Literature and Society Key facts and Summary

Writer: Frank Raymond Leavis ( 1895-1978)

Lewis’s essay “Literature and Society” is a famous essay in English literary criticism. The theme, language, and style, tone of voice – all contribute to making the essay a memorable piece of prose. 

The theme

The theme of the essay is the relationship between literature and society. According to Leavis literature should be based on the total culture of a society – both popular culture and sophisticated culture or highbrow culture, and it should not be the product of individual talent alone. 

Summary and Analysis

The writer has made references to many factors to build his theme. He has mentioned T.S. Eliot’s Tradition and the Individual Talent and points out its difference from Marxism in regard to the concept of society. To Eliot, an individual writer of genius must be aware of the fact that his work belongs to his literature as an organic element. His significance his not in being a separate individual as a writer, but as organically belonging to the whole body of his literature. 

Leavis then also points out the faults in the Marxist theories of culture which stress material and economic determinants. Culture assumes that there is a certain measure of spiritual autonomy in human affairs, and that human intelligence, choice and will to really and effectively operate, must express an inherent human nature. The study of literature should be an intimate study of the complexities, potentialities and essential conditions of human nature. Referring to the literatures of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries Leavis expresses his disapproval of them, excepting Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress which seems the only literary work which corresponds to his conception of literature. Toward the end of the essay he establishes that literature should represent a satisfactory cultural order, touching the popular and the highbrow or the sophisticated cultures.  

At the end of the essay he goes a little further and asserts that even political and social matters should be studied in the context of literary culture, and that even political and social studies will gain force only if they are based on linguistic studies. 

As a writer Leavis maintains technical proprieties of formal writing. The paragraph structures are in keeping with the principles of expository paragraph. Each paragraph is written strictly in accordance with the elements of beginning, middle, and end. The syntax is formal; in ease of most of the sentences, there is a good number of clauses which compels a reader to go along a tortuous way to follow the writer’s intent. For example, we can quote the following sentence from the 22nd paragraph of the essay, “But if anyone should conclude that it ought therefore the literature that the literary critic finds significant – to be contemned, and that a really significant contemporary literature would have the Marxising or Wellsian kind of relation to social, political and economic problems, he may be reminded that, but for the persisting literary tradition, the history I have so inadequately sketched would have been lost, and our notions of what a popular culture might be, and what relations might exist between it and a ‘highbrow culture, would have been very different.” The sentence contains 91 words, and as many as nine clauses. For an ordinary or average reader, it would be very difficult to realize the meaning of such a ponderous sentence. Most of the sentences seem packed like sardines with meaning. Of course, the writer is careful enough to variegate the lengths of sentences in order to obviate the monotony of effects on the reader; he intersperses the long sentences with the short sentences. In the beginning of the eighth paragraph we find a very short sentence, “An illustration presents itself readily. It is followed by a long sentence which is again followed by a short sentence. Though things like this are there in the essay, there is a heavy leaving of the sentences towards the long, and the essay as a whole gives the impression of a very difficult and knotty piece of prose 

The vocabulary items chosen by the author are also symptomatic of his scholarly writing. Most of the words are usually those which are normally used in a piece of critical prose writing, but there are occasionally found some words which are extraordinary in their evocations of nuances of meanings. Words like “provocatively formulated” (para 4)” “innocent freedom” (para 7), “inhibiting apprehensions” (para 7). “creative springs” (para 1o), etc illustrate his use of vocabulary effectively and in an original way. Besides his vocabulary items, there are idioms and phrases which are quite familiar, but they have become very strong and forceful in meaning n the context they are used. Idioms like “in any case”. “no point in recalling”. “by itself”, “of course”, “something like “bring home”, etc provide sauce to the atmosphere of gravity and formality of the essay, pro destroying the atmosphere, but rather enhancing it by adding colour and variety. 

The rhythmic effects of the prose are in line with the gravity the topic and the seriousness of its treatment. The long sentences produce a lumbering rhythm; they give an effect of moving slowly and rather awkwardly with a great burden of too many things. The short sentences create a gentle, slow-paced movement; give an impression of a slowing down of the pace before coming to a halt for rest. 

As regards rhetorical figures, Leavis uses them sparingly. That scarce use of rhetoric saves the prose from a sense of strenuous effort at expression. His prose, therefore, achieves a sort of spontaneity and naturalness, an effortless ease. Except for the difficulty created by the lengths of sentences, his prose is transparent, though a bit too intense in its effulgence of the light of meaning. 

Considered from the viewpoints of a critical essay, Leavis’s essay “literature and Society” is a great piece of literary criticism, and rightly deserves the fame it is bestowed on. 

Rashedul Islam
Rashedul Islam

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

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