FR Leavis’ Concept of Great Tradition

FR Leavis’ The Great Tradition (1948), an uncompromising critical and polemical survey of English fiction, controversially begins thus: “The great English novelists are Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James and Joseph Conrad!’ He regards these writers as the best because they not only “change the possibilities of art for practitioners and readers”, but also promote an “awareness of the possibilities of life.” The book embodies Leavis’ characteristically New Critical austere rejection of styles of fiction that he found lacking in moral intensity – a clear reaction to an age characterized by the ideologies of fascism and communism. The book was well appreciated by George Orwell, though many critics attacked Leavis, for his extremely limited idea of art enhancing vision, especially in that he allows no space for the comic, the grotesque and the carnivalesque.


Believing that the role of English department was to maintain cultural continuity, Leavis was actively involved in the campaign for the professionalization of literary studies in the 1930s. Leavis believed that the role of literature in life is to confer a sense of significance to our routine existence and to question our habitual judgement, and great literature does both. Emphasizing that a critic sustains the “living principle” (the tradition), he compared the critic to a wheelwright that draws on the skill of England, and held that so does a critic exhibit more than just individual taste – thus echoing Arnold’s view of a critic who upholds “the best that was known and thought in the world,” and TS Eliot’s ideas as encapsulated in his 1919 essay, Tradition and the Individual Talent. Being uncomfortable with the idea of plurality and multiplicity of meanings that is central to postmodernism, Leavis believed that a literary work had a comparative rather than an inherent value, which helps it carve a niche for itself in tradition Following Arnold’s Touchstone method, he endorsed that the purpose of evaluating literature is to keep alive the tradition.

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