Upwards and Onwards

Stefan Collini

  • Raymond Williams: A Warrior’s Tale by Dai Smith
    Parthian, 514 pp, £25.00, May 2008, ISBN 978 1 905762 56 9

When Raymond Williams died suddenly, aged 66, in January 1988, estimations of him were sharply divided. There were those who regarded him as a deservedly influential literary and cultural critic, a major socialist theorist and an exemplary instance of the union of intellectual seriousness and political purpose. There were others who thought he had for too long enjoyed an inflated reputation, that he was a muddy thinker and verbose writer who had been swept to a form of cultural celebrity by the vogue for working-class sentimentalism in the 1960s and lefter-than-thou self-righteousness in the 1970s.

In the immediate aftermath of his death, positive assessments understandably predominated. Some moving tributes appeared as former comrades, colleagues and students tried to take stock, emotionally and personally as well as in more public terms, of what his unexpected death deprived them of. The sense of having been abandoned by someone to whom they were accustomed to look for intellectual guidance and moral leadership was strong. The next few years saw the publication both of posthumous collections of his work and of volumes devoted to discussion of his ideas and his influence. Reviews of these were sometimes the occasion for much less sympathetic assessments of his significance. A notable example appeared in this paper (8 February 1990), when R.W. Johnson sharply criticised Williams’s political judgment and wrote in disparaging terms about the combination of uplift and unrealism allegedly characteristic of the Welsh labour movement from which he was assumed to have emerged.

This contested legacy, together with the fact that Williams had always made aspects of his own life and background central to both his political vision and his intellectual identity, meant that any attempt to write his biography was bound to be a more than usually delicate project. Shortly after her husband’s death, Joy Williams entrusted the task to the Welsh historian Dai Smith, who had known (and greatly admired) Williams in the last decade or so of his life, and who shared many of his political allegiances. Smith was given unrestricted access to Williams’s papers; as, in effect, the authorised biographer, he was also able to draw on information from and interviews with a wide range of Williams’s family and friends. Smith made good progress with the task into the early 1990s, it would seem, when he had largely to set it aside in favour of other demands – he was successively head of English language programmes for BBC Wales and pro-vice-chancellor at the recently transformed University of Glamorgan.

At this point, another biographer set to work, but without access to Williams’s papers. Fred Inglis, whose cultural bloodline was ‘out of Leavisite literary criticism by New Leftish political conviction’, had written several books in educational theory and cultural studies, and he, too, had known and admired Williams. Inglis’s book appeared quickly, in 1995, attracting several favourable reviews but also some hostile, and in certain ways damaging, criticism – again, most notably in this paper, where the late Raphael Samuel itemised its failings in particularly unforgiving fashion (4 July 1996). Inglis’s was an unusual biography, partly because it was based on relatively little research into unpublished or archival material: instead, he drew on extensive interviews with a range of people, not all of them close to Williams, whose reminiscences and opinions he reproduced in extenso. But much of the hostility with which it was received arose from two other unusual features. First, it was often sharply critical of Williams, at times even appearing to question his good faith. And second, it allowed itself considerable liberty by way of imaginative re-creation and lyrical evocation, not always discernibly anchored in any documentary evidence or publicly available testimony. Samuel pounced on a notable instance of this creative licence when he pointed out that although the book begins with a vivid, detailed, apparently first-hand account of Williams’s funeral, Inglis had not in fact been present.

I also reviewed the book at the time and although I was sometimes surprised by these characteristics, I thought they were partly compensated for by a stirring political lyricism which attempted to capture, imaginatively and symbolically, the solidarities informing the labour movement, the commitment behind adult education in the period, the excitements attendant on the early days of the New Left, and so on. In addition, some of the criticisms of Williams struck me as refreshingly clear-eyed rather than (as they seemed to some other reviewers) unjustified carping. Rereading Inglis’s book now, I wonder if my response wasn’t too indulgent: the evocative passages retain their power, but it is harder, once alerted by the accumulating criticisms, not to feel uneasy with the apparent casualness and unreliability of parts of the narrative.

