Terence Francis Eagleton is a British literary theorist and critic. In 2007, he was described by the The Independent as "the man who succeeded F. R. Leavis as Britain's most influential academic critic." A prolific writer and charismatic lecturer, Eagleton has been a major influence on scholars and students alike.
Eagleton was born on February 22, 1943, in Salford, into a poor family of Irish Catholics. He had two sisters, who were both English teachers but his two brothers died in infancy. Eagleton went to a Roman-Catholic grammar school run by De La Salle brothers. Although he was later to become an atheist, religion had a large impact on his life. "I value my Catholic background very much. It taught me not to be afraid of rigorous thought, for one thing," he said in an interview with The New York Times in connection with his criticism of a book by Richard Dawkins.
Eagleton earned his M.A. and Ph.D at Trinity College, Cambridge. He had mixed feelings about Cambridge from the beginning, stating that while admiring the intellectual hub, he hated the snobbishness. He was referred to by Prince Charles, who also attended Trinity during the same period, as "that dreadful Terry Eagleton." At Trinity, Eagleton came under the influence of Raymond Williams, the Marxist literary critic. At the same time, he helped to set up the left-wing Catholic journal Slant and was influenced by a radical Dominican friar, Laurence Bright. Marxism and Catholicism could co-exist comfortably, Eagleton argued. However, following the death of Bright, Eagleton devoted himself solely to Marxism.
After he had obtained his degree, Eagleton became a research fellow at Jesus College in Cambridge. In 1969, he moved to Oxford, which was to remain his residence for 30 years. The Oxford tradition in English teaching has been focused on textual analysis but Eagleton defied that by looking into the link between literature and the cultural setting it stemmed from. In 1992, he became the Warton Professor of English Literature at the University of Oxford. Eagleton held this post until 2001, when he became John Edward Taylor Professor of English Literature at the University of Manchester. In 2008, he joined the department of English and creative writing at Lancaster University.
At the start of his career Eagleton was a Victorianist, although he was tempted to write on a variety of periods, with his first books including Shakespeare and Society and Exiles and Emigrés: Studies in Modern Literature (1970). What made him a leading name in the literary field, however, was his more theoretical writing as a Marxist critic, in works such as Criticism and Ideology, published in 1976. In 1983, Eagleton published the academic best seller Literary Theory, the most famous demonstration of his examination during the 1980s into the different streams of continental thought influencing English literature at that time. Eagleton's Marxist approach to literary theory is visible in the book as is in his further writing on ideology, in works such as The Ideology of the Aesthetic (1990), as well as in his critique of postmodernism, The Illusions of Postmodernism (1996).
Since the middle of the 1980s, Eagleton was engaged in creative writing. Saints and Scholars, a well-reviewed novel about Wittgenstein in Ireland was published in 1985. He has also written several plays, among which Saint Oscar, produced by the Field Day theatre company in 1989, in addition to the script for the Wittgenstein film (1993) of Derek Jarman. A central theme in much of Eagleton's creative work is his Irish origins and Ireland's political history.
His memoir, The Gatekeeper, was published in 2001. The title comes from a time when he was 10 years old and served as an altar boy and gatekeeper at a convent. The book spans seven chapters and is called by the author himself an "anti-autobiography." Rather than following life in a linear manner, Eagleton presents his as intertwined short extracts. Eagleton was cited by The Guardian as saying that he does not like the autobiography genre as he finds it predictable and he dubbed his work a memoir, describing it as "a way of writing about ideas which can be weaved in and out of a life."