F.R. Leavis, the controversial and often eccentric British man of letters, died at his Cambridge, England, home last Friday at the age of 82, after being bedridden for nearly a year.
Although Queen Elizabeth in last January'sNew Year's honor list awarded him the Companion of Honor for "services to the study of English literature," his most influential years as a critic and dogmatic literary arbiter spanned the period from the late 1930s to the 1960s.
Born and educated at Cambridged where he later lectured, but was never granted a professorship Leavis was the founding editor of Scrutiny, a highly esteemed literary journal published from 1932 to 1953, the seminal years in which he developed and refined his conservative and moralistic view of English literature.
Frank Raymond Leavis was a volatile and highly opinionated man in a discipline traditionally characterized by understatement and reserved judgment. His unyielding views variously provoked strong support, bitter anti-pathy or simple incomprehension. Throughout his career, and reflected in his two dozen books and numerous essays many written with the collaboration of his wife, Q.D. Leavis, herself a critic, he expounded the concept of "The Great Tradition" in English letters.
In critical-historical studies such as "Revaluation" (1936), " The Great Tradition" (1948), "D.H. Lawrence, Novelist" (1955) and "The Living Principle" (1975), Leavis traced the moral tradition from its origins in the 17th century to the more familiar work of Ger-and Manley Hopkins, Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. Those writer who did not fall within his categories he often dismissed with scorn, and was capable of describing John Miltton's "Paradise Lost" as "mechanical as bricklaying."
In the 1940's, Leavis shifted his attention to the novel asthe principal embodiment of the great tradition. He claimed that in the fiction of Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James, Joseph Conrad and D.H. Lawrence, "we have the successors of Shakespeare; for in the nineteenth century and later the strength the poetic and creative strength of the English language goes into prose fiction."
Thesewriters (along with Dickens about whom Leavis had reservations), he argued, "are distinguished by a vital capacity for experience, a kind of reverent openness before life and a marked moral intensity." Leavis was fond of quoting a though of D.H. Lawrence that seemed to sum up his beliefs, "Once must speak for life and growth, amid all his mass of destruction and disintegration."
If Leavis was tireless in his defense of the mainstream tradition, he was equally energetic in his denunciation of the modern in literature and life, which he found lacking in moral earnestness. He habitually disparaged such distinguished writers as James Joyce and even Flaubertfor their narrow perspective and absence of ethical sincerity, and called Virginia Woolf a "slender talent."
Leavis intolerance for the modern extended to the theory ofeducation as well. He conducted a celebrated debate in 1963 with novelist C.P. Snow, who had argued in an essay, "The Two Cultures," that the lack of emphasis on science and technology and the failure of mutual understanding between scientist and humanists was retarding England's progress among developed nations.
Leavis responded with unexpected acidity, claiming that Snow exhibited "an utterlack of intellectual distinction and an embarrassing vulgarity of style," and that his views could prompt "destroyers" to debase the English university system.
Leavis taught at four different universities in England and Wales during his career, and his provocative nature carried into his personal life. He disdained to wear neckties or academic gowns in the proper world of Cambridge dons, and was reportedly often rude to his colleagues at dinner.
But however controversial his behavior or his opinions, Leavis worked wtih a spirit of duty reflected in one of D.H. Lawrence's last proouncements: "One writes out of one's moral sense for the race, as it were."
Leavis is survived by his wife, Queenie Dorothy Roth Leavis, two sons and a daughter.