Meanwhile, in the last few years, Dai Smith, now translated to a research chair at Swansea (where the Williams papers have been deposited), has been completing his own biography. Given the sequence of events I’ve just described, it is for once not mere publishing puffery to describe his book as ‘long awaited’. One immediate disappointment is that, even now, Smith’s is not the full biography so eagerly anticipated: he covers only the first forty years of Williams’s life, stopping in 1961 after the publication of The Long Revolution, which, together with his most famous work, Culture and Society (1958), and his first novel, Border Country (1960), represented the culmination of the first phase of his career. Nonetheless, what Smith has done he has done well: his book at once becomes the authoritative account of this period of Williams’s life. We need to consider, therefore, the ways in which his treatment differs from Inglis’s, and what difference, if any, this makes to our understanding and estimation of Williams.

The most immediately visible difference is the scale and pace of the two books. Smith takes 400 pages to get Williams into his mid-thirties, when he was finishing Culture and Society; Inglis gets there in 150. Smith draws on a far more extensive range of unpublished sources than Inglis, not just utilising the rich hoard of Williams’s papers, but pursuing his subject into his wartime regiment’s archives as well as the BBC’s. He also brings a deeply informed historical discipline to the analysis of the relevant slices of British society during the first half of the 20th century. And he writes, for the most part, in a cooler idiom than Inglis. Although the book has its longueurs, this is a careful, fair-minded and, above all, humanly sympathetic account of Williams before the years of his considerable fame.

The chief shift of emphasis that Smith wishes to effect is to restore Williams’s fiction to the centre of his writing life. At the time of his death, Williams had published five novels (two volumes of People of the Black Mountains appeared posthumously). They have had their admirers, especially the first, Border Country, but on the whole they have seemed distinctly secondary to his theoretical and critical work, and many readers have returned a negative answer to the question that Ian Parsons, his publisher at Chatto, posed after reading the typescript of an early novel: ‘Is Williams really a novelist?’ Smith makes it plain that Williams thought of himself as primarily ‘a writer’: ‘Between 1948 and 1955 he worked at six separate projected novels, fully completing three of them and writing lengthy drafts of others.’ As his widow later recalled, without any evident reproach: ‘After the war, all he wanted to do was write.’

Smith professes great admiration for some of the unpublished novels, and even more for Border Country, which he regards as Williams’s ‘greatest creative achievement’, his fictional ‘masterpiece’. What he praises in the unpublished drafts is, on the showing of extensively quoted extracts, certainly present and in its way admirable: an attempt, or series of attempts, to find an adequate form for representing the relation between individual experience and collective situation. But that is exactly how the extracts read: as a solution to a theoretical or political difficulty. Williams’s habitual reflex was to restate particular cases in general terms: what was a strength in the theorist was a handicap in the novelist. His characters are too often assigned mini-lectures to deliver: abstractions hang heavy in the air as ‘solutions’ to the current ‘crisis’ are sought. Even in the quick punch and counter-punch of dialogue, the characters are too often debating, representing positions, and essaying a profundity which can be leaden when not comic (and which was wonderfully caught in Terry Eagleton’s pastiche, quoted by Inglis, of Williams’s second published novel, Second Generation). Smith’s reconstruction of the various stages of Williams’s thinking and writing is sympathetic, and it is historically right to place the fiction at the heart of his endeavours in this period. But nothing in these pages makes me regret that the early novels remained unpublished.

Smith’s second, less revisionist emphasis again echoes his subject’s own estimate. Williams presented himself as able to sustain an essentially moral critique of contemporary society, with its disfiguring class-caused scars of deference, competitiveness and distance, because he had known the grounded solidarities and spontaneities of working-class life, an experience of ‘finer living’ (in a phrase of Leavis’s he adapted) which served as his ethical compass or benchmark. Smith tries to put more historical flesh on this claim than Williams himself ever did, and he writes very well about the distinctive class structure of the semi-rural area on the Welsh border where Williams grew up, especially about the various categories of employee of the railway companies (Williams’s father was a signalman, a fact frequently foregrounded in his writing). The railway did not simply pass through this area: other commentators have tended to speak of Abergavenny, the nearby town where Williams went to the grammar school, as a market town or small country town, but Smith shows that at this period it was ‘essentially a railway town’; in the 1920s the families of railway workers made up around a third of the population.

