As a student at Cambridge University in the late 1970s, I attended a number of lecture courses by Raymond Williams on modern tragedy, from Henrik Ibsen to Bertolt Brecht, and on Marxism and literature, which at the time was the subject of his latest book.
Two things struck me about these lectures. First, his natural authority. He was, in the words of his biographer Fred Inglis, “so unassailably assured”. He spoke without notes, clearly and concisely. They were among the best lectures I have ever heard.
Second, the range and erudition. He talked about Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, of course, but also Lucien Goldmann and György Lukács, Anton Chekhov and August Strindberg, debates about base, superstructure and hegemony.
Williams was then at the height of his career. During the 1970s he published his Fontana Modern Master on George Orwell, a book on television, Keywords, and his best book, The Country and the City, which starts with the question of how to read the English country-house poems and develops into a powerful social and historical analysis of the place of English literature in society. He was astonishingly prolific. He produced seven novels and wrote, edited and co- edited nearly 30 books of literary and cultural criticism. He was also a regular contributor to the Guardian, writing almost 300 reviews.
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Above all, he was a key figure in two hugely significant shifts in the British left from the 1950s. First, there was the cultural turn led by critics such as Williams, John Berger, EP Thompson (whose first major book was on William Morris in 1955), Stuart Hall and EJ Hobsbawm. Second, there was the movement towards social history, or history from below, which changed the way so many thought about class, society and British history from the Civil War and the Industrial Revolution to the 19th century.
As the critic and historian Stefan Collini later wrote, “the timing was right” for that generation of socialist historians and critics, perhaps especially for Williams. In his review of Inglis’s biography of Williams, Collini wrote: “The early 1960s was the time to be a rising star of the intellectual left; certainly, the 1960s and 1970s created a hugely expanded audience in higher education for anyone able to address ‘academic’ issues in an accessible way.”
It was also the time of the paperback revolution. Many of Williams’s best-known books were republished by Penguin and devoured by sixth formers and students flocking to the new universities that were opening up during that time. By 1979, according to the editors of Politics and Letters, some 750,000 copies of his books had been sold in the UK, including 160,000 copies of Culture and Society alone.
There was something else about Williams’s standing in Cambridge in the 1970s. He was the leading Marxist critic in the English faculty. At a time of growing radicalism, this was an exciting time to be on the left. The first sentence in his 1977 work Marxism and Literature reads: “This book is written in a time of radical change.”
When I interviewed Williams in 1978, for the last issue of Granta’s original run as a student magazine, I began by asking him what he meant by this sentence. He replied: “I think that in the late Sixties and early Seventies, a process of quite structural change in society began, which implied very radical changes inside the left and inside Marxist theory, so that at every level one had the feeling of entering a new period.” He was one of a group of leading public intellectuals who engaged with this new period and provided a fresh way of looking at British culture and history.
What I didn’t realise then was that Williams was undergoing a dramatic transformation in his own thinking. Beneath the apparently assured surface, Williams was radically reinventing himself during the 1970s. The books that made his name in the 1950s and 1960s – Culture and Society (1958) and The Long Revolution (1961) – are very English, preoccupied with the Industrial Revolution and full of references to FR Leavis, George Eliot and DH Lawrence, Charles Dickens, TS Eliot and Orwell.
Leavis, Lawrence and TS Eliot in particular – all hugely influential figures in mid-20th-century English culture – cast a long shadow over Williams during these early years. Culture and Society, he later said, was inspired by TS Eliot’s 1948 publication, Notes Towards the Definition of Culture.
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Williams often wrote how isolated he was after the Second World War, first at Cambridge and then as an adult education teacher during the 1950s. He was not just isolated but embattled. “What was my primary motivation in writing the book?” he wrote of Culture and Society. “It was oppositional.”
This feeds into some of his best writing, perhaps especially his thinking about modern drama. Culture and Society is driven by a sense of struggle against a whole cultural tradition in British letters. “I knew perfectly well who I was writing against: [TS] Eliot, Leavis and the whole of the cultural conservatism that had formed around them.”
Something changed in the 1970s. Williams began to engage with Continental thinkers such as Goldmann and Lukács and with the Marxist tradition. He started to write essays on “Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory” (1973), “Problems of Materialism” (1978) and “Marxism, Structuralism and Literary Analysis” (1981). He wrote books of essays called Problems in Materialism and Culture (1980) and Writing in Society (1983), both published by Verso.
Younger critics such as Edward Said engaged with his writing. Williams’s work, especially The Country and the City, was hugely influential on Said’s Culture and Imperialism (1993) and Said wrote a tribute to Williams for the Nation when he died in 1988. In a piece for the New Statesman in 2008, Stuart Hall wrote that Williams “was the most formative intellectual influence on my life”. He went on: “His books have no comparison among contemporary writing for range and stubbornness of critical intelligence. In an astonishing variety of modes of writing… he offered the most sustained critical engagement with the central domains of English cultural life. He not so much engaged the map of English culture as redrew it.”
But in more recent years, Williams’s reputation has waned. He was the right person at the right time at the high point of the New Left from the late 1950s to the 1970s; he seems out of date in the 21st century. In Culture and Society there are hardly any European or American writers. The early books are curiously insular apart from his work on modern drama, but even then there is little about American playwrights such as Arthur Miller or Eugene O’Neill, and nothing about Tennessee Williams. In Culture and Society there is little on the French Revolution, 1848 or the Commune, or Marxism and 19th-century European social thinkers. It is as if the English tradition he is discussing is in isolation, cut off from European ideas, as he himself was.
More serious for a younger generation, there is nothing on race and the empire. In Politics and Letters (1979), a book of interviews with Williams, he is asked about the omission of the empire from Culture and Society: his interviewer points out that “there is only one sentence which alludes in any way to that experience”. Key figures such as Hall and CLR James are absent, though Williams and Hall co-edited the May Day Manifesto for a socialist Britain in 1967.
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Just as striking, there are almost no women in his work either. George Eliot is the only female writer that he engages with at length in Culture and Society. There’s one reference to QD Leavis, none to Mary Wollstonecraft, Jane Austen, the Brontës, Beatrice Webb or Virginia Woolf.
The gaps in Williams’s critical writing loom large. Where is religion in Culture and Society? What about ideas of the nation? In his book of essays, Resources of Hope (1989), published ten years after Margaret Thatcher was elected, she is largely absent. There is no analysis of Thatcherism remotely comparable with Hall’s essays. Posterity is a cruel judge. William Empson, TS Eliot and Frank Kermode have lasted longer than Williams as critics. Orwell understood Englishness better. Joseph Conrad and VS Naipaul knew more about colonialism.
This month is the centenary of the birth of Williams. When I think back to those Cambridge lectures more than 40 years ago, I wish this would be a moment of celebration and rediscovery. I fear it won’t be.
This article appears in the 25 Aug 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Retreat