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.

In an atmosphere which was programmatically ahistorical, some of the intermittent efforts to think about history or tradition were – as Williams points out – doomed to prove bizarre. Cambridge, even more than Oxford, resolved early that our cultural ancestors, unlike our physical ancestors, were not British but Classical, and especially Roman. This was an assumption which for centuries had been habitual in private education, and it fortified the upper orders in their low opinion of the spoken English of the non-Latinate classes. One of the oddest features of the study of Literature, on the Continent as well as here, is the sanctity of the ‘source’, when it is another work of literature (all the better if in a foreign language), and the effective dismissal of other influences on a text to a distant part known as ‘Background’. Eliot, Leavis and the Southern school of critics in America developed between the wars a blurred, nostalgic cultural history, in which the literature of the past was superior to that of modern times, and the critic’s role was to champion that precious, completed body of work against a destructive, disordered present. It was flattering, as Williams wrote in the London Review, to think of academics virtuously upholding the old values, and an uplifting notion of the centrality and independence of the university emerged, which depended on a number of simple, very vulnerable positions: ‘the stabilities implied in the idea of “background”, with ideas and for that matter social orders fairly placidly succeeding each other, and with writers doing the really important work, making literature from these materials; and the conviction of being a virtuous minority, against commercialism – the preferred word for capitalism – but also against “popular taste” and what Richards, in those early days, called “the more sinister potentialities of the cinema and the loudspeaker”. Actual history became, as in both F.R. and Q.D. Leavis, a kind of cultural history which traced the long fall and ratified the new minority.’

But Williams has been much more cogent when describing the problem than constructive in proposing alternatives. Suddenly mounting the pulpit or the rostrum, he now dissociates himself from English Literature, with its partisan notions of what ‘Literature’ and ‘History’ are: ‘I have made my awkward stand. By my educational history I belong with the literate and the literary. But by inheritance and still by affiliation I belong with an illiterate and barely literate majority.’ This is good Welsh oratory, but dubious argument, since what should replace one narrow class-based view is not another narrow class-based view, but an openness to both views simultaneously. Williams’s tendency to foreground his own experience causes him to polarise class issues more sharply than his often muddled opponents do; having very clear preconceptions, he lacks much capacity for fresh observation or for brilliant detail. His dislike of professionalism apparently extends to an indifference to books as things to possess. He does not give the impression of being a voracious, catholic reader – a disability in a scholar whose subject is, at least in principle, everybody’s culture. The boy from Abergavenny Grammar School never sounds like the type of Welsh autodidact who emerged from the Mechanics Institutes, or – as my own father remembered his fellow workers in the pit, to the disbelief, it must be confessed, of his children – who walked about the mountainsides after chapel, debating philosophy.

Because Williams has clung to a view that remains stubbornly sectarian and to tactics that remain polemical, it’s interesting to see him now appear at the helm of a series that proposes to span the centuries, Medieval to Modern. The self-questioning that must have gone on before he led, or figureheaded, a number of volumes offering ‘Literature in History’ is indicated in his three-page General Editor’s Preface, where he hints, but does not spell out for the uninitiated, that it is too narrow to think of Literature as ‘printed imaginative writing of a certain quality’: there was oral literature before the age of the printed word, there has been radio and tape since. But this is a regretful aside, which appears to have little bearing on a series evidently designed for the use of students of academic Eng Lit. Williams has worked out a guarded compromise, and briefed his team of specialists to select three themes they think important (affecting ‘writing of a certain quality’), each within a time-span of about fifty years.

However uneasily they are introduced, the presence of these books suggests that there is life in the idea of ‘Literature in History’, and that the Marxist Left wants its share. For what it implies, as well as for what it so far achieves, this series is surely welcome. Williams has not been speaking only for Marxists but for many of us when he points out that the critic is trapped within history all the more certainly when he claims to stand outside it. As a preliminary, there was nothing wrong with attacking Eng Lit for its narrowness and narcissistic self-sufficiency. But that destructive, or deconstructive, phase of criticising criticism can’t, of its nature, take long. Some extremist literary intellectuals share with the rest of the Marxist Far Left a vague expectation that academic English will wither away, preferably accompanied by Western society, under the present verbal onslaught. If it doesn’t, a lot of hard academic work is waiting to be done.

