FR Leavis to Modernity: Greetings! Inaugural Editorial

Leavis Society


September, 2016

FR Leavis to Modernity: Greetings!

Inaugural Editorial











Leavis created modern literary criticism in Britain

 This inaugural Leavis Society Newsletter is offered as a catalyst for reflection about Leavis’s work in the Internet Era. It also introduces a good deal of important pieces of work, which is placed on the website at the same time.

 More than anyone else, FR Leavis consolidated and conceptualised English literary criticism in the British context in the twentieth century. Additionally, especially in his later work, and in continuity with his essential insight, he extrapolated the implications of literary critical thought, to societal matters of great cultural-socio-economic-political, religious, and philosophical, significance.

 Since his death, both his work, and his concerns, have mostly gone into abeyance. As Steven Cranfield (FR Leavis: The Creative University) has written: “We are thus faced with a paradox of a once immensely influential critic and educator who has, to all intents and purposes, vanished from contemporary debate about higher education, except as a historical point of reference.” Assuming Leavis’s analysis is cogent, then arguably, this dip into abeyance is predicted and anticipated within Leavis’s own vision, as a symptom of the very decline he analyses. Who, for instance, apart from us, thinks much about the concept of a Canon today?

 We, the British members of the Leavis Society, are many of us survivals of an older generation who have memories, or writings from their own time, of Leavis in person. The growing interest in Leavis in India and China (see below), on the other hand, opens new doors in a different kind of way. But, we now include a fine example of the retrospective work, in extracts from Barrie Mencher’s letters, just now placed on the website, - and see more below. We are all faced with the long task of revivifying, and potentially evolving, Leavis’s work for a new generation, - a new generation which, superficially at least, has very different preoccupations. This can lead to a sense of demoralisation, unless we can remain in touch with a sense of life and hope. We have to come to grips with our predicament as Post-Leavisians. It may be that, for reflective Asian readers, and Asian Leavis Society Members, Leavis simply is a living author, that in his own words (Revaluation), they are ‘reading him as we read the living’, in a way he has, at present, mainly ceased to be in Britain, the British Commonwealth, and the Americas. Of course, we must go on to add that there is a now a new generation, even in the West, aware members of which, ahead of the game, are showing real signs of a re-awakening of interest in him as a living author, and thus also showing us survivors, too, the way onwards.

 Yet, as his pupil Marshall McLuhan ( ) would have anticipated, Leavis’s work has enormous potential to unveil itself in, and to unveil dimensions of, an internet dominated world, which might indeed seem paradoxical to those who saw Leavis as a Luddite. This might also have seemed more than a little odd to Leavis himself, but I suggest it can, nevertheless, be pursued in a Leavisian spirit.

 An Internet dominated world - and Leavis

 An internet dominated world is one which is ubiquitously pervaded by images, genres, and cross-referencings, - transformations of the process of historicity in the heat of the ‘viral’ moment. No one in Literary Criticism took further the analysis of, and of the implications of, the images, genres, and cross-referencings, which are at the heart of poetry, connecting it all with the massive historical cross-flow, from at least the seventeenth century onwards, of what Eliot called the ‘dissociation of sensibility’. The Internet is an apotheosis of meaning and symbol, not its annulment. And, of its essence, from the very beginning, especially in his work on media for schools with Denys Thompson, and in all the thinking which followed up the systematic analysis developed by QD Leavis, in Fiction and the Reading Public, Leavis applied these insights to an implicit, and increasingly explicit, analysis of the total modern culture, and its application to education, - and more widely.

 One can go on to say that what was (partly, - but only partly, as we shall see) missing in Leavis was any significant suggestion of how images, genres, and cross-referencings, on the analogy of poetry, might be developed creatively and positively by modern media in the modern world: for example, here are two from different periods, - these are doubtless already very old fashioned, though they are extraordinarily evocative of the modern world, even now -

 Edward Hopper (Nighthawks)







Or Roy Lichtenstein

 What is, of course, absent from these images, and those like them, from many periods of our immediate epoch, is any hint of ‘the organic society’, of the ‘wheelwright’s shop’. Leavis’s work, despite his regularly saying that the significance of ‘the organic society’ is that it is gone, nearly always has more than a hint of the nostalgia for it. For instance, in the Richmond Lecture of 1962, on CP Snow’s Rede Lecture, which inaugurated the later sequence of wider expanded reflections which embodies so much of Leavis’s more radical social analysis and thinking, he is found still remarking:

“And this for me evokes that total vision which makes Snow’s ‘social hope’ unintoxicating for many of us - the image of our imminent tomorrow in today’s America: the energy, the triumphant technology, the high standard of living, the productivity, and the life-impoverishment - the human emptiness; emptiness and boredom craving alcohol - of one kind or another. Who will assert that the average member of a modern society is more fully human, or more alive, than a Bushman, or an Indian peasant, or a member of one of those poignantly surviving primitive peoples, with their marvellous art, and skills, and vital intelligence?”

