Woolf, Leonard

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WOOLF, LEONARD (Sidney ; 1880–1969), English publisher and writer. The son of a London barrister who was a member of the Reform synagogue, Woolf had ambivalent feelings about family and religious loyalties and, as a convinced rationalist, saw little virtue in any religion. Woolf's father died when he was 12, leaving his family in some difficulties. He attended St. Paul's School and Cambridge on scholarships. As a classical student at Cambridge, he became friendly with a group of intellectuals who were to form the nucleus of London's famous "Bloomsbury Circle." They included John Maynard Keynes, Lytton Strachey, E.M. Forster, and J.T. Stephen, whose sister, Virginia, Woolf married. At Cambridge, Woolf was the first Jew elected to the "Apostles," the famous secret debating society. From 1904 until 1911 he was a colonial administrator in Ceylon, responsible for governing 100,000 people while still in his twenties. From this experience he acquired a lifelong hostility to British imperialism. In 1917 Leonard and Virginia started the Hogarth Press as a hobby: it became famous through the publication of Virginia's novels, T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, the English translation of *Freud's works, and S.S. Koteliansky's translations from the Russian. Just as his experiences as a civil servant in Ceylon had led Leonard Woolf to disapprove of imperialism, so the sight of poverty in the East End of London converted him from liberalism to socialism. He joined the Fabian Society and became involved in the political, trade union, and economic aspects of the British Labour movement.

His two outstanding political works were International Government (1916), an early blueprint for the League of Nations, and Empire and Commerce in Africa (1920). Woolf was on the editorial staff of the Contemporary Review (1920–21), literary editor of The Nation (1923–30), and coeditor of The Political Quarterly (1931–59). He was also closely associated with The New Statesman and Nation. His books include: The Village in the Jungle (1913), inspired by his stay in Ceylon; Hunting the Highbrow (1927), essays; Quack, Quack (1935), a book about dictatorship; Barbarians at the Gate (1939); and After the Deluge (2 vols., 1931–39), and its sequel, Principia Politica (1953), a study of communal psychology. Woolf wrote an outstanding series of autobiographical works: Sowing (1960), Growing (1961), Beginning Again (1964), Downhill All the Way (1967), and The Journey, Not the Arrival, Matters (1969). Although a significant figure in his own right, Woolf is best remembered today as the husband of Virginia (1882–1941), who has attained almost cultlike status since her death. The nature of their relationship, and Woolf's own role in formulating her iconic status, have been the subjects of continuing debate, as has been her response to his Jewish origins. Similarly, the "Bloomsbury Group" has generated a veritable industry among biographers and literary historians.


Times Literary Supplement, 66 (May 4, 1967); The Times, (August 15, 1969). add. bibliography: odnb online; P.F. Alexander, Leonard and Virginia Woolf: A Literary Partnership (1992); G. Spater and I. Parsons, A Marriage of True Minds: An Intimate Portrait of Leonard and Virginia Woolf (1977); D. Wilson, Leonard Woolf: A Political Biography (1978).

[Renee Winegarten /

William D. Rubinstein (2nd ed.)]

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