One awkward consequence of exposing the arbitrariness of the canon of Great Books, that Pale within which critics have comfortably nestled, is that you have to begin to read the obscure books and authors on whose behalf you have been campaigning. (Many of the weariest readers in scholarly libraries at present are feminist historical critics, busily finding the women’s writing to make an entire alternative canon.) Even within the old canon, historical critics have to start again once they take their author’s selection of material to be not sacrosanct but partisan. Before there can be a historical reading of Wordsworth’s Prelude or of Tennyson’s Idylls or of Eliot’s Waste Land there has to be an educated awareness of what else each author might have said, and didn’t. What passes for a historical perspective among vulgar Marxists is a simplified outline of the class war; it takes research to put a book into a context which gives life to it, by showing what options were open to a member of the literate classes at that particular place and time.

Though the left-wing polemic in favour of better historical criticism existed before the war, and was maintained by Bateson and Williams after the war, actual examples of good historical criticism from the Left are surprisingly hard to cite. The approach does not tempt graduates as enticingly as the more speculative and philosophical types of theory. The radical doctrines which have done best since the Sixties have the same characteristics as those which did best in the Twenties and Thirties: the teacher can pick them up quickly and deploy their terms as a badge of professional competence, and the pupil is generally applying a new idea to a text he has anyway. This is why new methods that in theory represent a wholesale transformation in our attitude to writing, to the personality and to society, in practice mean that operations in the classroom continue as before. Geoffrey Hartman, the Yale critic now associated with post-structuralism, told a questioner after a recent Oxford lecture that he liked Deconstruction because it was a form of the ‘close reading’ he had done before. Amassing empirical data, the way of the historian, takes time, more time than the graduate student actually has.

Left-wing historical critics are also inhibited by arguments that run deeper than these practical considerations. Radical theorists are given to bandying about in debate a number of hostile terms which unfortunately could apply to the enlightened historical critic Williams seems to be calling for, as much as to the unregenerate belles-lettrist whom he deplores. If you are forbidden to be ‘empirical’, for example, or ‘provincial’ (now that the Left is cosmopolitan), or too specialist (the symptom of a collaborator with the academic institution), or even well-informed (which is obviously élitist), it’s not easy to see how you can write about Literature in History at all. When you do, you fall foul of another charge, ‘reformism’, of helping to uphold the academic status quo by improving it to a point where it becomes tolerable. In short, the committed socialist who actually tries to do some work on this problem is in the same danger as unaffiliated historical critics, of looking like the academic equivalent of the Labour Party’s Centre Right, or even like the SDP.

In spite of these deterrents, socialist historical scholarship is beginning to develop inside as well as outside the subject. Terry Eagleton, leader of the younger British Marxist critics, and Williams’s ex-pupil, observed a few years ago that Williams was moving closer to current theoretical Marxism. If there is some rapprochement, it could equally have arisen because more Marxists are perceiving the virtues of Williams’s provincialism and his soft approach to empiricism. As readers of this journal cannot be unaware, there appeared last year a controversial volume edited by Peter Widdowson called Re-Reading English, which faithfully applied Williams’s critique of academic English, and equally faithfully reproduced many of the shortcomings of his manner, including its open political bias and its embarrassing shortage of examples. What may be more significant, Peter Widdowson has for some years edited a journal called Literature and History, which publishes scholarly articles, more dispassionately written and usually more fully documented, on specialist topics such as the historical references present in, and absent from, Marvell’s ‘Horation Ode’, or the ideological implications of Blake’s debt to Macpherson’s Ossian.

Of Williams’s first trio of writers, John Barrell, on the period 1730-1780, applies theory to practice most fully and intelligently. Barrell’s ‘Equal, Wide Survey’ deals with topics associated with Williams – pastoral poetry and language – but handles them in an unabashed scholarly manner. Barrell makes no concessions to the fainthearted, or to the beginner in his out-of-the-way period, but assumes reading, or a readiness to read, outside the usual canon. It will disconcert some to find, after forty pages on problems associated with James Thomson’s long poem The Seasons, that they are to be elucidated via John Dyer’s more specialised verse treatise on sheep management, The Fleece. The essay on language centres on the views of Samuel Johnson, but the periphery takes more pages, and is concerned with Lowth, Priestley and the anonymous ‘Brightland Grammar’, works which will be not much read again. No one is going to accuse this writer of populism or of mere propaganda.