Far from me to belittle what we ourselves can derive from the San Bushmen, and other aboriginal peoples, including the Cro-Magnon, or to denigrate their part in the march of civilisation. But, for instance, Claude Levi-Strauss’s Mythologiques, his four volume magnum opus, is not only a mighty valedictory epilogue and archive to Native American civilisation. It is also an utterly modern systematic relating of it to structuralist and post-structuralist quasi-musical code systems, such as are inaugurated in the mature music dramas (Der Ring des Nibelungen onwards) of Richard Wagner. But the positive Leavisian ontology, which relates it to such achievements of continental philosophy, anthropology, and literary thought, during the twentieth century, within such work, is expressed a little later in the Richmond Lecture:

“But there is a prior human achievement of collaborative creation, a more basic work of the mind of man (and more than the mind), one without which the triumphant erection of the scientific edifice would not have been possible: that is, the creation of the human world, including language.”

This dance of the human mind (and more than mind) is absolutely to be found as much in post-organic-culture work, such as that of Hopper and Lichtenstein, - or Samuel Beckett, - as it is in Tolstoy and George Eliot. As his own magnificent essay on The Grand Inquisitor illustrates, Lawrence himself did not have the difficulty, with an author preoccupied with nihilism like Dostoievsky, which Leavis exhibits, and which contrasts with Leavis’s identification with the aristocrat/peasant-culture rooted Tolstoy.

Leavis’s incomparable understanding, of linguistic cross-connection and enactive metaphoric fusion, unified and evolved (across several works, culminating in the Clark Lectures, English Literature in our Time and the University, published in 1969), into a total post-Eliotic (‘dissociation of sensibility’) synoptic vision.  It is a vision of the historicity of consciousness, of the European march of civilisation, something not comprehensively achievable by the brilliant but eclectic Empson, and it appears superficially congruent with his preoccupation with ‘the organic culture’. But actually, in his cross-connections of Donne, Ben Jonson, Pope, Swift, and TS Eliot, his vision is radically and sceptically modern, post-Enlightenment, and points onwards to a potential post-modernism in Leavis, which would remain valid, even when we deduct the fashionable excesses of a, superficially understood as relativistic, post-modernist influence in the modern university today.

 Thus, Leavis’s massive rehabilitative work on George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda shows a profound understanding, from the opening scene onwards, of what we may call the twentieth century (proto-Freudian) elements in the work, with its immediate connection to Freud’s insights, and to the recognition of modern nihilism. Whether, or not, he always took it thus far himself, this dimension of Leavis is deeply compatible with modern and post-modern, process-based and absurdist, realisations.   

 Heuristic understanding of Leavis

This is the virtual or heuristic Leavis we are gradually working our way towards recognising: a Leavis who is not only in dialogue with Eliot, and Lawrence, but with Wittgenstein, McLuhan, Goffman, - even Derrida. This is the revisionary Leavis with whom Bernard Harrison enters into weighty dialogue, renewed dialogue over Swift, Wittgenstein, Fielding, and Virginia Woolf, in What is Fiction For: Literary Humanism Restored, reviewed by the Editor in this issue. This is the Leavis, whose tenacious post-Leavisian pupil, David Ellis, has written in such a varied and iconoclastic way so many times about Lawrence, Shakespeare, Cambridge English, Wordsworth, Byron, and now, whose new (and unfortunately very expensive) book, Love and Sex in DH Lawrence, is the subject of a challenging review by Bob Hayward. And Steven Cranfield’s new book (see above) on Leavis and the Creative University will be reviewed in the next issue.         

There is also the rich and fascinating Leavis of memoirs and accounts by his pupils. Leavis’s teaching had, at its best, a Coleridgean quality of compelling synoptic vision and cross-connection, conversationally almost hypnotic, despite his anti-hypnotic stance (many will remember, or have heard recordings of, his compelling readings from great literature). It facilitated what the self-help literature dubs ‘personal development’ in a profound way. Barrie Mencher’s Epistolary account, extracts from letters very kindly offered for publication by the copyright holder, his widow Elaine Mencher, of the evolution of his experience of Leavis’s teaching, is an impressive illustration of the kind of maturational process which Leavis triggered in so many people. We see the evolution over the years of experience embodied in the letters. Barrie is always full of zest, but he matures and gains his own voice. It moves from the very breathless tone of the eager new pupil, of 1956:

