C.S. Lewis’ Nemesis: F.R. Leavis


When C.S. Lewis died, one of his Cambridge colleagues uttered a shocking statement—to his Cambridge students.

“C.S. Lewis is dead,” announced F.R. Leavis to his English literature students at Cambridge University a few days later, while the world mourned for Kennedy (the President was assassinated the same day).

American novelist and essayist D. Keith Mano, then studying at Cambridge, remembers Leavis continuing his brief commentary on Lewis’ passing as follows: “They said in the Times that we will miss him. We will not. We will not.

Who knew the world of literary criticism could be so ill-mannered?

In my readings about C.S. Lewis and his life I’ve noted references to a fellow English professor at Cambridge who waged a lengthy academic argument with Lewis over the heart of English education.

The challenger to Lewis’ history-oriented approach advocated a critical position, which diluted concern for the intentions of the original writers. I’m not a lit major, so I’ll leave the description at that.*

F.R. Leavis, a dynamic influence at Cambridge, dreaded the arrival of Lewis when he moved from Oxford to a distinguished chair tailor-made for him. The two scholars shared several traits which might have disposed them to friendship.

Both were veterans of the Great War.** One difference between the veterans is curious. Leavis declined to join the Officers’ Training Corps while a student, and chose ambulance service when conscription began. Lewis, on the other hand, voluntarily joined the OTC, even though he (as an Irishman) was exempt from the conscription.***

Another similarity between the two was that they inspired many students. Far from the caricature of droning academicians, Lewis and Leavis drew fans and even disciples from the student body. (In a recent post I mentioned the affectionate nickname some of the former’s students had for him: Papa Lewis.)

The Problem

Most writers believe this second “similarity” factored into the strained relationship between the two. Both had strong personalities, and bold convictions. They did not, however, share a common temperament. Lewis was normally respectful of his philosophical adversaries. Leavis, not so much. The following comes from “C.S. Lewis and the Art of Disagreement.”

The fact that Lewis could approve of atheists [and] liberals . . . reinforces Brewer’s point that Lewis would not allow disagreement to become personal. He could always distinguish the man from the man’s opinion, and he knew the difference between an argument and a quarrel. He would not allow himself to be betrayed into aggression, but would, where necessary, draw rein on a dispute with a wry smile and an agreement to disagree.

His public written controversy on literature with E.M.W. Tillyard (later published as The Personal Heresy) was conducted with pugnacity but without personal animus. And though Lewis laid into the arguments of another colleague, F.R. Leavis, with great forcefulness in the pages of An Experiment in Criticism, he never named Leavis within those pages, but covered his opponent in a thoughtfully woven cloak of pseudonymity.

Contrast that to Leavis’ comment with which we began, in which he “celebrates” Lewis’ passing.

Lewis was quite aware of Leavis’ animosity. In a 1961 letter to the publisher of The Screwtape Letters and Screwtape Proposes a Toast, the author strikes the Cambridge Review from the publications scheduled to receive review copies.

I’ve not additions to make, but one subtraction. Delete Cambridge Review. It’s mainly in the hands of Leavisites who will blackguard any book of mine, and I don’t know why we should let them have a free copy for their sport!

Lewis scholar Brenton Dickieson wrote a column about George Watson’s critique of Lewis. Watson met Lewis at Oxford and later joined him on the faculty at Cambridge.

Here are George Watson’s first evaluative words of Lewis: “Like F.R. Leavis, he was an offensive critic.” Awesome. I think it is an evaluation that would have made Lewis chuckle, particularly in his positive comparison with Leavis, the closest thing Lewis ever got to having a Sherlockian arch-nemesis.

However, Watson (note the name) is careful to remind us that Lewis “reveled in diversity as much as Leavis detested it.” That diversity in Lewis is one of the features that (I believe) most draws and repels readers today.

In the aforementioned article, “Lewis and Cambridge,” Barbour candidly describes the disparity between the spirit of the two nemeses.

“[Lewis’] controversies were always impersonal and often ended with the participants finding a good deal of common ground, whereas Leavis’s controversies . . . tended to end in anathematizing and deeply personal wounding.”

Leavis’ reputation for engendering conflict was so pronounced The Guardian actually included the following in his obituary:

Perhaps the most telling counter-assault on him was by C.S. Lewis, who said that the use of subliminal code words like “maturity” and “relevance” smuggled in an entire value system that was never made explicit for scrutiny. Others accused him of being a crypto-Marxist.

Leavis never replied, which was a pity, but then his weapons during his long career of humiliations in the Cambridge English faculty also included silence, internal exile and cunning.

