Critical Revolutionaries by Terry Eagleton review – five critics who changed the way we read

How modern literary criticism came to be – with a little help from TS Eliot, FR Leavis, Raymond Williams and others

In a famous experiment from the late 1920s, IA Richards set his Cambridge students the task of reading a series of short, anonymous literary extracts. They were asked to pay minute attention to rhythm, sound, tone, texture and syntax before attempting to date each text. Richards conceived this Practical Criticism, as the methodology came to be called, as a tough-minded challenge to what had hitherto passed as literary criticism. In the prewar period, university professors were apt to make vague aesthetic judgments about a book’s “beauty” or “soul” before lobbing in a few comments about the author’s mother or the publishing practices of the time. Richards’s students, by contrast, were asked to exclude all such background blather in favour of what they could deduce from the words on the page.

In this exhilarating book, Terry Eagleton describes the sea change in literary criticism that occurred between the two world wars. The five intellectuals he concentrates on here are inevitably male – as well as Richards, there is TS Eliot, William Empson, FR Leavis and Raymond Williams – since Cambridge, the university with which they were all connected, was not particularly welcoming to female academics. Or, indeed, to anyone at all: most of the time these men appeared to dislike each other intensely and enjoyed saying so. Indeed, Eagleton’s great achievement here is to look beyond the scrim of five tricky personalities to identify the continuities in their work, which added up to a revolution in the way that people – not just professional academics, but the whole community of readers throughout the English-speaking world – thought and talked about books.

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