Reflections on Raymond Williams – Part Two

Welcome to the second instalment of reflections on Raymond Williams to mark 30 years to the day (26 January 1988) since his death. Part One can be found hereTerry Eagleton is the first of three to offer a personal account of knowing or working with Williams as a student while two younger academics, Daniel Hartley and Jacob Soule, suggest important ways in which Williams’ thinking can be adapted for the twenty-first century.


Terry Eagleton writes…

I learned at least as much morally from Raymond Williams as I did intellectually. He was gentle and generous, with an air of natural authority, and looked more like a countryman than a don. He had a dry sense of humour, but certainly couldn’t be described as witty or funny. His warm-heartedness made one imagine that one could get close to him as a person, which was not really true: his geniality was combined with a certain remoteness and detachment, and he never really involved himself wholeheartedly with the teaching of students, much to the frustration of some of them. As long as one recognised that there was a core to him that could not be reached, a friendship with him could thrive, as it did between the two of us. If one looks at Dai Smith’s biography, some of his colleagues in Adult Education seem to have found him modest and gregarious, while about as many others found him distant and ambitious.

What mattered above all to him, after his family, was his writing, which he knew without a whiff of arrogance was unique and of world-historical importance. He wrote a good deal more than he read, and seemed reluctant to acknowledge sources or influences. He was not a man for footnotes. It was all somehow picked from his own experience. He also had a remarkable feel for material processes – for work and landscape, agriculture and dwelling places, forest tracks and the working of machines. All this meant that he was never really at home in academia, though this didn’t matter to him much, since he was so solidly centred in his own exceptionally self-assured identity. He despised the ruling class, but wasn’t in the least daunted by them, and knew how to play the game (saying Latin grace at college High Table, for example) when it was expected of him. As for his influence today, it strikes me as having for the most part disastrously dwindled as political times have changed. When I offered a piece on him to the Guardian a few years ago, the highly literate young journalist on the other end of the phone said ‘Er – remind me’.

  • Terry Eagleton is Distinguished Professor of English Literature at Lancaster University. His books include Literary Theory (1983), The Ideology of the Aesthetic (1990), and Why Marx Was Right (2011).


Daniel Hartley writes…

It is difficult to write about Raymond Williams. He has become the source of a powerful personal and generational nostalgia, an enticement to an autobiographical mode in which old friends, ex-students, or those – like me – who are too young to have met him but have discovered in his work ways of understanding themselves, share memories or personal encounters that bear witness to the emotional and emancipatory potential of his life and work. The danger of this mode is that it risks condemning Williams to the very residuality he sought expressly to avoid, not least by limiting his work to its emphasis on lived ‘experience’ whilst eliding a whole range of his more unusual, and perhaps more original, political and theoretical innovations. Williams conceived of historical temporality as an immanent, self-conscious traditionality combining a boundness to the past with a capacity consciously to select new traditions, or rediscover marginalised lines of inheritance, in the process of building democratic futures. To confess, then, that reading Williams’ account of the stylistic disjunctions of Thomas Hardy’s prose was a personal epiphany for me, a moment of profound recognition of the ways in which capitalist class divisions become internalised deep in the minds of those who shuttle back and forth across the ‘borders’, is nothing but residual anecdote if it cannot be connected to the present in a way that critically opens it towards a determinate future. To write about Williams, as about oneself, is thus to have to invent, in language, a way of becoming conscious of the profound social and personal processes that are woven into the very fibres of our being, of tracing their unexpected connections, and yet of holding them at bay so as to enable critical thought – a thought whose very distance from the immanence of everyday life risks becoming the index of an unacknowledged, and soon habitual, alienation.

Williams returns repeatedly to this dual problem of language and relationship. Hardy’s awkward shifts between learned and customary diction – literary formalisations of opposing class habituses – re-emerge in Williams’ studies of naturalist drama, in which the convention of verisimilitude limits the linguistic range and metaphorical intensity of dramatic speech at moments of crisis; where stylistic augmentation is achieved, it risks a comic bathetic return to mundanity once the verisimilitude of everyday life kicks back in. I suspect the notoriously clunky and occasionally mystical dialogues in Williams’ own novels are so many attempts to resolve this formal problem, which is also a problem of social relationships. What is astonishing about Williams’ critical prose, however (as Terry Eagleton long ago identified), is that it seems most intimate, most closely in touch with the difficult and painful demands of everyday experience, precisely there where it broaches seemingly ‘abstract’ matters such as ecology, work or communication systems. His very style is an allegory of the immanence of critical thought to social life that is a basic precondition of socialist democracy. It is a hard-won personal and political achievement that we, in our own ways, must learn to inherit.

