Lectured by Leavis
By MICHAEL CAINES
F. R. Leavis had a not-very-soft spot for the TLS, at least in later years. Major or minor, real or imagined, slights and misrepresentations abounded, such as the paper's astounding folly in not welcoming East Coker as a work of heart-breaking genius (in fact, it gave Four Quartets little attention at all), and its general failure to kowtow before the throne of Scrutiny.
The mention of D. H. Lawrence or the incautious glossing of Leavis's views, could prompt a letter of rebuke, dutifully published in the next week's paper; his wife Q. D. Leavis joined in for good measure, once demanding an explanation from the Editor, following an "impenitent and impudent reply" from a reviewer. Then a bizarre, Leavis-baiting error occurred in 1955: a translated History of Switzerland appeared with the claim that he had written the "concluding pages". The publisher's abashed apology for their "printing error" appeared below Leavis's brief yet thoroughly contemptuous reply: "I must ask you to give publicity to the statement that I have never written any pages about Switzerland in any language, and that this use of my name is wholly unauthorized and unwarranted".
Uneasy relations did not prevent the occasional lecture by Leavis appearing in the TLS, but, according to Derwent May in Critical Times, Leavis "went on harassing and haranguing" the paper's mid-century Editor, Arthur Crook, "until the end of his editorship". This was not least because of the rematch with C. P. Snow this paper published in 1970, which returned to the same acrimonious battleground as the "Two Cultures?" debate of a decade earlier, only this time with Leavis throwing in a few "personal barbs", aimed at the Provost of University College London, Noël Annan, for good measure. Leavis almost found himself on the receiving end of a libel action for that. It was averted by Arthur Crook.
Understandably, in 1976, a TLS reviewer could write off Leavis as "our antediluvian polemicist"; and today, you might think, nobody would need to write him off at all. Instead, however, there are signs that interest in Leavis's views on literature, and the place of literary studies in universities, has revived rather than fallen off completely: David Ellis's Memoirs of a Leavisite and Cambridge University Press's new edition of Two Cultures?: The significance of C. P. Snow, with an introduction by Stefan Collini, have appeared this year (and will be reviewed in the TLS shortly); and the University of York holds a conference devoted to Leavis later this month, with an inaugural lecture by Christopher Ricks, following a similar (and most enjoyable) event in 2010. The organizers tell me that there is some serious interest in Leavis abroad, particularly in the Far East, and that there may be more events and publications in the pipeline.
Why the resurgence, if that is what this is? The explanation might lie in the Leavisian qualities identified in a TLS review of 1962, which identifies the wellspring of the critic's admirable qualities as well as his deleterious tendencies:
"As for Dr. Leavis [this follows an account of William Empson's "brilliant and exasperating" Seven Types of Ambiguity], The Common Pursuit contains some of his finest, as well as some of his most irritating, work. The prickly quality, the gracelessness which seems, even to his admirers, to disfigure much of his writing, springs from a genuine and full-blooded concern with standards, with the whole truth as he sees it, which has had a profound if complex influence on most of the younger, critics. . . . Perhaps more than anyone else he has made the rewriting of recent literary history not only desirable but necessary."
The Common Pursuit ends, incidentally, with a chapter called "The Progress of Poetry", which takes issue with a review of W. H. Auden's The Age of Anxiety – a review first published in – well, you know where.