And Smith is too good a historian to overlook the changes that were constantly remaking these social and economic relations. Williams’s father spent his entire working life as a railwayman, but in his later years, after his son had left home, he became prosperous enough to acquire a car (and, it’s interesting to learn, to subsidise the ailing finances of his ‘middle-class’ son on several occasions). The car enabled him to take the fruit and vegetables he grew on his allotment and the honey he got from his bees to more distant markets, and to become, in the process, a small-scale entrepreneur. Smith quotes a nicely balanced entry in Harry Williams’s diary (an important and rather affecting source throughout) for 7 February 1950: ‘I decide to go to Hereford with honey and am hopeful of a contract for the rest of it. Went Tory heckling in the evening.’ There is no single template for ‘a working-class background’, and Williams’s later invocations of the values of ‘his’ class risked smoothing over even some of the variations that were close to home.

In other respects, Smith amplifies rather than modifies the familiar narrative. Williams got a scholarship to read English at Cambridge in 1939, the point at which he made the symbolically important transition from ‘Jim’ (what his family called him) to ‘Raymond’. He became unsettled in his second year at university, throwing himself into political work for the student branch of the Communist Party, pursuing his growing interest in film, and being attracted to various women, especially Joy, whom he married in 1942. ‘Never again,’ Smith observes, ‘would he feel quite so imbalanced or his personality quite so divided’ as in this difficult year – a fact which, when confronted with the granitic steadiness of his later personality, one feels almost tempted to regret.

His studies were interrupted by his call-up in the summer of 1941. Smith writes well about Williams’s war, both on the inanities of camp-bound life between 1941 and 1944, and then on the terrifyingly immediate chance of being burned alive in an armoured vehicle while on active service. Williams served right through, from the invasion of Normandy to the end of hostilities, as an officer in an anti-tank regiment of the Royal Artillery attached to the Guards Armoured Division. As one might have predicted, he proved to be an impressive commander of men, calm and authoritative, while always keeping his innermost self well out of public view. In 1945, he returned to Cambridge to take Part II of the English Tripos: this was an intellectually formative year in which he was not only absorbed in the study of Ibsen, the kernel of his 1952 book on Drama from Ibsen to Eliot, but also, and more enduringly, became an almost fanatical convert to the Cambridge style of ‘practical criticism’, and especially to Leavis’s distinctive cultivation of that strenuous art. Williams later repudiated this critical approach with some vehemence, rather underplaying his own early attachment to it, but the evidence that Smith cites, sometimes only in passing, underlines just what a zealot the young critic was in these years.

In 1946, he was appointed to a post in the Oxford Extra-Mural Delegacy, responsible for tutorial classes across a broad area of East Sussex, and he remained an adult education tutor till his return to Cambridge and a lectureship in the English faculty in 1961. Williams seems to have been respected by his fellow tutors, but also to have been a man apart; friendly, but with few close friends. Some colleagues saw him as someone who ‘set out to “plot a career”’, and even a well-disposed acquaintance could speak of ‘an absolute ruthlessness at his centre’. When the Communist leanings of some adult education tutors occasioned controversy and the threat of witchhunts in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Williams was criticised for remaining aloof, but Smith enters a humane plea: ‘He did not, in these years, choose clear-cut positions intellectually or politically because the dilemma of irresolution lay within his own personality.’ Resolution was to be achieved only by writing and more writing; the regular thudding of his typewriter keys was the rhythm to which Williams marched.