His most murderous and underestimated weapon was ridicule, which he deployed in lectures with the virtuosity of a music-hall star and with an insensitivity verging on paranoia.

The Essence of Their Differences

Exploding English: Criticism, Theory, Culture includes a chapter entitled “Leavis, Lewis, and Other Oppositions.” It’s précis suggests one reason Lewis’ criticisms have possessed a longer lifespan than those of Leavis.

Lewis and Leavis . . . were the dominant figures in literary study in the middle decades of the twentieth century. . . . it is Lewis’s arguments and assumptions that seem to be the more challenging and which have something to contribute to contemporary debates.

This assessment echoes Lewis’ own view that the Leavis tsunami may have crested. Just a month before his death, he wrote to Basil Willey about his retirement. Willey would retire from his own chair two years later.

My dear Basil . . . I have an idea that Cambridge ten years’ hence might suit us both [better] than the Cambridge we have known. . . .

I hope your success will follow you . . . [if not], then our English school, with its neglect of language, becomes purely a school of literary criticism. And criticism, thus isolated, seems to me a positively mischievous instrument of education.

In “C.S. Lewis, Literary Critic: A Reassessment,” which appeared in Mythlore, William Calin describes Lewis’ passionate defense of English authors whose reputations were in jeopardy.

A Preface to Paradise Lost does for Milton what The Allegory of Love did for Spenser, and Lewis does for epic what he had previously done for allegory and fin’ amor [courtly love]. . . . In sum, Lewis defends his authors language from the strictures of Eliot and Leavis; he defends his worldview and its artistic embodiment from the prejudice of 1930s agnostic university faculty in English. . . .

When he tells students “Don’t read criticism” [Lewis] alludes again to Leavis and his disciples, who fetishized the term “critic.” Lewis would have called himself a scholar or an historian.

The following passage from A Preface to Paradise Lost is telling. Leavis is the unnamed standard bearer for the worldview he rejects. It reveals Lewis’ keen discernment in understanding of his unbridgeable difference with Leavis.

It is not that [Leavis] and I see different things when we look at Paradise Lost. He sees and hates the very same that I see and love. Hence the disagreement between us tends to escape from the realm of literary criticism.

We differ not about the nature of Milton’s poetry, but about the nature of man, or even the nature of joy itself.

The Apostle Paul described this difference in his correspondence with the Corinthians.

Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. . . .

The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. . . . But we have the mind of Christ.

In an excellent article entitle “Three Great Critics: F.R. Leavis, T.S. Eliot, and C.S. Lewis,” Michael Aeschliman**** closes with a gospel-oriented thought.

It is pleasing to conclude by imagining C.S. Lewis, T.S. Eliot, and F.R. Leavis now conversing together amicably, recollecting emotion in tranquility, in another and better and more luminous realm, toward which all three of them were fervent pilgrims throughout their embattled but noble lives.

* There are ample online sources available to describe the contrast in detail. For example, Brian Barbour’s Modern Philology essay, “Lewis and Cambridge,” provides a superb explanation of the struggle in its broader context.

** Lewis served in the trenches, where he was seriously wounded. Leavis was fortunate enough to avoid frontline combat by serving in the Friends Ambulance Unit. This site provides a helpful account of his service on an Ambulance Train which shuttled the wounded to ports.

*** There is no record of which ambulance train carried Lewis homeward after his injury, but wouldn’t it be ironic he and Leavis had unknowingly encountered one another at that time?

**** Aeschliman is the author of The Restitution of Man: C.S. Lewis and the Case Against Scientism.

26 thoughts on “C.S. Lewis’ Nemesis: F.R. Leavis

  1. I had no idea! I find the idea of suffering with (what sounds like) such a pompous, rude, and intentionally close-minded person impossible. Perhaps I believe in a sort of happily-ever-after karma retribution in which the mean man is brought low in the end.

    1. Researching the column was a real eye-opener for me as well. I have known a few people like that, and it’s miserable when they possess power over you.

      Sadly, it may even be worse when they’re your subordinates.

      As for getting justice in the end, I guess we can simply measure the contemporary reputations of both men…

  2. “He could always distinguish the man from the man’s opinion, and he knew the difference between an argument and a quarrel. He would not allow himself to be betrayed into aggression, but would, where necessary, draw rein on a dispute with a wry smile and an agreement to disagree.”
    Sounds so civilized.
    What a contrast these two were. Difference make life interesting – if everyone can be respectful and mature about it …obviously that doesn’t happen a lot – then and now
    Appreciate your discussion and analysis of them

  3. Dear Rob,

    What a difference Jesus makes. He can use any temperament and person for His glory. Two very similar jobs and names as well, but wow look at the longevity of Lewis. You can see Eternity.