  • Daniel Hartley is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the School of Languages, Cultures, and Societies at the University of Leeds. He is author of The Politics of Style: Towards a Marxist Poetics (2017) and a member of the comité editorial of the French online journal of Marxist theory Revue Période.

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Jim McGuigan writes…

I met Raymond Williams a couple of times in the late-seventies. The first occasion was immediately following his talk, ‘Realism and Non-Naturalism’, at the 1977 Edinburgh Television Festival, in which he sought to reconcile together the contrary views of Brecht and Lukács. Afterwards, albeit in awe of the great man, I cornered him and asked what he thought of Roland Barthes’ argument that bourgeois ideology naturalised history and whether or not incorporation of this proposition might improve his own argument expounded earlier in the talk. Unfazed by my cheekiness, he invited me to accompany him along to the British Film Institute lunch for a ‘bottle of beer’. At the lunch, Raymond told me and some others about the interviews that were currently being conducted with him for New Left Review (which were later collected together in the Verso volume, Politics and Letters). He complained that the NLR interviewers seemed to know everything he had written in detail, much of which he himself had forgotten all about. Now, he realised it was necessary to reread his own stuff in preparation for each successive round of interviews in the future.

The following year, I accompanied Trevor Griffiths over to Cambridge where he had been invited to deliver the English department’s annual guest lecture on drama. When we arrived, we found Jack Shepherd there already. We duly trouped into the lecture theatre where Raymond chaired the session whilst happily puffing away throughout on his pipe – this was 1978. Trevor, who was a chain-smoker himself, did not actually smoke during the lecture but stretched out for Raymond’s lighter once he had finished speaking. Jack and I were sitting in the front row. Both of us looked around at the audience to get a sense of how Trevor’s lecture had gone down. We were surprised to see audience members looking aghast and with some of them screaming. The lecture had been okay but not that extraordinary. Then, I looked back and saw Trevor’s hair was on fire. When he had turned on the lighter for his cigarette, it had flared up and caused a conflagration on his cranium. Raymond was busily patting him on the head in a desperate attempt to put the fire out. Everyone had a good laugh. Later that evening, I had the opportunity to resume my interrogation of Raymond Williams.

To conclude this reminiscence, then, I must say that I personally found Raymond Williams a very warm, amusing and self-ironising person. And, I was amazed that he was prepared to spend so much time talking with a scruffy and impertinent postgrad such as myself.

  • Jim McGuigan has just written a book for Polity entitled Raymond Williams – Cultural Analyst which comes out this year. His book Neoliberal Culture was published by Palgrave in 2016.


Jacob Soule writes…

I don’t remember my first encounter with Raymond Williams’ work. For a long time I was only dimly aware of ‘Williams’ as a sort of kindly eminence in the world of literary critical studies—someone to pay deference to with passing reference, rather than to actually read and debate. Curiously, it took moving to the States to ignite a serious engagement. This was owing to the fact that as I embarked on my PhD I felt compelled to read the then relatively recent explosion of debate around reading methods—surface versus depth, description versus interpretation, new materialism versus historical materialism, etc. Apart from the astonishment at witnessing a discipline facing acute real-world crises tear itself apart over its own shame at a supposed legacy of over-interpretation, I, like many people around me, found the debate woefully lacking in any kind of nuance around the binaries it set in motion.

It was around this time that I started to look seriously at Williams’ work as a way out of this narrowly academic impasse. For me, a reassessment of Williams’ ‘cultural materialism’ could help reframe the questions surrounding literature’s relationship to its social and historical contexts that contemporary critics were struggling with all over again. This wouldn’t mean importing Williams’ ideas into the present debate as a ‘gotcha’ moment, designed to settle disputes once and for all. Instead, it would have to involve revisiting Williams in his own context, particularly the debates between the so-called ‘culturalists’ and ‘structuralists’ that took place within Marxist intellectual circles in the 1970s. Althusser, accused by the culturalists of reducing cultural experience to ideology without remainder, was of course the central bogeyman in these arguments just as he is today.

