Leavis, F. R.

Assigned: Leavis, F. R. From The Great Tradition: George Eliot, Henry James, Joseph Conrad, from I. “The Great Tradition” (1052-63). Also read the editors’ introduction (1050-52).

From The Great Tradition: George Eliot, Henry James, Joseph Conrad (1948)

1. On 1052-53 (“The great English novelists are…”), how does F. R. Leavis justify his willingness as a critic to make bold pronouncements about who is and is not to be classified among the “great English novelists” (1052)? What, according to him, is “the best way to promote profitable discussion” (1052), and how does he respond preemptively to those who consider his precepts “narrow” (1052) and his lists of the greats absurdly exclusionary?

2. On 1053-55 (“It is necessary to insist, then…”), how does Leavis mark out what he considers the significance of the key concept, “tradition”? What is the best way, according to Leavis, to define “tradition,” or more particularly, the tradition of the English novel? How can we do so in connection with the attempt to determine which authors count as “the major novelists” (1053)? Why, in Leavis’ view, are Fielding and even Richardson “important historically” (1054) and yet not in the same class as Leavis’ much-praised Jane Austen—in his view, how does Austen affect both the future and our perceptions of the literary past in a way that authors like Fielding and Richardson do not?

3. On 1055-57 (“The great novelists in that tradition…”), how does Leavis use the celebrated nineteenth-century French novelist Gustave Flaubert (and to some extent the English novelist George Moore) as a foil for the “great English novelists” (1056), and in particular for the work of Jane Austen? Why, in Leavis’ view, is Austen’s approach to writing superior to that of Flaubert, however excellent the latter may be as a stylist? How does Austen’s “moral intensity” (1056) figure into Leavis’ estimation, and why does he believe that is an important consideration?

4. On 1057-59 (“Henry James also was a great admirer…”), how does Leavis justify his inclusion of the American novelist Henry James, a New Yorker, on his list of English greats? What qualities does he ascribe to James’s work, and how does he describe the primary object of James’ attentions as an artist? As an artist, what “problem” (1058) preoccupied Henry James, and how did the refined study of his predecessor George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) allow him to deal with that problem?

5. On 1059-62 (“When we come to Conrad…”), what does Leavis initially suggest qualifies Polish-born novelist Joseph Conrad for inclusion in the English canon for that genre? What does Leavis think Conrad drew from his fellow novelists in the English tradition—Henry James and Dickens, for example? Why doesn’t Leavis include the beloved Charles Dickens in his “line of great novelists” (1060)? How is it that this author at once “is permanently among the classics” (1060) and yet doesn’t deserve inclusion among Leavis’ “greats”? Finally, according to Leavis, what “major quality” (1061) most justifies Conrad’s inclusion in that list? (Leavis’ choice would certainly not meet the approval of the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe—see that author’s essay, “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness”; Leitch 1534-46.)

6. On 1062-63 (“Is there no name later than Conrad’s…”), how does Leavis justify his naming of English novelist D. H. Lawrence in “the great tradition”? (1062) What qualities does he find most admirable and productive in this much-persecuted artist who died in his mid-forties, an exile from England living in Taos, New Mexico? In what sense does Leavis, as a final flourish, identify his own practice as a critic with the boldness shown by D. H. Lawrence as an artist?

7. General question: In our selection from The Great Tradition, F. R. Leavis shows no hesitation in praising or dispraising, including or excluding from his personally-derived canon of “greats,” the various novelists he mentions. Is that kind of ranking or hierarchizing activity what you believe critics should occupy their time with? Why or why not? What should critics do, mainly, by way of advancing understanding and knowledge in the field of literature and the arts?

8. General question: What underlying assumptions is F. R. Leavis’ type of critic as promoted in The Great Tradition almost certainly making? That is, if a “Leavisite” decides to compile lists of “the best English novelists” or “the greatest nineteenth-century French lyric poets,” etc., what assumptions is that critic probably making about the nature of the subject or field itself; about the proper role of a critic; about the relation of the critic to his or her object of study (i.e., the work of art); about the relation between the critic and his or her public; about the relation between the public and the work of art, and perhaps other things as well, as you may determine them?

9. General question: Play F. R. Leavis in The Great Tradition and try to arrive at your own “fab four” (or five, or…) in any particular genre of literature, or even your top three or four literary theorists. How did you arrive at this list—what are your principles of inclusion and exclusion? Do you expect others to fall in line and ratify your list, or do you consider it simply an idiosyncratic snapshot of your own preferences? How is it useful to you to make such lists, if it is? Explain.

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

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