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).
‘The central socialist case, in matters of culture,’ he declared in a 1985 Guardian Lecture, ‘is that the lives of the great majority of people have been, and still are, almost wholly disregarded by almost all arts.’ Here we are close to the roots of his anger, but it was rarely expressed directly. His characteristic tone is almost fastidiously level and reasonable. Often his imperturbability masks a high degree of courage. In 1972, after the terrorist attack on the Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics, he wrote a leading article (in fact, an extension of his regular television column) for the Listener. While the rest of the British press was baying for Palestinian blood, Williams did not even mention Zionism, the state of Israel, the Arabs or the PLO. Instead, he wrote about the implicit politics of television, and of the Olympics themselves. One could find in this essay (what he seldom expressed elsewhere) a love of sport. But one could also find his anger at the boastfulness of a competition between approved nation-states, with its inevitable symbolism of inclusion and exclusion. His judgment on the Munich events was coolly logical: ‘an arranged version of what the world is like was invaded by an element of what several parts of the world are actually like.’
The Munich Olympics enjoyed world-wide simultaneous TV coverage, one of the first such spectacles to do so. They could form part of the evidence for Williams’s assertion in his 1974 inaugural lecture at Cambridge (where he had accepted the newly-created title of Professor of Drama) that ‘we have never as a society acted so much or watched so many others acting.’ He was interested in drama as a scene of historical meanings and transformations, not in the dramatic forms as ends in themselves: ‘Drama in a dramatised society,’ as he put it. (Later, in his Marxist phase, he would speak of this inquiry as ‘cultural materialism’.) It might be argued that this was a more outspoken, more ‘dramatised’ version of the literature-and-society critique espoused by earlier representatives of Cambridge English, but Williams himself would not have agreed. ‘The distance is entire, the intellectual conflicts absolute,’ he declared.
The grounds of his rejection of Cambridge English were set out most fully in two lectures he gave in 1983, when he took early retirement from his Chair of Drama. (The Sidgwick Avenue lecture-theatre was packed with students, with the front row taken up by university teachers from all over Britain. Members of the local English Faculty, apart from the three or four known disciples who had survived that Faculty’s appointments procedures, were conspicuously absent.) The lectures were printed in the LRB, and later collected in Writing in Society, a volume of Williams’s literary essays.
The Cambridge English Tripos had been set up in the aftermath of the First World War. Its leading figures were deeply moved by the Modernist ferment of the times. I.A. Richards was not only a pioneering literary theorist but one of the earliest interpreters of Eliot’s poetry. F.R. Leavis championed Eliot, Pound and D.H. Lawrence, and taught Joyce’s Ulysses while it was publicly banned. William Empson edited an undergraduate magazine called Experiment, producing a Joyce issue which was also banned. Richards’s experiments in Practical Criticism reflected the notion that the whole process of reading and writing had been transformed by a new level of estrangement from the past. But ‘Eng Lit’ as a subject, it soon turned out, had its own burden of institutional and ideological inertia. The past when seen through literary spectacles – Shakespeare’s England, the peace of the Augustans, and so on – was for the most part a comfortably mythicised past. Coming to Cambridge in 1939 from a rural working-class background, Williams was shocked by the travesty of ‘traditional’ English life that was taken for granted by his teachers. Like his contemporaries the Marxist historians, he came to see the dislocation of modern intellectuals not as a metaphysical predicament but as the outcome of lengthy historical processes, above all the spread of rural capitalism and the industrial revolution. Culture and Society and The Country and the City were to embody Williams’s new and socially-engaged form of literary history: a questioning not only of what is represented in literary works but of what is glossed over, distorted or not said at all.
Leavis’s work had implied that the cultural tradition – the essence of ‘Englishness’ – could be recovered pre-eminently through literary study. The great writers gave the fullest possible expression to this ‘English’ identity. But while what Williams called the ‘structures of feeling’ could be found to some extent in the literary canon, they must also be tracked down in less privileged modes of expression. As it happened, the Cambridge Tripos had paid a certain lip-service to this idea, through its combination of textual analysis with a wider concern with ‘Life and Thought’. But a debate between Williams and L.C. Knights, in the English Faculty in 1965, had the effect of revealing how hollow the orthodox incantations of ‘literature and society’ had become. Since then, in provincial universities, polytechnics and colleges, we have seen the development of cultural studies, film and media studies, and women’s studies, as well as some more direct attempts to uncover the cultural politics embedded in our inherited notions of English culture and English identity. All this is work that Williams helped to make possible; some of it he actively pioneered.