Along the way, Smith’s narrative throws some incidental light on the germination of the ideas first fully explored in Culture and Society, so providing further demonstration of just how crucial the second half of the 1940s was to Williams’s intellectual and political development. Smith cites the script he wrote towards the end of the decade for a projected Paul Rotha documentary (in the end it was never made) on ‘The Effect of the Machine on the Countryman’s Work, Life and Community’, which was intended to show ‘how and why late 18th-century industrialisation altered everything’. For that reason, Williams wrote, it was a mistake to sentimentalise present or recent village life: ‘the village community . . . has gone.’ Smith declares that ‘there is little trace, in any of this, of the “nostalgia” for which he was later berated in the 1970s,’ but surely, at a fundamental level, there is. Williams may recognise, unlike more conservative critics, that the village of the 19th and early 20th centuries was not an ‘organic community’ which had been disrupted by the social and economic changes of the past couple of decades, but there remains the structural nostalgia involved in believing that such community existed before the Industrial Revolution destroyed it. And this was the historical story that underwrote the argument of Culture and Society: the idea of ‘culture’ develops from the late 18th century as a way of compensating for the ravages of industrialism and individualism, but only ‘culture’ when it is understood as ‘a whole way of life’ (and hence, Williams argued in a particularly bold twist, working-class culture) rather than as art and literature, can now restore people’s experience of living in genuine community with each other. The rhythm of Community Lost and Community Regained was inscribed in Williams’s historical schema from very early on.

The success of Culture and Society – which was finally published, after long delays, in September 1958 – changed Williams’s life. When we leave him at the end of this book, three years later, intellectual celebrity beckons, and thereafter there are always readers ready to hang on even his most casual words (not that any of his words were casual, though some of his later occasional pieces could be at once wordy and thin). Part of the great service done by Smith’s biography is to take us back behind Williams’s later fame, behind Williams-as-guru as well as Williams-as-professor, behind ‘cultural materialism’ and his engagement with fashionable forms of Marxism, back to the period of obscurity, tucked away in Seaford or Hastings as a promising adult education tutor, furiously filling notebooks with ideas, devoting his mornings to writing and rewriting novels and critical works (‘he wrote incessantly’), some of which never saw publication, some of which were thriftily reused as opportunities offered themselves, but always, always attending to that unceasing inner monologue.

In his later career that monologue seemed to spill out into various kinds of oral performance as unstoppably as it did onto the page, with the characteristics that regular readers and listeners came to recognise – fluent yet abstraction-laden, exciting but also somehow boring, astonishing in its range and command while rarely deviating from a few strong central themes. Perhaps for the same reasons, Williams has attracted oxymoronic labels: the solitary communitarian, the cheerless optimist, the detached activist. While it cannot be said that the younger Williams was consumed by uncertainty or hesitation, since few young writers or scholars could have been more focused and determined, the glimpses we get of him struggling with conflicting senses of identity or experiencing difficulties and setbacks are, it has to be said, rather welcome. Inglis described his later manner, ever courteous as well as conscious of its own dignity, as ‘ducal’. Smith occasionally enables us to see a more vulnerable and therefore more interesting figure.

It is not immediately evident why Smith subtitles his book ‘A Warrior’s Tale’. Some might see Williams as a paid-up class warrior; others might note the centrality of his wartime experience; still others may think of him, more remotely, as a descendant of the kind of warrior traditionally found in borderlands, coming down from the Black Mountains to harass and repel English invaders (the maleness of the term emphasising the subsequently much remarked absence of attention to women in his work). But the phrase seems oddly melodramatic applied to someone who spent most of his adult life hunched over a typewriter. It’s true that ‘struggle’ was one of his favoured terms, yet in its frequent appearances on the parade ground of Williams’s prose it was usually accompanied by so many other abstract nouns – ‘structure’, ‘consciousness’, ‘form’, ‘process’, ‘crisis’ and so on – that it lost any warrior-like associations and became an abstraction in its turn, the ‘concept of struggle’ more than the landing of any particular blow on any particular adversary.