In the chapter called ‘An Unerring Gaze’, Barrell tries to set more firmly within the period the type of reflection about pastoral poetry that Williams made in one of his best books, The Country and the City. Williams, remembering the politicised Welsh countryside of his boyhood, disbelieved the myth apparently implicit in pastoralism – that rural life offers an enclave safe from industry, commerce and modernity. Barrell here develops that argument beyond Williams, and beyond what Barrell has himself written in two previous books, The Idea of Landscape and the Sense of Place (1972), which is on the poet John Clare, and The Dark Side of the Landscape (1980), which is on the painters Gainsborough, Morland and Constable. This time Barrell relates 18th-century country poetry to the ideology of the 18th-century ‘Country party’, as the historian of ideas J.G.A. Pocock has expounded this in The Machiavellian Moment (1975) and subsequent articles. The ‘Country party’ impulse will be to idealise the country gentleman, as the upholder of disinterested virtue, untouched by the corruptions of court and city. In its expression in poetry, however, the initial purpose of flattering the gentleman becomes compromised. The need to defend the contemporary social order in the countryside conflicts with the poet’s other aim, of accurately describing country life. Though the pastoral poet seems bent on transmitting the godlike gaze of the gentleman surveying his land, he cannot but convey the outlook of a writer, who as the century wears on has an increasingly well-defined view of his own. Pastoral poetry, apparently bland, flattering and conservative, in practice opens the ordering of the countryside to scrutiny.

The strategy of Barrell’s book is to take two further examples of ‘Country party’ writing, and to illustrate how the gentlemanly position is qualified from within as well as challenged from without. The most interesting section is ‘The language properly so-called’, in which he sets Johnson’s belief in a standard of correctness inscribed over time in the written language against the democratic grammarians’ thesis, which placed more emphasis on common usage and the spoken word. Barrell outlines the course of a flourishing intellectual controversy, to which Swift contributed on the aristocratic side before his period opens, and Horne Tooke, Paine, Ritson, Wordsworth and Cobbett on the popular side after it closes. In Johnson’s hands, the conservative argument became, as Barrell shows, subtle and flexible. Like Burke defending the Constitution against rationalist critics, Johnson comes out as the opponent of arid theory, the defender of idiom and usage. Yet, like Burke, he also seems to dread change. The language, which up to now has grown organically, would ideally, he suggests wistfully, ‘be laid down, distinct in its minutest subdivisions, and resolved into its elemental principles. And who upon this survey can forbear to wish, that these fundamental atoms of our speech might obtain the firmness and immutability of the primogenial and constituent particles of matter, that they might retain their substance while they alter their appearance, and be varied and compounded, yet not destroyed?’ Johnson as a dictionary-maker becomes an authority-figure, echoing sentiments which also uphold authority in the state. The educated lay down the rules of grammar, as they lay down the laws. The connections between obedience in the two spheres is one that forcibly strikes both sides, and evokes very different emotions. ‘Grammer in learning is like tyranny in government,’ writes Clare, two generations on, ‘confound the bitch – I’ll never be her slave.’

Janet Coleman’s study of the 14th century tackles the literature in the more forthright and direct style of the historian. She writes less heavily and more readably than Barrell or Williams. Students will find her book the most usable of the present trio, and will be grateful for her workmanlike, self-effacing syntheses of the research of other scholars. She appears to assume, probably realistically, that most of her readers will pick up her book because they are studying polished texts of the alliterative revival, like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, or of Richard II’s court, pre-eminently by Chaucer. But, though acknowledging that modern readers are trained to admire Chaucer best among writers of her period, Coleman spends little time on him, and grounds her discussion instead on a more workaday tradition of political writing, the verse of craftsmen rather than artists, who represent not the court and the nobility but pressure from below.

Ultimately Coleman thinks that awareness of this mass of writing, hitherto unacknowledged as ‘Literature’, should contribute to our understanding of Chaucer, who ‘built his more individualised satire on Gowerian complaint, and by implication on the anonymous complaint genre of the century’. Lydgate and Langland also gain a context from her description of a mass of topical writing, prose as well as verse. But it is Gower among named writers who here arrives centre-stage, not because he has a distinctive voice (the literary critic’s usual criterion of merit), but because he is typical. Especially in the Vox Clamantis, Gower identifies with the citizenry – ‘What I have set down is the voice of the people’ – and becomes the century’s poet of political and social unrest.

