not too late, take your boy out of that mournful little racket, let him learn something while he has a chance."

It was about this time that Dr Leavis, with one quick turn of the wrist, dropped most of the 18th century into the ashcan. No time need be wasted reading Fielding, Sterne, Goldsmith, Smollett. This seemed to some of us dabblers in letters to be rather severe. Sometimes I have wistfully tried to imagine a scene in Bow Street, with Dr Leavis appearing before that formidable (though wise and compassionate) magistrate Henry Fielding. For all his courage - and we must grant him that- Dr Leavis, I suspect, would not cut a very impressive figure in the presence of Fielding. And with all due respect to this critic's integrity, and without any malice whatever, I cannot help feeling that whatever happened to him would serve him right.

I am as vain, touchy and aggressive as the next man - in fact, it is ten to one I am vainer, touchier and more aggressive - but when I am considering a great personality and a massive original talent (probably the most precious thing in the world) I feel a little humility is not out of place. A Fielding may not be all he was once thought to be (I think he is, but that is not the argument), nevertheless he is still a whale of a fellow compared with anybody lecturing on literature at Cambridge. Literature is not well served when its giants are mutilated and slaughtered to fit a critical theory, here-today-and-gone-tomorrow. Nor are the intellectual manners of the young improved by the spectacle, offered them at an impressionable time, of such arrogant antics.

There could be, no doubt, a standard of literary values so high, so icily severe, that in its sight a Virginia Woolf would possess nothing but a slender talent. But from this height Dr Leavis would not exist at all. His loudest screams could never be heard. His claim to write even one sentence worth reading could not be accepted. This is where the arrogantly dogmatic critic, behaving more like The Grand Inquisitor than a man of letters, walks into a trap. For if our time is so precious that we should not waste it reading a hundred reputable authors, from Fielding to Day-Lewis, then why should we waste it listening to Dr Leavis?

This question may not occur to undergraduates, who are impressed by fierce dogmatism, because they are themselves inclined towards intolerance, sweeping generalisations and knock-you-down judgments, and sit up half the night opening bottles of beer and roaring this stuff at one another. So when Dr Leavis tells his audiences that Mr Auden has never advanced beyond the undergraduate stage, he should be careful, for his own success with undergraduates might be explained by the fact that his critical methods and temper have much in common with those of the average second-year man. It is the critic who is not conducting a permanent quarrel with everybody, who has sensible relative values, who does not divide writing into literature and rubbish, who knows that authors worth reading have many different virtues, who cannot have an easy success with undergraduates, just because he does not behave as they like to do, because he asks them to make an effort and civilise themselves. A man who tells youngsters that literature in his time consists of D H Lawrence and nothing else is not behaving like a man with any real concern for the culture of his time.

The outlook may be "very poor", but firework displays of neurotic egoism will not light us very far on the way. Come, come; you have excellent qualities - acknowledged even by those of us to whom you allow nothing - so do not misuse them, Dr Leavis.