His own interests moved in two directions: broadly, towards the study of forms and the study of language. He was one of the first critics to write of cinema as an extension of dramatic form, beginning in the mid-Fifties with Preface to Film (written together with Michael Orrom). Here and in his later books Communications and Television: Technology and Cultural Form he set out to show how, thanks to the conventions of acting, directing and programming – not to mention the restricted access to the means of expression – an ‘arranged’ version of events was made to look natural. This arranged representation was the vehicle of what he called the structure of feeling, though ultimately he was concerned less with inferring qualities of sensibility than with unmasking ideologies.
It may be, however, that his work on language will prove to have been his most distinctive achievement. It emerges from his perception that certain items of our conceptual vocabulary – the ‘keywords’ – offer an unrivalled register of the historical changes in structures of feeling. (This was to some extent anticipated by Empson’s work in The Structure of Complex Words.) As a result, ‘literature and society’ was extended to ‘language and society’ and perhaps even, at some points, to ‘lexicography and society’, since both he and Empson were offering immensely detailed and far-reaching interpretations of material that was or should have been found in the Oxford English Dictionary. In his retirement lectures Williams advocated a broadening of his principal object of study from ‘English literature’ to ‘English literacy’. This may have sounded, at one level, like a gesture towards structuralism (which uses the linguistic model to uncover the discourses acting to generate literary texts). But Williams accused structuralist and post-structuralist critics of retreating into an esoteric form of high-cultural hermeneutics, a replication, in effect, of the earlier privileging of the literary canon (only now it was largely a philosophical canon) at its most exclusive. His own recommendation was that criticism should look in another direction, towards more empirical studies of language, in which the lives of ordinary people were not disregarded. The critique of orthodox sociolinguistics (such as some feminist linguists are now providing) might be a starting-point here.
What we invariably come back to in Williams – whether he is debating the issues of literary theory, or advocating a new structure for broadcasting, or writing a pamphlet on nuclear weapons – is his commitment to the political and cultural struggle for extending democracy. That was the point of his arguments for a ‘common culture’ in Culture and Society and its sequel, The Long Revolution. But what shall we make of his legacy now, in the depths of a bad time when democracy in Britain is being systematically eroded by a government ruthlessly exploiting its mandate to rule, and corrupted by its own power? Cultural studies and other interdisciplinary areas of higher education that he helped to foster are threatened, in many places, with contraction and closure. Academic and press freedom, trade-union rights, respect for minorities, political tolerance and local and regional autonomy are all under attack. A new kind of literary censorship is threatened. The public exposure of unfair dealing is held to be ‘not in the national interest’. Social justice and what is sneeringly dismissed as ‘socialism’ have been neatly separated, as if by some surgical operation. Ministers encourage the drift of dedicated and talented people away from education, public administration and the National Health Service. Worse developments may be on the way. Armed with Williams’s habits of linguistic analysis, we can unravel the duplicity and doublethink enshrined in such phrases as the ‘public interest’, ‘marketforces’, ‘increasing efficiency’, ‘extending consumer choice’, and so on. And we can note the irony of a democratising process that has thrown up a newly brutalist and populist Conservative Party, dedicated to the defence of closed government and capitalist privilege. I believe Williams would have pointed beyond these local difficulties, to the international framework policed by the super-powers, and to the Third World where the success of his ‘long revolution’ will be ultimately decided. People of the Black Mountains, the unfinished novel of this writer who in the end preferred to be called a ‘Welsh European’, was to have begun in the Bronze Age and might have ended with a look into the future. In 1988 we need to remember Williams’s imperturbability, his staying-power, his long perspectives – and his anger.
What, finally, was it like to be taught by him? At the time I was most struck by his gentle encouragement and dry humour. Later, I recognised his inner determination and formidable strength of will-power. He became an intellectual father-figure to thousands. Since he died, people who barely met him have told me that their own work had been done with Williams as an ideal audience somewhere in mind, to earn his approval. When, as an undergraduate supervisor, he was there as your actual audience he would settle in his deep college armchair and begin by fiddling energetically with his pipe. Once this was going to his satisfaction, he would listen to you with an air of calm so profound that you began to wonder if he had dropped off to sleep. When you came to the end of your essay the pipe would be refilled, and he would spell out with marvellous clarity just where your argument was going, how it could be deepened, and how extended. He didn’t miss a thing, and the essence of his teaching was to convey the impression that, however much you were learning, he was learning something too.