“Didn’t get to bed till 3.30 A.M this morning. Got up at 10.30. 12.00 - brilliant lecture by Dr Leavis on ‘Critical Approaches to Fiction’. Consisted of demolishing conventional approaches via ‘technique’. Recommended - The Art of Fiction (Henry James), essays on the novel by DH Lawrence (particularly the essay on Galsworthy).” And then he dashes off a list of six novels by James, G Eliot, Tolstoy, Austen, Conrad - and wonders if he’ll have the time!! (p. 1)

But compare the thoughtful individual comment, two years later, on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which he has just discovered (p. 93):

“...but I’ll just say it gives meaning (living meaning such as you and I can make use of) to what really was medieval English Chivalry. It’s because the poem is so much more than a conventional romance of knights and ladies, that it works. I consider it a manifestation of the sort of life DHL seems to envisage when he thinks of the real England (Shapira tells me its French too - in a romance by Chrétien de Troyes): something very like his notion of Tuscany (no I’m not contradicting myself).”

We are deeply grateful to Elaine Mencher for allowing us to publish this. We also include the Obituary of Barrie published by Edgeways Books, and likewise some of his sturdy reflections on the role of Leavis in rehabilitating (or habilitating) Lawrence in the 50s.

We also have a charming brief account, Memories of FR Leavis, from the same period, by Andrew MacTavish, with a delightful snuck-taken photo of FRL, and a couple of delicious anecdotes. This has also been published in the Downing College Alumnus Journal. Along with this, there is a photograph from the opening of the Leavis Room in 2015, and material from the Journal written by our Chair, Peter Sharrock, concerning the opening of the Leavis room.    

 Leavis-Lawrence Day

What is now the annual Leavis-Lawrence day, as part of the DH Lawrence Festival, took place on  Friday 9 September, 2016, at Eastwood Hall Hotel, Eastwood, Nottingham, NG16 3SS. The Programme of talks, organised by the D. H. Lawrence Society in conjunction with the Leavis Society, with Bob Hayward playing a key part, included:

  • The Value of Lawrence and Leavis to a Sociologist (Paul Filmer)

  • Second in Importance Only to Shakespeare: Lawrence, Leavis and the Living Principle (Bob Hayward)

  • Lawrence, the Mind of Europe and the English Canon (Heward Wilkinson)

  • 'Women in Love' (Jeremy Tambling)

Some of these papers are being placed on the website now or shortly. 

The conference was followed at 7pm by the D.H. Lawrence Memorial Birthday Lecture given this year by Professor James Moran (University of Nottingham) on 'Lawrence and Yeats'. This took place in the drama studio of Hall Park Academy, next to Eastwood Hall Hotel, and introduced some very suggestive connections between Yeats’s introduction of poetic drama, Lawrence’s encounters with Yeats and Pound in particular, and Lawrence’s experiments in vernacular drama.

York Conference on Leavis and Modernity

Provisional Programme for the York Conference 28/29 October is as follows:

The Leavis Society in collaboration with the Department of English & Related Literature and the Centre for Modern Studies at the University of York

Leavis and the Confrontation with Modernity

University of York, 28-29 October 2016

The conference will explore the origins and development of Leavis’s thought in relation to modernity, its impact on literary and cultural criticism between the wars, and its contemporary relevance. The period covers the foundations of ‘Cambridge English’ during and after the First World War, the inception of The Criterion in the 1920s and of Scrutiny in the 1930s, the ascendency of T. S. Eliot and of Bloomsbury, the place of  D. H. Lawrence and the increasing global reach of modern American mass culture.

Conference booking form Please download and complete this form and return it by email to Glenys Willars or book online.
Friday 28

17:00                 Leavis Society AGM in the Leavis Room, Derwent College

19:00                 Welcome to the conference by Professor David Attwell, Head of the Department of English & Related Literature followed by a Public lecture in the Bowland Auditorium


Rosenberg's War - "Iron, Honey, Gold"
by Jean Liddiard, author of Isaac Rosenberg: the Half Used Life and editor of his
Selected Poems & Letters

Jean Liddiard was taught at Cambridge by both F. R. and Q. D. Leavis.  She is a former Press Officer of the National Portrait Gallery and is an Associate of Newnham College Cambridge.   In her lecture, Jean Liddiard will draw out the relationship between Rosenberg's poems and his comments on them in his letters.  She will refer to Leavis's war experience and discuss his admiration for Rosenberg and that of his student and later colleague on the board of Scrutiny, D. W. Harding, one of Rosenberg’s early editors.  
(Chair: Chris Joyce)

Followed by a drinks reception sponsored by the Department of English & Related Literature and the Centre for Modern Studies


The Selected Poems and Letters of Isaac Rosenberg, edited by Jean Liddiard, will be available for purchase at the event and in Waterstones bookshop.



