The Great Tradition
‘The great English novelists are Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James and Joseph Conrad’.
So begins what is arguably F. R. Leavis’s most controversial book, The Great Tradition , an uncompromising critical and polemical survey of English fiction that was first published in 1948. He puts a powerful case for moral seriousness as the necessary criterion for inclusion in any list of the finest novelists. In the course of his argument he adds D. H. Lawrence to the pantheon, and singles out Charles Dickens’s Hard Times as the one work of his that has the strength of 'a completely serious work of art'.
The Great Tradition is full of Leavis’s characteristically austere rejections of styles of fiction that he found lacking in moral intensity. He dismissed Lawrence Sterne for his 'irresponsible (and nasty) trifling'. Of Henry Fielding he wrote that he is important 'not because he leads to Mr J. B. Priestley but because he leads to Jane Austen, to appreciate whose distinction is to feel that life isn’t long enough to permit of one’s giving much time to Fielding or any to Mr Priestley'. Joyce’s Ulysses , he said, was less a new start for fiction than 'a dead end'.
Fiercely serious, pugnacious and stimulating, The Great Tradition is an unforgettable defence of 'those creative geniuses whose distinction is manifested in their being peculiarly alive in their time'.
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