Literary and Critical Theory F. R. Leavis
Richard Storer
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0050


F. R. (Frank Raymond) Leavis (b. 14 July 1895–d. 14 April 1978) is often described as one of the most influential figures in the history of 20th-century literary criticism, particularly in British contexts. These claims make most sense when Leavis is understood not as a creator of concepts but rather as a teacher and critic, the bearer into the 20th century of an already established tradition of critical thought that included elements of the Romantic critique of modernity, a Coleridgean idea of the responsibilities of an educated class, and an Arnoldian model of criticism as seeing “the object as in itself it really is.” Through the Cambridge-based journal Scrutiny: A Quarterly Review (1932–1953), which he co-edited and to which he was the leading contributor, as well as through his books, his personal teaching, and his skill in controversy, Leavis successfully articulated and adapted this tradition so that it became the dominant approach of “English” as it grew in importance as an academic subject. He emerged at about the same time as the “New Critics” in America, and, like them, he was strongly influenced by the poetry and criticism of T. S. Eliot. But D. H. Lawrence always provided an important counter-principle for Leavis; and the emphasis in his close readings was not on the self-sufficiency of the literary artifact, but rather on the values of the culture that produced it, though he tended to conceptualize those values in moral and spiritual, rather than economic terms. During the main period of his influence, from the 1930s to the 1960s, many academics and critics shared a modified version of Leavis’s basic working principles, so that when a wider range of different approaches to literature and culture later became more fashionable, “Leavisite” became a convenient term to label and stigmatize a whole set of conventional practices. But Leavis himself was always much more than just a figurehead. Even at his most influential, he was always a divisive and challenging figure, and he has continued to command respect and critical attention long after most of his contemporaries have been forgotten. To the tradition he represented he brought a radically austere temperament and a distinctive critical voice that, in his best writing, generated compelling insights and judgments. His characteristic prose style dramatized both the necessity and the difficulty of responding adequately to what is most important in great literature.

General Overviews

The first short book about Leavis and his work, Hayman 1976, was a journalistic venture—its main impact was to stimulate debate about what sort of better book Leavis warranted. Several more studies were published within two years of Leavis’s death, including Greenwood 1978, Bilan 1979, and Walsh 1980. In retrospect, although each of these books contain some valid commentary, they fail to provide what Hayman’s critics had called for, a new perspective on Leavis that did not just qualify some of his judgments but reviewed his whole approach in a broader intellectual and cultural context. After a longer interval, a book came along that did just this, Bell 1988, which suggested that Leavis’s approach to language and thought needed to be understood as belonging to a European tradition encompassing Heidegger and Nietzsche. This remains the most stimulating book on Leavis. Samson 1992 builds on Bell and provides an interesting, if at times rambling, discussion, informed by awareness of changes and debates in literary studies since the earlier overviews were produced. Day 1996 is also in this tradition, and provides numerous suggestions for analogies between Leavis and post-structuralism. Ferns 2000, on the other hand, does nothing of this kind, and is a more traditional overview. Storer 2009 combines the requirements of a short general overview with suggestions for how Leavis can still be seen as a significant writer on topics of interest to contemporary students. Cranfield 2016 provides an overview but is particularly concerned to highlight Leavis’s relevance to questions of theory and practice in higher education.

  • Bell, Michael. F. R. Leavis. Critics of the Twentieth Century. London: Routledge, 1988.

    Though it does much more than just introduce Leavis, this book is clearly and sensibly organized for such a purpose, taking the reader through four main topics: the Arnold-Eliot tradition that Leavis identified with; his underlying theory of language; his reading of poetry (Yeats); and his reading of fiction (Conrad). The chapter on language represents Michael Bell’s most distinctive contribution to appreciation of Leavis (see Theory, Philosophy, Religion).

  • Bilan, R. P. The Literary Criticism of F. R. Leavis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979.

    At over 300 pages, this is the longest book devoted just to F. R. Leavis. It attempts a comprehensive examination of the principles determining Leavis’s criticism, but it lacks the kind of contextual or theoretical frame of reference that most readers would look for in such an extensive study. Most interesting perhaps for its conclusion that Leavis was essentially a religious critic.

  • Cranfield, Steven. F. R. Leavis: The Creative University. Springer Briefs: Key Thinkers in Education. Cham, Switzerland: Springer International, 2016.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-3-319-25985-7

    This latest short monograph on Leavis has a particular focus on the implications of his thought and practice for higher education. But it also provides an overview of Leavis’s career and a summary of his “worldview” and includes some challenging discussion of key questions around this.

  • Day, Gary. Re-reading Leavis: “Culture” and Literary Criticism. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 1996.

    Written in a style rather different from any other book on Leavis, this book is sympathetic overall but subjects some of his key statements to a relentless deconstruction—teasing out, for example, the recurring economic and industrial metaphors that Leavis relies on in the very process of criticizing modern economic and industrial conditions. Day also explores numerous contrasts and affinities between Leavis and a range of post-structuralist theorists.

  • Ferns, John. F. R. Leavis. New York: Twayne, 2000.

    Something of a throwback to Hayman and Walsh, identifying too closely with Leavis’s position on every subject to be of much use to any student trying to get a more critical perspective. Still useful for reference, however, as it is organized chronologically and contains detailed summaries of, and extensive quotation from all of Leavis’s books.

  • Greenwood, Edward. F. R. Leavis. Harlow, UK: Longman, 1978.

    At just sixty pages, the shortest of the overviews that appeared in the late 1970s, and the best value for later readers. Though broadly identifying with Leavis, Greenwood raises some interesting questions about the adequacy of his close-reading aesthetic to longer poems and to novels; and he anticipates the insights of Bell 1988 by identifying a “sober Nietzscheanism” in Leavis’s approach to literature.

  • Hayman, Ronald. Leavis. London: Heinemann, 1976.

    Originally a biographical portrait published in The New Review, but expanded to include a description of all Leavis’s works. Unchallenging, and with some inaccuracies, but still a readable introduction and interesting as a period piece, querying some individual judgments but still hailing Leavis as “our greatest champion of culture and of critical standards.”

  • Samson, Anne. F. R. Leavis. London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1992.

    Samson takes a respectful but skeptical approach to Leavis, highlighting inconsistencies and paradoxes in his discourse while also (like Bell 1988) exploring new theoretical perspectives from which his position can be appreciated. The book is engaging and full of interesting points. Unfortunately these cannot be quickly accessed, as the book is organized in long rambling chapters and the index, which would have been particularly valuable, is scrambled.

  • Storer, Richard. F. R. Leavis. Routledge Critical Thinkers. London: Routledge, 2009.

    The short chapters are organized thematically, according to the contexts in which students are most likely to come across references to Leavis: culture, theory, modernism, canon-forming, close reading, education, and “life.”

  • Walsh, William. F. R. Leavis. London: Chatto and Windus, 1980.

    Strictly speaking not an authorized account, but it has the feel of one. It is written by a former student of Leavis, encouraged by his publisher, and written with an obvious concern not to offend any interested parties. Its frame of reference is limited to the English critical tradition, but this does generate an interesting division of Leavis’s career into three stages: a Johnsonian beginning, an “Arnoldian middle,” and a “Coleridgean conclusion.”

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