Self-Destructive Prophet

Self-Destructive Prophet

Was F.R. Leavis Britain’s New York Intellectual? Though not Jewish himself, his wife and constant collaborator, Queenie Roth Leavis, was; and he was often taken for a Jew, described by one Cambridge undergraduate as dressing and speaking “like a member of the Knesset in its early days.” Certainly he was an Old Testament kind of person, with his background in radical nonconformity and his angular, prophetic, puritanical self-presentation. Queenie once said that her husband “would have been one of Cromwell’s generals” in the English Civil War; “No, my dear,” he corrected her, “I would have been Cromwell.” If not quite an immigrant, he was an upwardly mobile outsider, smashing his way into the literary establishment from an upbringing in the Cambridge lower middle class, only streets away physically but worlds away culturally from the university where he would spend most of his adult life. In the same oblique way, he was almost a Marxist. A critic of industrialism rather than capitalism, he resembled the guild socialists in regretting the loss of the organic agrarian community, the class separation, and the moral and cultural coarsening that he thought modern materialism had brought about. As a student of culture he strove, in marxisant fashion, to link art and literature to the social relations in which they were embedded—“anthropologico-literary” work he called it—and admired Trotsky’s Literature and Revolution for its nonreductive linkage of culture and “environment.” He shared Trotsky’s view that the great literature of the past should be revered as a conduit for the greatness of past civilizations and also that modern writers should be looked to for equivalent expressions of the greatness of the present. He had a following that was just as tightly knit, as paranoid, as addicted to its own jargon, as any Marxist sect, and people in Cambridge spoke of “Leavisites” as they would speak in New York of “Lovestoneites.” There was a party line and a party journal (Scrutiny, which ran from 1932 to 1953), modeled on American precursors, and cadres were sent out from Cambridge to colonize other universities.


Wurgraft | University of California Press Lima