Saturday 29       Conference in the Treehouse,  Berrick Saul Building
                        Refreshments in situ except lunch in the foyer

08:45                Registration                                      

09:30-10.00       Remarks on Jean Liddiard’s lecture and on Leavis and the First World War

                       Chair: Chris Joyce

10.00-11.00       Jeremy Tambling on Leavis, America and the Modern; Q&A & discussion 

                       Chair: Paul Filmer            

11:00-11.15          Break              

11:15-12:45       Michael Bell on Poetry, History and Myth: the Case of F. R. Leavis
                               Heward Wilkinson on Does McLuhan Destroy Leavis?
                       Chair: Jeremy Tambling

12:45-13:45        Buffet lunch (in foyer)

13:50-15:00        Paul Filmer on Modernity versus Continuity in Leavis (on the early socio-cultural criticism)
                        followed by Q&A & discussion chaired by Peter Sharrock, Chair of the Leavis Society, who will also read a short paper by the late Barrie Mencher.
                        Chair: Peter Sharrock


15:10-16:00         Steven Cranfield on Scrutiny and Education: the Leavises and the ‘Will to  Modernity’
                                Richard Storer
on Leavis, Meiklejohn, and Universities:  the Idea of ‘a New Idea'
                        Chair: Michael Bell

16:00-16:15         Break

16:15-17:10        James Smith, Chris Joyce and others on New Writings on Leavis
                                Peter Sharrock
on The Leavis Society – a Look Forward
                                Closing remarks: John Roe (Professor Emeritus, University of York
                        Chair: Peter Sharrock

Conference registration fee
includes Friday evening lecture, drinks reception, Saturday’s conference, lunch and refreshments:                                   

Leavis Society members - £25
Non-members - £60 (includes 1 year’s Society membership)
Students, including Society members - £10

Booking form

Accommodation (not included)

Single (£52.80 per night) and double room (£90.00 per night)
en suite accommodation available on campus at Franklin House, Alcuin College
and should be booked directly, not through the Society.

Follow Franklin House link below to make an inquiry or book online. Early booking is advised.

Maps and Directions for venues:

How to get to the University of York

How to find the Leavis Room Derwent College (AGM)

How to find Berrick Saul Building on campus

How to book campus accommodation and get to Franklin House (if booking University accommodation)

How to find alternative accommodation if staying off-campus


Journal Developments on Leavis in America and and India

Philosophy of Literature, the Journal of Literature and Philosophy published by Johns Hopkins University Press, has an important issue on Leavis, a Symposium on Laavis as Critic, Teacher and Philosopher. It can be found at:

The Literary Criterion

Emily Holman writes:

I'm very pleased to let you know that the special Leavis edition of The Literary Criterion, edited by C. N. Srinath, has now been published. Srinath has kindly sent me contributors' copies, and I know he would be delighted if we could mention the publication on the website. In case the Society might also be interested in selling copies, Srinath has also offered the Society a 40% discount, suggesting a price of £6 instead of normal price £10.00. The Society can then sell copies to members. 

The special edition is divided into two parts. I guest-edited the first, whose theme is Leavis and Religion; it has contributions from Paul Dean, Michael Aeschliman, A. V. C. Schmidt and Chris Joyce, as well as my introduction to the topic, which focuses on Leavis's theory of language and Newman's The Grammar of Assent. The second, longer part compiles 8 other essays and papers on Leavis, including many from the 2012 Downing conference. 


 Dr Ying Ying, School of Foreign Languages, Hangzhou Normal University, China on 'Q. D. Leavis on George Gissing'. Dr Chris Joyce, Chair.

This is to remind us, to finish, of two things: first, we have a very good friend in Dr Ying Ying, who is deeply invested particularly in developments from QD Leavis's work, and is spearheading Leavisian developments in China. Even though we did not succeed in setting up a Conference this year, the plans are still being pursued, and assuredly will bear fruit in due course. Secondly, to remind us all, in this first newsletter, that, without the other person in that photograph, our first Chair, Dr Chris Joyce, and his work from the early two thousands, there would be no Leavis Society. It is for us all, from our present Chair Dr Peter Sharrock, downwards, to take his work forward. There are good signs we are making progress.

To access all these materials click on ‘Articles and Member Contributions’ in the Society’s main page: or directly via

Our Social Media links are:

Heward Wilkinson

Newsletter Editor, September 2016

NOTE: One of the advantages of an online Newsletter is that it can be corrected. And will, if necessary, be corrected. Comments within the bounds of due courtesy are welcome.