F.R. Leavis

Article excerpt

Richard Storer. F.R. Leavis. (Routledge Critical Thinkers series). Oxford: Routledge, 2009. xiv + 147 pages.

Richard Storer's guide to F.R. Leavis as critical thinker is a very good book, as a model of how to write clearly for a student readership, without any loss of complexity, subtlety or originality, and equally as a new study of Leavis's thought and its continuing influence. The book fulfils its author's intention, then, in being successfully introductory and genuinely exploratory:

Although I have organised this book with the student in mind, it would be particularly ironic if a book on Leavis addressed only the student and not any wider readership. So I have tried as much as possible to make this a book which will interest other readers ... Leavis himself was fairly unequivocal on what he thought of introductory "aids to study," referring to the "immense, the monstrous, industry of book-manufacture addressed to the vast new student-populace." (9-10)

This is certainly not a piece of "book-manufacture," though I hope it will reach a large student-populace: it never simplifies, or reduces, except in the sense that it states and analyses as clearly as possible the origins, problems, strengths and possibilities to be found in Leavis's critical thinking and practices. Any reader, whether a student or an academic who has read the considerable critical literature on Leavis, should find new insights here, based in Storer's comprehensive knowledge of Leavis's writings and their reception, from the early nineteen-thirties pamphlet, How to Teach Reading: a Primer for Ezra Pound, to the collections of posthumous works by his literary executor, G Singh (1968 and 1986), and on into the large secondary literature on Leavis, the Leavises, and the Leavisites.

The study is organized in eight chapters centring on what Storer identifies as Leavis's key ideas: "Literary Criticism, theory and philosophy"; "Culture"; "New Bearings"; "Great Traditions"; "Close Reading"; "English, education and the university"; and "Life." Each chapter gives a clear sense of how such key ideas were developed and received between the nineteen-thirties and the nineteen-eighties and goes on to carefully-balanced considerations of (and challenges to) what have sometimes become mechanically orthodox ways of placing Leavis. Thus, for example, Storer argues that:

Contrary to what is generally believed about Leavis, it is actually one of the most deeply ingrained characteristics of his literary criticism to analyze a text in relation to its context - to assess the individual achievement as part of the life of the community rather than just as "words on the page". . . [though] in terms different from those which critics usually have in mind when they insist on context. (59)

And that when it came to close reading,

the idea of total isolation of the text from any kind of context does not really correspond to Leavis's approach. What he sought to produce from a close reading was rather a concrete instance of a more general reading of the period - perhaps even ... a narrative of tradition and development between periods. (87)

This awareness of what has usually been said about Leavis, as well as an ability to argue for alternatives based on a deep and wide knowledge of Leavis's work, and a willingness to suggest further things which might yet be said, are fundamental strengths for the whole book. …

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