Literary Criticism

Methods and Institutions: Eliot, Richards and Leavis

My discussion of the work of Woolf, Murry and Orage in the previous chapter indicates that the personal authority of the Victorian men of letters continued to be used well into the twentieth century, to underwrite judgements about literature that were set in opposition to the values of scholarship. All three of these critics drew on a rhetoric that helped to surround their status with a certain mystique, allowing little room for dissent. In doing this, they asserted the validity of a form of criticism that could not be made to cohere with developing frameworks of discipli- nary practice. Their preferred model of criticism rested on qualities that were somehow indefinable, and as a result, they did little to make criticism teachable: while they helped to sustain a sense of the importance of literary criticism in the face of challenges from the mass market, they did little to support its emergence as an academic discipline. In contrast, the work of T. S. Eliot, I. A. Richards and F. R. Leavis is widely seen as having had a lasting impact on both the subject of English and the broader concept of literary criticism. Chris Baldick, for instance, groups Eliot, Richards and the Leavises along with Arnold as ‘the acknowledged leaders of English critical thought’. For Terry Eagleton, Richards and Leavis were both ‘architects of the new subject at Cambridge’ and a vital force in shaping the manner in which English would be taught in other institutions.1 Such is the enormity of these claims that it is easy to see why Eliot, Richards and Leavis have come to dominate studies of literary criticism in the twentieth century, appearing as a commanding triumvirate who it is impossible to omit. Nevertheless, it is significant that many studies of their work have focused not on their contribution to the academic discipline of English, but on what Baldick has termed the ‘social mission’ that their writings address. Pamela McCallum’s Literature and Method: Towards a Critique of I. A. Richards, T. S. Eliot and F. R. Leavis (1983) concentrates on the attempts of all three critics to tackle a central paradox in Arnoldian thought: namely, that culture had become progressively isolated from the society whose problems it was meant to resolve, and was therefore left with the problem of how to reinsert itself into society in order to carry out Arnold’s regenerative vision.2 Baldick’s own treatment of their work, in The Social Mission of English Criticism, is driven by his desire to draw attention to ‘the views taken by the founders of modern English Studies and literary criticism regarding the wider social effects and aims of this activity’, focusing on Eliot’s concept of order, the Leavises’ critique of popular culture and Richards’s belief in the importance of literary study as ‘an indispensable agent of social cohesion’.3 And Francis Mulhern, in The Moment of ‘Scrutiny’ (1979), offers an analysis of Leavis’s journal as an example of cultural and political discourse, focusing on the journal’s broader concerns and philosophies rather than seeking to place it within a specifically aca- demic framework.4 In all three studies, the notion of discipline-formation is present, but not central: where the university does figure, it is as a place where attempts to resolve McCallum’s ‘Arnoldian paradox’ might be fostered, not as the location of specialist scholarship and research. Such studies, of course, reflect an important element of the thought of all three critics. Their desire to resolve the Arnoldian paradox is present in the sense of urgency with which they articulate their belief in the value of criticism: in Eliot’s reference to Charles Eliot Norton’s sense of the impending destruction of the institutions in which civilisation was embodied; in Richards’s desire for Principles of Literary Criticism to guide readers through the difficult choices occasioned by recent social, political and technological changes; and in Leavis’s view of English as offering ‘a real and potent force in our time’.5 Yet such statements have often been interpreted in a manner that conflates a belief in the power of criticism with support for the existence of a specialist discipline of English. Consequently, Eliot, Richards and Leavis have suffered from the same analytical blurring as the discipline of English itself. In such inter- pretations, these three critics are seen as important figures in the history of academic English purely because of their belief in the social necessity of literary criticism. And as we have seen, many nineteenth-century commentators made out similar cases for the study of English and the practice of criticism, but these arguments alone were not strong enough to secure English its place on university syllabuses. In order for this to be achieved, the supporters of academic English needed to address questions of form and method, and of the nature and value of specialist research, as well as those of ideology.  My analysis of Eliot, Richards and Leavis in this chapter will therefore focus not on their politics (an issue that has already been well docu- mented), but on the complex relationships between their proposals for literary criticism and the academic discipline of English. What I aim to demonstrate is that for all three critics, criticism was so important that it could not possibly be conceived of as a narrow academic specialism: its true purpose could only be fulfilled within the wider sphere of life. Education did form an important part of their attempts to resolve the Arnoldian problematic, but this was education at a broad and general level: questions of academic specialism were of secondary importance. As a result, what is significant about the work of Eliot, Richards and Leavis is that in spite of its perceived centrality to the history of academic literary study, it occupies an ambivalent position in relation to that study itself. Regardless of their politics, and leaving aside their belief in the importance of criticism per se, none of these critics made a convincing argument in favour of the specialist academic study of literature. An important starting-point for my discussion of Eliot, Richards and Leavis is Louis Menand’s claim that Eliot’s criticism – which ‘could be understood as presenting a highly disciplined theory of poetic and critical method’ – was successful ‘not simply [because of] what Eliot had to say, but […because of] the institutional needs his writing was able to serve’.6 The implication is that Eliot’s criticism could be adapted, and used as a model, by departments of English seeking to give the study of literature intellectual rigour, a difficulty of a kind that had previously been supplied only by the adoption of alternative disciplinary paradigms. It might be expected that Richards and Leavis – critics who were influenced by various aspects of Eliot’s philosophy, and who did much to promote his work throughout the 1920s and 1930s – were at the forefront of attempts to adapt Eliot’s criticism to suit these ‘institutional needs’. Both began their careers in Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch’s Cambridge: Richards, whose degree was in Moral Sciences, was appointed to lecture on criticism and the modern novel in Quiller-Couch’s English School in 1919, while Leavis took Part Two of the English Tripos (in ‘English Literature, Modern and Medieval’) in 1921.7 Nevertheless, as Mulhern has pointed out, both also belonged to a new generation of Cambridge academics and to a very different social class from that represented by Quiller-Couch himself. Consequently, they might reasonably be seen as ideally placed to instigate a new, more systematic form of literary study, ‘subverting the ideal of the scholar-gentleman’ that had been promoted by Quiller-Couch and replacing it with a different set of methods and values.8 Yet paradoxically, Richards and Leavis can also be seen (in a manner that is admittedly much more radical) as contributing little to the notion of English as a specialist academic pursuit, preferring instead to
conceive of criticism as a much more generalised activity. Consequently, their relationship with the discipline of English emerges as much more problematic than many commentators have admitted.

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