No one could describe the last ten years as an uneventful period in English criticism, but there are times, and this February is one, when it all seems to boil down to a couple of brawls and a series of obituary notices. One by one the giants have departed: Leavis, Richards, Empson, and now Raymond Williams. The first three had come through to ripe and embattled old age, but Williams was still in his prime as a writer and critic. When I visited him in Saffron Walden in late December, he had been laid up for several months with a painful but curable illness (not the one from which he died). His talk, however, was vigorous and forward-looking. We spoke of the research that he and his ever-supportive wife Joy had done for a major historical novel, People of the Black Mountains. Then we laughed over the paperback reissue of his first novel, Border Country, with the old signalman, Harry Price, on its front cover: the artist had endowed Price with Williams’s own unmistakable features. That now seems painfully close to the mark. In the novel, Price was shown dying from a series of strokes. On 26 January, Williams suffered a fatal heartattack.
Thinking over his death, I am not reminded of his most obvious predecessors in ‘Cambridge English’. Perversely perhaps, I recall instead the death of another novelist, Cambridge professor and intellectual militant, even though he was in the opposite camp to Williams’s own. C.S. Lewis, author of academic classics such as The Allegory of Love, died in 1963 in his 65th year. Today his memory stays alive far from the academic world, in the reading of children and Science Fiction fans, and in Christian bookshops where I have seen whole areas of shelving bearing the legend ‘C.S. Lewis and Friends’. Similarly, Williams will be most revered in the journals of the Left, and some of his most ardent new readers will seek out his books in socialist and alternative bookshops, and also in Welsh ones. Williams and Lewis shared the ambition of writing for ordinary readers, and they both addressed an audience far wider than Leavis’s, let alone those of more conventional academics.
Of course, Lewis (whose Christian apologetics were once the enforced diet of sixth-formers) was much the more strident and derivative of the two. Williams was first and foremost an innovative thinker. He is at his most rigorous and subtle in a work of intellectual history such as Culture and Society, but the same habits of analysis are there in his journalism and political pamphlets, as well as in books he produced when, rather late in his career, he set out to re-equip and re-train himself as a Marxist theorist. There were complaints of the fog of abstraction in some of his writings, but at their heart there was always the same fund of experience, the same passion and the same anger (‘I must show you, sometime, the code for anger,’ he once wrote to me).