Making a point in Williams’s defence against those on the left who criticised him from a more theoretical or more internationalist position, Smith invokes Aneurin Bevan’s remark about a local socialist opponent in South Wales: ‘Strong on India. Strong on Africa . . . But weak on the subject of New Pits.’ But if the implication is that Williams was, in his own terms, ‘strong on New Pits’, then the sally doesn’t seem quite apt. Although he celebrated the solidarities of working-class life in general, his writing during these years was short on concrete detail and for the most part far removed from the discussion of actual measures of policy. In addition, the South Walian allusion draws attention to the discomfiting fact that, in his critical writing (though not in his unpublished fiction), the Williams of the 1950s scarcely acknowledged his Welshness, blithely allowing the first-person plural that so liberally populated his prose to signal ‘we in England’. Later he reconnected with his Welsh inheritance in various ways, especially as part of his repudiation of English culture and its ideological creature ‘English literature’, and he came to describe himself as a ‘Welsh European’ (the range and interest of his later writing about Wales has been demonstrated in the 2003 collection edited by Daniel Williams and entitled Who Speaks for Wales?, to which Smith gives handsome acknowledgment). But the Williams of the period covered here was in some ways more Leavisite than Bevanite, stronger on ‘our responses’ to changes in ‘English society since the late 18th century’ than on New Pits or, for that matter, India.

The effect of the detailed scale and slow pace of Smith’s biography, as well as of its attempt to place its subject’s life in a wider social history, is to root Williams more securely than ever in the middle decades of the 20th century. So many of the determining concerns and reference points of his later work can be traced back to the 1940s and early 1950s, a series of efforts to come to some kind of terms with the disorienting trajectory of his own life in these years. It is true that even after all this patient accumulation of detail there remains something unplumbable about Williams’s willed absorption, about what he termed the need to ‘keep terms with one’s own experience’. But, confining himself to his subject’s first four decades, Smith has done all that we can ask the historian-as-biographer to do, and we are certainly better placed now to eavesdrop intelligently on that unceasing monologue.

Not all Williams’s admirers will be pleased by a biography that almost completely removes him from the larger anglophone world of contemporary literary studies as well as from the still more internationalised world of socialist theory. Williams pushed his thinking in new directions and engaged with new topics throughout the 1960s and 1970s and into the 1980s. During his lifetime, some commentators on his work, seeking to represent these diverse forays as a clear intellectual progress, had recourse to the once fashionable Althusserian notion of an ‘epistemological break’ in the development of his thinking. This was usually taken to indicate the way he had sloughed off the ‘pre-scientific’ moralism of the literary-critical tradition in which he had been educated and replaced it with a ‘materialist’ analysis of the relations of literature and society that was both theoretically explicit and politically self-conscious. The central texts then became Marxism and Literature (1977) and the essays gathered in Problems of Materialism and Culture (1980) and Writing in Society (1983). The very category of ‘literature’ was called into question as an ideologically driven selection from the pluri-signifying abundance of ‘writing in society’. The later Williams, extending and modifying the traditional Marxist emphasis on the primacy of productive labour, now termed his approach ‘cultural materialism’, and those taking their inspiration from this phase of his work became an important presence in the theory-riven world of Anglo-American literary studies in the 1980s and early 1990s. If Williams could at one point have been seen as ‘the English Lukács’, not least for his sustained engagement with the historical place of literary realism, he now came to be seen as ‘the English Goldmann’ or even ‘the English Bourdieu’ (such labels always exhibited a disregard for the fact that he was not English, as he pointed out with increasing insistence). And indeed, since cultural materialism’s attentiveness to non-literary contexts and its repudiation of ‘evaluative criticism’ was seen by many to have affinities with the academically still more powerful school of New Historicism, Williams could even be classified, at least when seen down the wrong end of a transatlantic telescope, as ‘the English Greenblatt’.

Fortunately, his standing was never confined to the world of academic literary studies. His work, early and late, on ‘communications’, especially television, meant that he was a constant point of reference in the fast expanding field of Media Studies (‘the English McLuhan’), just as several of his books from Culture and Society onwards were regarded as founding texts, although frequently repudiated, in the diverse field, or movement, now established as Cultural Studies (‘the English Gramsci’). And, of course, his more directly political writing always engaged with a much wider, non-academic, left-leaning public, to whom he spoke inspiringly of the continuing value of ‘community’, of the imperative to pursue a thoroughgoing democratisation of economic and cultural as well as political institutions, and of the need to cultivate ‘resources for a journey of hope’ towards a possible form of socialism (‘the English Habermas’?). In his concern with the natural environment, especially in the form of the relations between country and city, he provided the elements from which a ‘Green Williams’ could be constructed, just as his reflections on the consequences of colonial settlement and cultural dominance, here drawing explicitly on his Welshness, could even be made to yield a sketch of a ‘post-colonial Williams’.