While Williams certainly played his part in this rather cartoonish portrait of ideology critique, this hardly rendered him a ‘surface reader’ in today’s critical terms. His now famous analyses of seventeenth-century country house poems in The Country and the City (1973), for instance, centres on the poems’ strategic effacement of labour. In other words, Williams’ critical approach to these texts proceeds on the basis of what they don’t or cannot say, contrary to all the dictates of surface or reparative reading. And yet, to describe Williams’ reading as ‘paranoid’ seems to me to be intuitively wrongheaded. I think the important thing to remember is that in Williams, things aren’t ‘hidden’ or ‘repressed’ in texts. Because there is the insistence throughout his writing that literature is indissolubly part of the total social process, literary effacements are as much a material element of the text as anything else. This always struck me as somehow different to any notion of a textual ‘unconscious’, currently so unfashionable in literary studies. Perhaps, then, we can look back at Williams with something other than mere nostalgia, but with a sense that the problems and questions he put forward—rather than any concrete solutions—can save literary studies from falling back into false oppositions.

  • Jacob Soule is a PhD Candidate in the Program in Literature at Duke University, North Carolina. His current project focuses on the relationship between urban theory and contemporary fiction.

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Peter Brooker writes…

Raymond Williams was all too clearly a major critic and public intellectual; much missed, but a continuing inspiration and influence. My own story is a personal aside which demonstrates what this meant over the space of an individual academic career.

As a graduate student in 1968, I joined the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, then under the direction of Richard Hoggart and Stuart Hall. My thesis was on Literary Stylistics and Cultural Studies. This was an MA thesis – the first to be awarded by the Centre – at a time when the fledgling area of Cultural Studies was not yet deemed worthy of awarding PhDs by the University authorities. Williams acted as external examiner, and thought it deserved a PhD. But before I learned this, from Richard Hoggart some years later, I was most of all concerned to get a job.

In the job interview that mattered, at Thames Polytechnic, there was talk of a new course titled ‘The Making of Modern Society’ in which literary texts were to be understood in relation to historical and political events. Williams’ work, I was assured, had helped inform the concept of the course. His thinking proved too to be a strong presence in the broader intellectual ethos of the School, particularly in a developing, vibrant working relation between staff in History and English – of which a key outcome was the collectively edited journal Literature and History started in 1975. The interdisciplinary approach this encouraged fed into debates on the concepts of ‘English’ and the role of ‘Theory’ which marked the 1970s and beyond.

If Williams’ earlier work had helped shape the curriculum and interdisciplinary ethos I’ve described, his later Marxism and Literature gave a more polemical impetus to the critique of the ‘canon’ and ‘literature’. Williams was a presence, on occasion, a live presence, in the many new journals and conferences that characterised these years. For me, the ‘key words’ in all this – along with many others, notably, ‘structures of feeling’, hegemony’ and ‘many socialisms’ – were ‘modernism’ and ‘modernity’. Williams’ essay ‘The Metropolis and the Emergence of Modernism’ (1985) proved a major text which I was to return to it again and again in my own writing on questions of periodisation and the metropolitan centres of modernism. ‘Postmodernism’ which occupied many of us in the 1980s proved to have a shorter life span than modernism itself – which was perhaps no surprise to Williams himself.

In the new century I was proud to join the editorial team determined to revive the journal Key Words, and to act between 2005-2010 as Chair of the Raymond Williams Society. In my own academic work, the set of volumes of which I was lead editor, A Critical and Cultural History of Modernist Magazines (2012-2015), has Williams written all over it. And virtually the last published essay I wrote was devoted to his The Politics of Modernism. Williams, as is clear, and I would be pleased to say, considerably shaped my intellectual and political life.

  • Peter Brooker is Emeritus Professor at the University of Nottingham. He has published extensively on aspects of modernism and his 1988 book Bertolt Brecht: Dialectics, Poetry, Politics was re-issued by Routledge in 2017.

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