Frank Raymond Leavis (LEE-vuhs) was educated at the Perse School and Cambridge University, and he spent virtually his entire life in this university town. He had great admiration for and was deeply attached to his father, a sensitive, cultivated, deeply musical man, who owned a musical-instrument shop in Cambridge. After serving in the Ambulance Corps during World War I, Leavis won a scholarship to Emmanuel College. As an undergraduate, he began specializing in history but changed to English. The works that influenced his thoughts about literature, culture, and society were those by George Santayana, Matthew Arnold, T. S. Eliot, and Ford Madox Ford. As a schoolboy in 1912, he had subscribed to Ford’s The English Review. He was attracted to Ford’s belief that in the contemporary industrial world, the higher cultural values should be preserved by a small minority, which, however, should resist removing itself from life.
As a student at Cambridge University, Leavis was fascinated by such teachers as Mansfield Forbes and I. A. Richards, the advocate of “practical criticism.” Leavis was impressed by the periodical The Calendar of Modern Letters, which insisted on maintaining high critical standards. In 1924, he wrote his doctoral thesis on the periodical literature of the eighteenth century, “The Relationship of Journalism to Literature: Studies in the Rise and Earlier Development of the Press in England.” In 1925, Leavis began tutoring English literature at Emmanuel College and became an assistant lecturer in 1927. He continued teaching at Cambridge until his retirement in 1962. As a lecturer, he challenged the establishment with his theories on literature and the university. He annoyed the English faculty in the 1930’s when he began lecturing to his class on contemporary writings, such as James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922).
Leavis published his first book in 1930 and continued to produce numerous books, essays, and reviews, publishing his last book two years before his death. Among his most important and influential literary studies are New Bearings in English Poetry, Revaluation, The Great Tradition, and The Common Pursuit, works that examine the writers he considered the most important in English literature. Leavis believed strongly that English literature is an indispensable discipline in the university and wrote many essays defending his position. In one of his last books, The Living Principle, he argues that the study of English literature is a discipline of rigorous thought, not merely an exercise of emotions.
Leavis was closely associated with the launching of the influential literary journal Scrutiny in 1932. He was actively involved as editor and contributor throughout the life of the journal, contributing the valedictory issue in October, 1953. In addition, he collaborated on numerous critical studies with Queenie Roth, whom he married in 1929 and who, as Q. D. Leavis, published many works in her own right. During the 1960’s, F. R. Leavis was involved in a controversy with C. P. Snow, the scientist-novelist, over the relationship in contemporary society between the scientific and the literary cultures. Leavis outlined his position in Two Cultures? The Significance of C. P. Snow, the most famous of his social essays, in which he attacks unsparingly Snow’s idea of a separate scientific culture distinct from the traditional humanistic culture. In 1966, Leavis undertook a lecture tour of the United States. He later held visiting professorships at the Universities of York, Wales, and Bristol. Several universities, including Aberdeen, Belfast, Delhi, Leeds, and York, awarded him honorary doctorates. He was made a Companion of Honour in 1978, just prior to his death on April 14, 1978.
For Leavis, literature and literary criticism do not operate in a social vacuum; they derive from a concern for maintaining cultural standards. He envisioned English literary studies as a distinct discipline at the center of the intellectual and...
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