These multiple intellectual identities, or plausible appropriations, contribute to the combative possessiveness still noticeable among some of Williams’s admirers. But the inevitable effect of biography, certainly of detailed biography on this scale, is to shift the focus from legacy to origins, from continuing relevance to initial context. Instead of speaking to current debates about race, gender and ‘the canon’ (debates which are themselves now feeling pretty tired), Williams is shown as sharing the angry revulsion, still so raw in the late 1940s, at the humanly deforming consequences of the Industrial Revolution. A version of Marx was certainly important in the circles in which Williams the adult education tutor moved, but scarcely more so than William Morris, still a powerful living presence in the Labour movement into the 1950s. And although for a generation or more now, Leavis has, if mentioned at all, been routinely dismissed by literary theorists as irretrievably conservative and parochial, he takes his proper place here as a disturbingly intense, unacademic (indeed, anti-academic) reader of literature and an intransigently outspoken cultural critic.

The later Williams emphatically distanced himself from his work of this period. Culture and Society, he declared in 1979, ‘is not a book I could conceive myself writing now. I don’t much know the person who wrote it. I read this book as I might read a book by someone else. It is a work most distant from me.’ Williams’s autobiographical reflections of this sort are notoriously unreliable as guides to his actual development, but, when one rereads that book now, it is easy to see why he came to feel uncomfortable with its left-Leavisite tone and assumptions. Nonetheless, with its close examination of a long tradition of critics from Burke to Orwell, it does provide a forceful reminder of what a good practical critic Williams could be when he chose. I realise that any indulgence of this aspect of his early work is now likely to be dismissed as a predictable piece of ‘conservative recuperation’, but I can’t help feeling that some of his later writing, which was always in danger of sinking into a midden of over-abstraction, might have benefited from the crisp perceptiveness of his earlier literary-critical engagement with textual detail. On this score it will be interesting to see which of Williams’s books best survive into the future. I suspect that Culture and Society and, still more, The Country and the City will continue to have readers when Marxism and Literature and Problems in Materialism and Culture will be found only in the footnotes of the more recondite intellectual histories.

Nonetheless, once all the reservations have been registered, there remains something compelling about Williams. This is not just on account of his writing, which is variable in its quality and interest, and not just on account of his life, which was in many ways dull and unexceptional, as the lives of critics and scholars tend to be. What is compelling arises out of a peculiarly intense and hard-to-disentangle blending of life and work, personality and writing, background and purpose. That deep centredness and confidence in who he was; that massive, calm certainty about central human values; that constant bringing back of intellectual and literary issues to a half-remembered, half-idealised experience of genuine community, grounded in the everyday solidarities of working-class life; that unremitting effort to find an idiom and a form adequate to the representation of this experience: somewhere in the extraordinary ordinariness of this mix lies the source of his continuing force.

Perhaps Williams’s greatest achievement by 1961 was to have fashioned a form and idiom in which to combat the dominant cultural pessimism without ceding the moral high ground. What he identified as the ‘long revolution’ was a record of ‘actual growth’, of a liberation of human potential rather than a dilution of ‘standards’. As he put it in a never published conclusion to the book of that name (which Smith reproduces in full), ‘Everything that I understand of the history of the long revolution leads me to the belief that we are still in its early stages.’ That was an important thing to say in Britain in 1961; it’s still an important thing to say, especially if given a properly internationalist application. Part of the value of Smith’s painstaking account is that it shows that even Williams had to feel his way towards that conviction and towards the confident declarative terms in which it is expressed. Thereafter, he could easily sound too confident, too declarative, but, for all his later lapses into abstraction and pomposity, he was right about this central matter, impressively and inspiringly right. Claims that everything is going to the dogs all too often rest on the hidden supports of parochialism, snobbery, class insouciance and a wilful refusal of the intellectual effort required to try to draw up a more realistic balance sheet of gain and loss. Williams fought against those things all along the line. It is hard to come away from this biography without admiring the way he made himself strong enough to fight that fight to such good effect.