Janet Coleman’s way of interpreting her brief is certainly no soft option, and within its own terms her book surely succeeds. But when it is measured against the issues raised by her General Editor, the success has been achieved by some side-stepping. After Williams’s pessimistic account of simplistic approaches in the Preface, it is worrying to get, on page 46, her version of the problems: ‘Somehow we must achieve a happy medium between reading the imaginative literature as mere sources of social history, assuming what amounts only to a half-truth – that Chaucer and Langland were drawing almost entirely on contemporary social life – and reading the imaginative literature according to standards of literary judgment, preferably citing those standards we can discern from the admittedly infrequent contemporary comment.’ It seems odd to raise the ghost of literary judgment, and downright baffling to hint that we could still arrive at this if we could be sure what the 14th century thought. Implicitly, Coleman’s book challenges the notion both of evaluation and of a fixed, secure literary canon. It does this by drawing attention to a mass of writing that we don’t know, so making us aware that we have not elected Chaucer ‘the best’; perhaps our teachers, who freely use such terms, haven’t done enough reading to make such comparisons either. But Coleman seems to avoid an explicit discussion of literary principle, which might not matter if her General Editor had not opened the proceedings by suggesting that an awareness of these difficulties is the first qualification for tackling them. This apparent failure of editor and author to synchronise makes one wonder what Williams took his editorial role to be.

The need for editorial intervention was far more clearcut with Roger Sales’s book on the Romantic period. It’s hard to envisage what went on in Williams’s mind when he let this one through. True, Sales obeys the editorial brief in one respect better than Coleman does: he writes free-wheeling essays on themes he considers important, rather than a continuous literary history – which is what her book is, though revisionist in treating bourgeois rather than Court culture. Sales’s themes have the authentic Williams flavour: ‘The Politics of Pastoral’ (again), and ‘The Theatre of Politics’, which deals with events around 1820. The Theatre section is really a jumble of topics, and hard to summarise, but the connecting thread is perhaps the proposition that, as right-wing history is bunk, left-wing history should debunk. Sales proceeds throughout in a jocular manner, Derridean jouissance translated into the idiom of Monty Python. ‘Oaten reeds merely disguised aristocratic deeds’: to this type of punning epigram Sales seems hopelessly addicted; he is so pleased with this example that he repeats it five pages later, after letting his jester’s mask slip for a sentence of more solemn exhortation: ‘Before you become too nostalgic about the merry old days of rural England, it is worth thinking about the groups which have a vested interest in such nostalgia.’ Sales’s discussions of the writers who are supposed to uphold capitalism – Austen, Crabbe and Wordsworth – are relentlessly unsympathetic. (‘It must have been like wading through crude oil trying to talk to Crabbe.’) It’s interesting how similar these rash evaluations can sound to the supposedly superseded bludgeonings of Leavis. In principle, after all, the argument against subjective judgments on the critic’s part goes for his political as well as for his aesthetic prejudices.

Michael Stapleton’s Cambridge Guide to English Literature is a dinosaur, the kind of reference book that belongs in the age of Stephen and Saintsbury, and became near to impossible after Richards and Leavis. Like Sir Paul Harvey’s Oxford Companion to English Literature (1932), it has entries for individual works and for selected fictional characters as well as for authors. The aim is apparently not merely to up-date Harvey but to steal a march on Oxford by aiming specifically at an overseas market. So Stapleton includes American and Commonwealth literature as well as British, and the strain of his wide coverage is no doubt partly responsible for some strange omissions (with Wallace Stevens the most notable). Stapleton in his own Preface ingenuously tells us of his ‘enthusiasm and abiding love of the subject’, and adds that ‘a guide who never makes a comment makes a dull companion.’ He makes a great many, and since they reflect fashions of yesteryear, they already date the book badly. The most consistent of his likes is character, which leads him to provide fussy, over-detailed plot summaries, to include Henry Arthur Jones but exclude David Jones, and to underrate Ben Jonson drastically, on the grounds that we don’t remember his minor figures as we remember Shakespeare’s. As though the author or publisher anticipated rough notices, the Cambridge Guide to English Literature opens with two appreciations, the one by Stapleton himself, and another by Nicolas Barker, whose role in the proceedings as ‘Consultant Editor’ is otherwise unclear. Barker praises Stapleton for achieving what most of us would consider an impossible goal in the first place: establishing a point of view ‘receptive to current opinions and needs, yet independent and, above all, consistent with itself’. In fact, the Cambridge Guide may do more than Raymond Williams has to bring the value-judgment into disrepute.