    1. God is not only able to use all sorts of temperaments to bless him and their neighbors… the Lord apparently delights in diversity. No two human beings are identical (even identical twins).

  4. Funny that I read this today. I was just reading a satirical post by a blogger friend whose online voice is charming, who, I believe, is a decent person. He writes hysterical posts from one end of the political spectrum. I hail from the other but still appreciate his work. I almost posted this question, but chickened out: Would you still be my friend if you knew my political leanings? The zeal with which he blasts my end of the spectrum tells me…maybe no.

    1. That is an interesting question to pose. We all know the phrase “opposites attract.” While it may possess some validity when considering types of personalities, one area in which it completely breaks down is the arena of values.

      What we consider to be our life’s most significant values (e.g. religiously, politically, etc.) are not just quirks or differing personality traits we can enjoy.

      When our differences revolve around subjects where we violently disagree–for example, abortion–the conflict can turn emotionally violent.

      Relatively few can develop genuinely deep and respectful relationships with those whose deepest values differ radically from their own.

  5. Mary Bess Wiggers

    I absolutely loved this article! I’ve been researching Lewis and his encounters with Leavis (as they have been recorded) for the past two years off and on to get a better sense of the intellectual milieu that An Experiment in Criticism came out into. I think my favorite quote is from one of Lewis’ letters that I think best illustrates the level of disgust Lewis had for Leavis’ critical “yahoo howls.” In a letter to Nathan Comfort Starr on 7/30/62, he writes:

    “Leavis built a pillory for another man and then put himself in it. Like you, I don’t think much of Snow either as a novelist or a thinker. But Leavis silences all adverse criticism of him among decent people—just as Hitler silenced all criticism of Jews and the Boers now make one reluctant to breathe a word against any native African. One must always remember that Leavis has a very bad digestion!”

    Thank you again for sharing your insights so thoroughly–I look forward to ordering some of the references you mentioned!

    1. I’m delighted you enjoyed this piece. I was concerned that it might not be of much interest to most fans of Lewis’ work. Well, that may still be true… but I truly am pleased that there are folks out there who share my desire to look deeply at the wisdom and life of this brilliant man.

      Thanks for the insightful quotation. What a sharp contrast between these two scholars!

  6. Sadly, the more Leavisite persuasion seems to rule in the universities. Students are compelled to use critical “lenses,” such as queer theory, post colonialism, etc., while reading less in the one-standard works. I’ve no doubt that the percentage of their reading that is devoted to criticism and theory is higher relative to the time spent reading the old books, and reading loads are lighter anyway than they used to be. More time, also, is given to pop culture (movies, TV, video games, etc.) which perhaps Leavis would have deplored as well as Lewis.

  7. A fascinating article! I love the distinction between argument and quarrel and wish we could drum this into the next generation. Funnily enough, my Scripture teacher at school had been tutored by Lewis at Cambridge and had lots of anecdotes that I was too young to appreciate. It did encourage me to read Screwtape and eventually so many of his other work.

    1. You’re right about the contentious debates going on in America today. As you say, it makes the distinction more timely today than when I posted it.

      I envy you having had a teacher who knew Lewis. Sad though that you were too young to enjoy the opportunity.

      Screwtape is an amazing work. Extremely insightful in terms of every day spiritual warfare.

      1. If you are French, as your website suggests, you see the crazy political climate over here from a unique perspective. Trust me, it’s even weirder from the inside.

  8. Dear Rob, thanks for this piece. I read it a couple of years ago and now return to refresh my thinking. I realize now that my sense of the Lewis vs. Leavis distinction in the 1930s is muddled. Both contributed to the “New Criticism”–a sort of “pin yourself to the page, reading the poem or story only without worry about context” approach to teaching and scholarship that made high school poetry classes somewhat better as a close-reading experience. But I don’t understand how, 20 years later, they are so far apart. I have more work to do!

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  10. Gabrielle Caucutt

    Thank you for this article…my husband and I were watching the BBC Middlemarch (I had recently read the book), and a commentary on the series referenced Leavis, which reminded us of Lewis’s references to him in his Collected Letters. I highly disliked Middlemarch…and novel in search of a script. It was amusing to find Leavis praising it. I doubt he and I would find much in common. And it sounds like Lewis, highly skilled in formal logic, was up against someone who used it poorly. My son has said it is very difficult to argue with someone who is illogical!

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