Literature and the Left

Marilyn Butler

  • English Literature in History: 1730-80: An Equal, Wide Survey edited by Raymond Williams, by John Barrell
    Hutchinson, 228 pp, £13.50, March 1983, ISBN 0 09 149820 1
  • English Literature in History: 1350-1400: Medieval Readers and Writers edited by Raymond Williams, by Janet Coleman
    Hutchinson, 337 pp, £12.00, July 1981, ISBN 0 09 144100 5
  • English Literature in History: 1780-1830: Pastoral and Politics edited by Raymond Williams, by Roger Sales
    Hutchinson, 247 pp, £13.50, March 1983, ISBN 0 09 149830 9
  • The Cambridge Guide to English Literature by Michael Stapleton
    Cambridge/Newnes Books, 992 pp, £15.00, April 1983, ISBN 0 521 25647 X

It is a surprise to find Raymond Williams, in the year of his retirement as Professor of Drama at Cambridge, editing a series called ‘Literature in History’. In a writing career that almost spans the post-war period, he has established himself as this country’s leading critic within academic English of the very concept of ‘Literature’. So much so, that he would have preferred to see English Literature replaced as a core subject in our school and university curriculum by the study of Culture and of Communications.

Raymond Williams was already in mid-career, an established author and a Cambridge don, when the British Left entered its intellectual Renaissance in the 1960s. The New Left is academic, metropolitan and cosmopolitan, and thus wholly different in its style from the essentially provincial Williams. The railway signalman’s son from Pandy, on the Welsh side of the Welsh border, became a political activist at 14, in 1935, when Michael Foot, just down from Oxford, was his local Labour candidate – though the young Williams privately thought Foot too Oxford Union for Pandy village hall. In 1939 he entered Trinity College, Cambridge, an informal precursor of the post-war scholarship boy, and in his first term joined both the University Socialist Club and the student branch of the Communist Party. Within Cambridge English his main intellectual affinity was eventually with F.R. Leavis, but he selected from Leavis what chimed with his own socialism, and discarded what didn’t.

Leavis’s power as a critic is based on close readings of individual poets and novelists or of passages in poems and novels – readings executed with ferocious concentration. Williams does not excel at close quarters, and can seem unfocused, perfunctory or obvious. Leavis deals at length and abrasively with his fellow critics, but Williams identifies these McEnroe-like tantrums and insults as academic politics, a way of jockeying for professional advantage, and he scorns all that. He has cultivated instead a dignified detachment, which his friends think of as magisterial, and others think of as ponderous. What Williams has used, to great effect, is Leavis’s critique of the English academic and literary Establishment, as an interest-group bent on keeping a dominant position in the universities and in the nation’s affairs. When Williams wrote in the London Review of Books (Vol. 5, No 12) about the study of literature at Cambridge between the wars, he saw it as a narrow class-based subject, and referred to ‘the element of collusion in the tradition of appreciation’.

Williams took Leavis’s sour gibes at his colleagues, which could be misread as the fruit of personal dislike or envy, and he generalised them, politicised them, and built on them an interdisciplinary oeuvre. Literature is studied at school and at university, his argument runs, in an intensely selective way, and the selection reveals a political bias. ‘English’ has functioned as the tool of one class for indoctrinating the young of all classes, because it transmits a simplified, over-idealised and profoundly conservative notion of their cultural inheritance. Williams’s Culture and Society (1958), still his best-known book, attempts to substitute for this narrow idea of culture his own amplified version, since it treats not poets but prose-writers, who are not aesthetes but critics of society. Other books, sometimes looking like literary criticism – Drama from Ibsen to Brecht (1968), The Country and the City (1973), Marxism and Literature (1977) – sometimes like excursions into semantics, sociology, the history of ideas or the theory of culture – Communications (1962), Keywords (1976) – hammered away at the argument that there was no such thing as abstracted ‘Literature’: what is written is the product of a complex, internally warring society, and in order to understand writing we must understand how society works. By 1979 he had sold three-quarters of a million copies of his books in the UK alone, a formidable achievement.

With a consistency that is one of his great strengths, Williams has avoided most of the distinctive features of literary criticism as it is commonly taught. Between the wars the discipline established itself as a good and economical mass subject through a development of the technique of ‘close reading’, which is easily taught, and can be practised on a very small number of books. Williams has remarked that in his own criticism he found the method intoxicating but misleading, because it evaded structural problems and obscured questions of belief and ideology. Even more fundamental to the evolving discipline was its growing emphasis on evaluation, a feature which widens the gap between literary writing and historical or sociological writing. Around 1950 Williams became a friend of F.W. Bateson, who used to introduce himself engagingly at parties as Oxford’s answer to F.R. Leavis, and thus Williams became briefly associated with Bateson’s new academic journal, Essays in Criticism. Bateson was another man of the Left, a rebel within the academy in that he believed the critic should retain a social and historical perspective: but he also believed passionately in evaluation, which indeed became for the post-war critical generation the essential badge of professionalism. On reflection, Williams has put this episode in his past aside, as a false step; he now finds Bateson’s approach too much implicated in the pre-war development of an aesthetic criticism, and in its post-war follow-through, which institutionalised academic English.

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