To American readers the name F. R. Leavis (1895–1978) may signify little more than half-remembered phrases and controversies —the Great Tradition, the Two Cultures— now surely, it might be thought, relegated to literary history. In England, Leavis’s influence has waned but his name still evokes strong reactions, as the reviews of Ian MacKillop’s new biography show.[1] Leavis is variously described as “neurotic,” “petty,” “authoritarian,” “impossibly haughty,” exhibiting “suppressed hysteria” or “crazed paranoia”; he is mocked as “the good doctor,” surrounded by “disciples,” his life “claustrophobically book-based.” As for his critical achievements, we hear from one writer that “he was often conspicuously wrong,” from another that he made “often extraordinarily dumb...


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