F. R. Leavis Arthur Mizener

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Arthur Mizener

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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It would be hard to over-rate the importance of Mr. Leavis' [The Great Tradition] for the present time. The critical problem of the novel is stirring once more, and unless Mr. Leavis is simply ignored, it will be impossible again to deal with the English novel, as we have in the past, as if the great novelists of its central tradition did not exist, as if, consequently, freaks and fakes like Djuna Barnes and Ronald Firbank were serious matters, authentic minor novelists like Virginia Woolf major novelists. There is probably a real risk that Mr. Leavis will be ignored; he has all the thorniness and some of the real defects of the man who is hell-bent on doing us all good. He talks much too much about the "adult" and the "mature" mind when he only means his own, and is especially insistent on this identification when he is attacking some writer like Thackeray who is conventionally respected; he refers with uncalled-for scorn to "the reader whose demand [does not go] beyond 'the creation of character' and so on" and who therefore likes Trollope; he allows himself to 'be romantically ironic about readers who make so bold as to be offended by these habits.

But if his manner is not exactly ingratiating, its final effect is to convince you of his earnestness and honesty. His opening sentence—"The great English novelists are Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James and Joseph Conrad"—is perfectly calculated to evoke protest. Actually it means only that the major form of the novel is—using the term in its widest sense—the novel of manners and that Mr. Leavis proposes to define the precise nature and value of this form by careful analyses of those novels of Eliot, James, and Conrad which most clearly display them. (pp. 547-48)

What emerges from his book for the sympathetic reader is a man of good sense and fine judgment who has applied himself with great earnestness to the task of discriminating the supremely good in the novel from what is merely good and has, in the process of explaining his discriminations, outlined a serious critical conception of the novel. All this is effected in the most impressive possible way, by eminently sensible yet sensitive and intelligent discussions of the particular novelists Mr. Leavis is concerned with. What is perhaps most impressive of all about these discussions is the fine clarity and conviction with which he distinguishes the precise critical grounds of his judgment. So close and sympathetic is his reading, so unremitting his care to...

(The entire section is 657 words.)