Thursday, November 7, 2013

Up to Downing

I'm still reading along in David Ellis's Memoirs of a Leavisite and enjoying it, especially since as Ellis himself says at one point, he "was only ever a tepid Leavisite" (54).  His discussion of class and politics is quite good, or maybe I just mean that he agrees with me about a lot of things.  But I'm especially enjoying his critique of Leavis's nostalgia for the days when the common Englishman lived in a web of interrelations with the Earth, Nature, and his fellow Englishman.

Apparently Leavis was fond of The Wheelwright's Shop, by George Sturt, who gave up teaching grammar school in 1884 to run the family wheelwright shop, and wrote numerous books about his experience.  Leavis's students treated this fondness with amused scepticism.  Ellis allows that The Wheelwright's Shop "is in many respects a finely written book but I was a poor audience for it" (56).
... I was receptive to Leavis's picture of the general poor state of contemporary society and where popular culture then stood ("Distracted from distraction by distraction"); but I was not so sure it had ever been much better.  Sturt's employees may well have had far more satisfaction in their work than Chaplin's frantic factory hand in Modern Times, or those I had met on the assembly line in Kellogg's, but quite how much more they would have had to have in order to compensate for their long hours, poor pay and scant provision for sickness and old age was not clear to me.  Besides, even the the exquisite craftsmanship involved in making a good cart might become tedious, and therefore unsatisfying, when you have been doing it over and over again for thirty years.  A further satisfaction the employees enjoyed, Sturt implied, was integration into a traditional social organization where people cared for each other and there was a general acceptance of mutual duties and responsibilities, where, in the words of Tawney, society was 'a spiritual organism, and not an economic machine'.  This is what Leavis used to call the 'organic community'.  That gave to its members  both the security and comfort of knowing where they stood but chiefly because, it seemed to me, there was never ever much likelihood of their being able to stand anywhere else [56].
This is very good, and to it could be added the writings of Fred Kitchen, an older contemporary of Leavis himself.  Kitchen was a miner and farm worker who produced several books about life as a laborer in the early 20th century.  The "organic community" was also something of a spider's web, where one moved from place to place with difficulty if at all, and as Ellis says, "there was never much likelihood of their being able to stand anywhere else."  (Despite fantasies of universal rootedness in the good old days, both external circumstances -- war, famine, pestilence, civil upheavals -- and internal restlessness ensured that despite the difficulties and dangers, many people, both men and women, did stand elsewhere, moving and migrating in search of adventure or a simple change of scenery.)  For all that Leavis wasn't a typical British academic of his generation -- his class background was non-U, and because of his name he was often thought to be Jewish -- there's still some cognitive dissonance in a professor of literature, safely ensconced in the university system, daydreaming about the delights of traditional English country life which he himself couldn't have endured for more than about a week, if for no other reason that like any other bookworm, he'd soon go nuts without a good library near at hand.  (As one of Andrew Holleran's characters pointed out in Dancer from the Dance, Thoreau built his cabin in the woods in search of solitude, but he went into Concord every day to gossip with his fellow literati, and as someone else pointed out, he took his laundry home for his mom to wash.)

Ellis goes on:
... I pointed out to a friend that if, as all the scholars say, the English language was in a particularly vibrant and expanding state when Shakespeare came on the scene, it was as much because of the economic and cultural forces which broke up the village communities Eliot is describing [in "Burnt Norton"] as of those communities themselves.  But he merely nodded wearily and cited Popper's remark that, when you see someone struggling in a bog, the last thing you should do is jump in after him, and it is true that there is not much to be made of the very broad cultural generalisations which both the Leavises were inclined to make throughout their careers.  Perhaps they were right to believe that the disappearance of the organic community has brought us immeasurable loss; but if 'immeasurable' becomes an appropriate word and there is a then a great deal of difficulty in defining the 'us' referred to in the formulation.  Any statement about the cultural well-being of a past society or community considered as a bloc is vulnerable to the citing of exceptions.  This is why, in spite of F. L. Lucas's glaring prejudice and unfairness, a remark he makes about Mrs Leavis's notion of entertainment for the masses being on a steady downward curve remains relevant to what she and her husband had to say on that subject long after Fiction and the Reading Public had appeared.  'It is surely a great deal better,' he wrote, 'to like the trashiest fiction than to enjoy seeing a witch burnt, or to go to the silliest cinema than to soak in an eighteenth-century gin-shop' [57; emphasis added].
I think I'll have that last quotation embroidered on a sampler to give to RWA1 next Christmas, in honor of all his bleating about 'the culture going into the toilet.'

For all that, though, it sounds like Mrs Leavis's Fiction and the Reading Public is worth a read.  She seems to have been, like many achieving women of her generation, a proto-feminist who rejected the Second Wave for mainly generational reasons.  She was affected by the glass ceiling at Cambridge, where despite exemplary teaching and publications she never got a full teaching position.  And what Ellis has to say about both Leavises' cultural materialism -- their willingness to take economic and other social factors into account in the meaning of literature -- and their class backgrounds made me wonder what they thought about Raymond Williams, the great Marxist historian of literature and culture, originally a scholarship boy from rural Wales, who taught at Cambridge at Jesus College while the Leavises taught at Downing.  I looked for Williams in the index, and lo:
How fortunate I was to have had [Leavis's support] was brought home to me much later by a friend and colleague who went to Cambridge only a few years after I did.  A working class boy from Liverpool, he lived in St Edmond's, then a Catholic 'house of residence', while he was reading English at Fitzwilliam. For reasons not easy to explain, there were strong ties between Leavis and some of the priests at St Edmond's, as well as with other Catholic groups.  They too may have felt beleaguered and it may be also that they had detected in his writing a whiff of that nostalgia for the pre-industrial many of them shared ('Ah, there's a donkey', exclaims the priest in a Catholic joke, 'this country must be Catholic').  Whatever the explanation, relations between Leavis and St Edmond's were close so that my friend found himself often having tea with him there, and then being invited back to the Leavises' house.  When he decided to apply for a State Studentship he had received a sufficient number of encouraging signs from Leavis and felt he knew him well enough to request his support.  He was asked who the other referees were and, on explaining that one was Raymond Williams, found the support denied.  'Oh don't be silly, Frank', Mrs Leavis apparently then said, 'if you won't do it, I will' [81].
Memoirs of a Leavisite is turning out to be more entertaining than I expected.

I want to add, though: Ellis remarks of this last story that "this is about the worst thing I ever heard about [Leavis] (and the best about his wife)."  Ellis isn't, as should be clear by now, an uncritical disciple of his teacher.  But I think this story isn't especially "bad" -- that's the trouble with it.  Leavis' willingness to indulge in petty personal feuding with colleagues for ill-defined reasons appears to be quite common in academia, and elsewhere, among supposed adults of good standing in society, so I'm not singling him out: that's exactly my point, he was all too normal in letting grudges and petty grievances turn into feuds that ended up affecting students who had nothing to do with the original grievances.  (No wonder Norman Podhoretz got along well with him.)  Ellis speculates that Leavis refused (at first? it's not clear whether or not he changed his mind) to referee the application as "a protest on Leavis's part against my friend's patent Marxism," but I wonder if Leavis himself could have explained it coherently.  But notice that someone like Leavis could still at times produce useful, well-thought out analysis of literature, maybe even of society; it's not an all-or-nothing thing.  This is why even the most distinguished authorities on all kinds of subjects -- including people I like and respect -- must be read critically and with due skepticism, always.