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F. R. Leavis and Tradition: A Review of Leavisian Criticism

Author LiuZhiYong
Tutor DongHongChuan
School Chongqing Normal University
Course English Language and Literature
Keywords tradition Leavisian criticism moral criticism close reading disinterestedness
Type Master's thesis
Year 2007
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The ubiquitous influence of F. R. Leavis (1895-1978) in British literary criticism is scarcely paralleled in the 20th century, along with the extremely unfavorable treatment that he has received. Faced with the cultural leveling-down in his age, Leavis, with a quixotic kind of courage, devotes himself to the life-long endeavor to redefine and remap the tradition of English literature, which brings him reputation as well as numerous opponents in criticism. His unmerciful words and uncompromising attitude in countless exchanges with the“academic dons”account for the academic exclusion that he has suffered for a life time. But his status as a great critic is firmly established in Britain, which has been demonstrated by the close attention to and intense study on Leavisian criticism. In contrast with this, Leavisian criticism is in a state of neglect except for rare cases of simple general introduction to it in China. This lack of attention leads to constant misinterpretations of it, which in turn hinder the beneficial absorption and application of the merits of Leavisian criticism. However, Lu Jiande’s“Preface”to the Chinese translation of The Great Tradition and the following re-reading of Leavis in the light of literary ethics by Nie Zhenzhao offer inspirations for a“rediscovery”of Leavisian criticism in China. Inspired by them, the present thesis, modeled by Leavis’s critical practice, attempts to restore a true Leavisian criticism through a detailed scrutiny on it and give it an unbiased judgment with consideration to the historical context in which Leavis practices it. The present thesis consists of five parts. In the first part, a brief literature review of the critical attention to Leavisian criticism both in China and overseas follows an introduction to the prominent status of Leavis in British literary study. Based on the observation of the state of affairs in China, the thesis proposes that there is an urgent need for a detailed and comprehensive study on Leavisian criticism to amend the present neglect of such a significant critical legacy. Part two focuses on the historical background of Leavisian criticism and the line of development of the concept of“tradition”which is of great significance to it. The advancement of science and technology brings about the advancement of civilization; and industrialization results into the improvement of the well-being of human society. But the accompanying“scienticism”poses a gloomy threat to the continuity of human heritage– humanity as embodied in cultural heritage is in crisis. Literature, the main vehicle of culture, is not to escape and the crisis of it takes the form of the lack of serious interest and absence of standards in literature. Faced with such crisis, Leavis adopts the new concept of“tradition”proposed by T. S. Eliot and further develops it. He proposes to establish correct interest and standards of judgment through the redefinition and remapping of the tradition of English literature with a hope to save the humanity from leveling-down. Part three centers on the cortical practice of Leavis to restore the English poetic and fictional tradition. Leavis points out that T. S. Eliot represents the new direction of English poetry after a review of the state of affairs and the weakness of contemporary poetry: T. S. Eliot is acutely conscious of the troubled reality of human society and represents it in his poetry with his innovation in poetical techniques, which is a reaction and correction to the“daydreaming”kind of withdrawal widely present in Victorian poetry. On the other hand, the line of continuity in English fiction is represented by Jane Austin, George Eliot, Charles Dickens, Henry James, Joseph Conrad and D. H. Lawrence. They all stick to the concern for humanity, which is to be traced back to Shakespeare. This tradition can be summed up as follow: a great novelist must concern the human living and, with“disinterestedness”in attitude and his capacity to convey what he feels about the reality, and present the“possibilities of life”in their creative works of art with vividness so that the readers’active responses are aroused for a better understanding of and reflection on the real world. At the same time, the works should provide an“affirmation of life”in the face of all kinds of social problems and embarrassments. Based on Leavis’s critical efforts to restore the tradition of English literature, it is further proposed in part four that Leavisian criticism is a tradition in itself and a review of it is conducted.“Close reading”,“disinterestedness”,“representation of reality”and“morality”are extracted from his critical practice as key words to map the Leavisian criticism. The interplay of them in an“organic whole”exemplifies the operational mechanism of Leavisian criticism. Then discriminative comments are made on the Leavisian criticism to reveal both its strength and weakness. The fifth part gives a summary of Leavis’s critical concepts and practice and concludes with a proposal of the possible implications of Leavisian criticism to current China, in which problems of similar kind to that of Leavis’s Britain exist.

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