Lionel Trilling and the Critics: Opposing Selves

By John Rodden | Go to book overview

17
“Meet Mr. Forster,” Scrutiny
winter 1944

F. R. Leavis

F. R. Leavis (1895–1978) was the most influential British literary critichistorian of the twentieth century, especially in his shaping of critical opinion about the British novel. In critical works such as The Great Tradition (1948)—which Trilling favorably reviewed for The New Yorker—Leavis relentlessly championed his own idiosyncratic canon of novelists, which comprised a select group: Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James, Joseph Conrad, and D. H. Lawrence. In part, this selectivity had to do with Leavis’s commitment to moral as well as aesthetic criteria: Leavis was especially concerned with the “moral element” in literature, which accounted for his generally low opinion of avant-garde modern literature.

Leavis taught at Cambridge University for most of his career. Co-founder (with his wife, Q. D.) of the literary journal Scrutiny, Leavis advocated a critical formalism characterized by close textual readings more similar to the New Critics’ exegetical methods than to the impressionistic, essayistic criticism of Trilling and the New York intellectuals. Although Leavis regarded Trilling’s nuanced cultural criticism as unrigorous and tepid, the two men did share a concern with the moral dimension of literature in general and Matthew Arnold’s work in particular.

Among Leavis’s most significant books are Mass Civilization and Minority Culture (1930), Revaluation: Tradition and Development in English Poetry (1936), and Education and the University (1943). He also engaged in a muchpublicized dispute during 1959–61 with C. P. Snow on the superiority of science vs. literature (the “Two Cultures” debate); Trilling commented on the controversy in a 1962 Commentary essay (collected in Beyond Culture) that occasioned sharp responses from both Leavis and Snow.

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