Re-learning Leavis

To be called a Leavisite when it comes to literature can often be pejorative. When I first came across F R Leavis during the first year of my degree I thought he was too full of himself; he wanted literature and all things literary to be held in the hands of the few, and only those novelists who he deemed 'of moral seriousness' would, and should make the canon to be taught. This really shaped the teaching of literature right until not so long ago, especially in schools. However, re-reading him, which I had to do for the aptly titled reading and re-reading MA module I softened towards him (there goes Barthes theory 'the death of the author' - as soon as I delve into biogs I review it all differently). His essay 'mass civilization and minority culture' and 'The Great Tradition' and many others are indeed didactic; prescriptive. But he also said that, in the thirties, forties onwards people were beginning to know a little about lots of things and master of none. He called for literature to be a specialism. And he wasn't at all, like many assume, basing all this on social class either, although, even today it is all too easy to see how those from private schools could easily end up being that specialised minority. In fact Leavis was from a fairly normal lower middle-class background, growing up in Cambridge. Whilst at university, though a pupil of I A Richards, he suffered from the snobbery of others. Leavis was, if anything, an educational evangelist and, like most evangelists think only they know what's best. But he would have a lot to say today, with the Internet especially; the armies of amateur bloggers all too free and easy with opinions (like me!) on a vast range of topics. However, Leavis also believed that literary critics could, and should, also be the moral police in society; that because they would know what makes a good novel, i.e. 'moral seriousness' then so too social conduct! I can just imagine people thinking about their similes and metaphors spoken in public now!

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