Literature and Society English Summary

Key Facts:

  1. Writer: Frank Raymond Leavis (1895-1978)
  2. Published date: 1962
  3. Genre: Criticism
  4. Main Theme: The relation between literature and Society 


Literature and Society, We can know this essay very easily through only four (4) questions.

1. Why and how was this essay written?

2. How is society involved with literature? Or how literature is related to society?

3. Concept of Popular and Sophisticated Culture.

4. Who does Leavis quote, criticize, and praise in showing the connection between literature and society?

So let’s begin,

1. Why and how was this essay written?

Literature and Society is an iconic essay by F R Leavis 1895-1978 (Frank Raymond Leavis). Leavis was once invited to the ‘Union of the London School of Economics and Politics’ where he addressed the students in a lecture on literature and society. He expresses his views on how literature and society are interdependent.

Leavis emphasizes five things in this essay:

  • Literature
  • Tradition
  • Culture -(Popular & Sophisticated)
  • Society
  • Individual Talent

2. How is society involved with literature? Or how literature is related to society?

Before looking at Leavis’s essay, Literature and Society, we should recall two prominent quotes from him about literature:

  • .” Literature is the supreme means by which you renew your sensuous and emotional life and learn a new awareness”
  •  Literature is the storehouse of the recorded values”.

The above quotes confirm the significance and necessity of literature in our life. Leavis always believed that literature should be closely related to criticism of life. A society can be known very well through literature. Again, everything in society is included in literature. And it is possible through individual talent (writer). This individual talent is essentially a part of society. That is, here Levis shows, literature is created through individual talent. And this literature represents everything in society. People of various professions, economy, politics, history-tradition everything. But society cannot continue without literature. Society and literature complement each other.

3. Concept of Popular and Sophisticated Culture

  • Popular culture

Popular culture basically consists of what we read and hear. If an author’s book becomes famous, then this famous book that we read with interest after becoming popular is popular culture. In this case, it is popular culture to listen to a singer’s song after it becomes popular. After a movie becomes popular, when we watch it or do research, it is also popular culture.

  • Sophisticated culture

Sophisticated culture is basically a bit high level. Sophisticated culture is seeing an artist’s art, listening to classical music or participating in a dancing program. The best example of written literature combining true popular and sophisticated culture is John Dryden’s contemporary writer, John Bunyan’s masterpiece, ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’.

4. Who does Leavis quote, criticize, and praise in showing the connection between literature and society?

Leavis was inspired by T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence William Blake, William Wordsworth, John Bunyan, and many other famous writers and poets. As a result, he wrote many famous books like The Great Tradition, The Common Pursuit, New Bearings In English, Dickens The Novelist, Education, and University, etc.

  • D H Lawrence (Criticized)

Initially, Leavis focused on literature, bringing together the working class and their lives. Taking the example of D.H. Lawrence, he felt that Lawrence failed to reach the conservative or middle classes. Because he misrepresented reality. He writes about the life of a social class who have deviated from their main aim in life.

  • Marxist Theory (Criticized)

‘The Marxist approach to literature seems unprofitable. Karl Marx recognized literature as a discrete work of art and thought that individuals with certain creative gifts produced such works. That is, according to him, people write literature when they feel lonely. But later Marx gave importance to economics, materialist thought and politics rather than literature. And he says politics, economics and materialistic thinking should be the main subject of literature. Marxian theory lays greatest emphasis on the economic and material aspects of society. But Levis took the opposite position. He says literature will have everything. Economy, politics, history and tradition. Individual talent has also been undervalued by Marxists, but Levis emphasizes its importance. Again there will be popular culture and sophisticated culture. And literature can only be written through the combination of individual talent and society.

  • T.S Eliot’s theory of Tradition and Individual Talentcriticized from the point of view of individual talent. And agreed on the relationship between society and literature.

For TS Eliot, the tradition did not mean merely following previous generations. Rather, tradition means following history. And by individual talent, TS Eliot means that a writer must be depersonalized. Here Levis contradicts him. According to him, a writer should come out of this place. Individual talent will never be depersonalized. Both individual talent and social culture must exist for literature. This is where they differ.

However, the importance of society in the case of literature, here again, both of them can be seen in common. Eliot in “Tradition and Individual Talent” represents individual talent as the mind. And Leavis in “Literature and Society” uses society directly as a society. He said society depends on individual talent. Again individual talent cannot run without society.

  • William Blake and Wordsworth -(Criticized)

William Blake originally gave more importance to individual talent than society. And William Wordsworth wrote more about rustic life in his poems. Levis cannot take these two things, individual talent and rustic life as perfect literature. According to him, perfect literature will have a combination of popular culture, sophisticated culture, and individual talent.

  • John Bunyan’s, The Pilgrim’s Progress – (Highly Appreciated)

Because this novel contains elements of popular and sophisticated culture. That’s why Levis called it a masterpiece. There are three reasons why Levis called it a masterpiece,

1. Social context first gained prominence in the literature of the Augustan age. All activities of man as a social being were included in literature. And it was under the influence of John Bunyan.

2. Cecil Sharp’s Introduction to English Folk-Songs from the Southern Appalachians is a unique example of sophisticated culture. Those who lived in the mountainous regions of America were called Apologians. Cecil Sharp went there and saw a different culture. Which he termed as Living Art of Literature. In his Introduction to English Folk-Songs from the Southern Appalachian’s sophisticated culture, he presents the culture of Apologians beautifully. And he was influenced by John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress.

3. The last reason is that the culture of John Bunyan’s time was rich culture. According to that culture, the Pilgrim’s Progress is written.

FR Leavis called Pilgrim’s Progress a masterpiece of literature for these three reasons.

  • Modern Literature – (Criticized)

After the death of William Wordsworth, literature moved from the rustic life to the mechanized life. Here the Marxian theory has largely prevailed. Economics, politics, and realism have got the most space in literature. But history and tradition were not important. Therefore, although it fulfills the condition of sophisticated culture, it does not fulfill the condition of popular culture.

Finally some words:

Lewis told students studying sociology and political science that they should also read literature. Because the previous social, political, and economic everything is presented in literature. Students will be able to compare the previous situation with the present situation by reading the literature. In this way, Leavis tries to show the different methods of literature conducted in different times and eras. We also find the main category of literature in his essay. Ultimately, readers are bound to recognize the importance of literature to life and its impact on society.

Rashedul Islam
Rashedul Islam

Hi, This is Rashedul. Researcher and lecturer of English literature and Linguistics.

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