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Monday, November 17, 2014

The Great Tradition by F.R. Leavis

Book Review
The Great Tradition
 by F.R. Leavis
published 1948

   What is the proper attitude of a lay person reading classic literature towards literary criticism? Unlike great works of literature, great works of literary criticism are not particularly interesting.  The fraction of readers who read literary criticism of a title vs. those who only read the book is a tiny one.  But, if you're interested in the relationship between Authors and their Audiences, literary criticism is a great place to start because the corpus of texts is so very vast.

  The 20th century growth of university Literature departments in English speaking countries produced a surfeit of discussion about which authors were "worth" reading, and it is this discussion which has percolated out to impact discussion of all art forms by all critics.  Within this tradition (20th century English language literary criticism.) F.R. Leavis occupies a primary slot in both discussions of the novel and poetry.

  He generally stands for a text based approach that emphasizes the good (or bad) technique of the writer.  Gone are plodding generalizations based on biographical detail.  In The Great Tradition, his discussion of Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James, Joseph Conrad and Charles Dickens is heavy on textual analysis to the point where excerpts from the works in question often occupy entire pages in a book that is only 250 pages long.

  By "The Great Tradition," F.R. Leavis is talking about the great tradition of the English novel, referring both to the country and the language- best explained in the introduction to his chapter on Henry James (who was, of course, American.)  I must confess that I felt rather overwhelmed, both by the level of textual analysis, and Leavis' penchant for using minor works (which I haven't read) to make big points about one of his great authors.

  I'm not sure that it is so important to understand Leavis' specific arguments as much as it's important to understand who he included and who he excluded.  The two major exclusions are Charles Dickens- who he would later change his mind about, and Thomas Hardy, who he would never change his mind about.

  His awkward about face on the inclusion of Charles Dickens in his Great Tradition is noted in the 1963 New York University Press edition that I read by the inclusion of what I presume to be a later written celebration of Hard Times.  This portion isn't attached to the rest of the text, but seems rather tacked on.  The fact that Leavis could be wrong about such a major author is understandable, and is yet another example of how malleable ideas about canonical authors can prove to be over time, even for the most sophisticated academics and critics.

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