BORN: 1921, Llanfihangel Crocorney, Monmouthshire, Wales
DIED: 1988, Cambridge, England
GENRE: Nonfiction, fiction M
Culture and Society, 1780-1950 (1958)
The Country and the City (1973)
Television: Technology and Cultural Form (1974)
Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (1976)
People of the Black Mountains (1989; 1990)
British author Raymond Williams ranks as one of the most influential post-World War II cultural theorists in the English-speaking world. A prolific writer, he made significant contributions to intellectual history, literary criticism, and historical linguistics (language studies). His work includes the critical and historical examination of the novel, the popular press, drama, television, and the cinema. He also wrote novels, short stories, and plays. Williams is perhaps best remembered as one of the creators of cultural studies, a discipline that has profoundly reshaped scholarship in the humanities since the mid-1970s.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Welsh Origins. Raymond Henry Williams was born in Wales on August 31, 1921, the only child of Henry Joseph Williams, a railway signalman and active supporter of the labor movement, and Esther Gwendolene Williams. At age eleven, Williams received a scholarship that allowed exceptional working-class children to attend the King Henry VIII Grammar School for Boys in Abergavenny. He received outstanding examination scores, and his headmaster arranged for him to attend Trinity College, Cambridge, on a full-tuition scholarship, plus a stipend.
By the time he arrived at Cambridge to study literature in 1939, Trinity College was the scene of a vibrant left-wing intellectual atmosphere. Already a socialist, Williams joined the Communist-dominated Socialist Club, became a Communist Party member for a short time, and wrote for various left-wing magazines and journals. In the 1930s, such left-leaning political beliefs were popular in Great Britain as well as the United States among those who rejected Fascism and wanted to improve the lives of working-class people through political change.
Service in World War II. Williams’s education was interrupted in 1941 by military service in World War II. This war had broken out in Europe in 1939 when Nazi Germany, led by Adolf Hitler, invaded Poland. Great Britain, allied with France and other countries, had allowed Germany’s territorial ambitions to go unchecked until this point. Realizing Hitler wanted to conquer Europe, if not the world, Great Britain and its allies declared war. While Hitler soon came to control much of continental Europe and began intensely bombing Britain in preparation for an invasion, Britain and its allies, which later included the United States, were able to defeat Germany. During the war, Williams achieved the rank of captain, but the war experience, he later said, caused him to feel as if he had lost the most significant dimension of his humanity. On leave in June 1942, he married Joy Dalling, a student at the London School of Economics. They had three children: Merryn in 1944, Ederyn in 1947, and Gwydion Madawc in 1950.
Critical Inquiry. When the war ended, Williams returned to an England in which public opinion had begun to tilt toward the left. The millions of soldiers coming home from the war were eager for change. Their support resulted in the Labour Party’s victory over Winston Churchill’s Conservatives in 1945. The Labour government failed to bring about the ideal community for which Williams and other socialists had hoped, but he viewed the creation of a mixed economy and a welfare state as a substantial step forward.
Graduating from Cambridge with a degree in English in 1946, Williams became a tutor for the Oxford Delegacy for Extra-Mural Education of the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA). The WEA had been founded in 1903 to extend educational opportunities to working people by offering courses that developed their intellectual skills while drawing on their practical experience. As a WEA teacher, Williams found himself mediating disputes between his Labour and Communist colleagues.
Published Culture and Society. Although a committed socialist, Williams was attracted to the conservative ideas of F. R. Leavis and his followers. He appreciated Leavis’s perspective: that critics were the guardians of the ‘‘great tradition’’ of literature. Literature was being produced for a passive and uncritical mass audience and was under siege by a debased popular culture. Yet, Williams objected to Leavis’s elitist politics and disdain for the masses. This view prompted the launch of the journal Politics and Letters, which he edited from 1947 to 1948. Politics and Letters attempted to merge Leavis’s critical methods with a leftist political outlook. Williams also respected Leavis’s defense of cultural standards and agreed with him that language and literature played critical roles in cultural transmission, but rejected the notion that literature represents the entire cultural heritage and that intellectuals are its only guardians. To express these and other positions, in 1958 Williams published Culture and Society, 1780-1950, the book for which he is best known.
Williams was an original member of the editorial board of the New Left Review, founded in 1960 through the merger of Universities and Left Review and The New Reasoner. In 1961, he left his position with the WEA to become a lecturer in English and a fellow of Jesus College at Cambridge. That same year, he published The Long Revolution, in which he examines the economic, political, social, and cultural transformations of the previous two hundred years. Williams was always ambivalent about his career at Cambridge. He was critical of the university’s conservatism, hierarchy, and pretension: scholar Terry Eagleton quotes him as describing it as ‘‘one of the rudest places on earth ... shot through with cold, nasty and bloody-minded talk.’’ Despite such criticisms, Williams apparently enjoyed the prestige that his position carried.
Left Labour Party. When prime minister Harold Wilson condemned the leaders of the 1966 strike by the National Union of Seamen as ‘‘a tightly knit group of politically motivated men,’’ Williams resigned from the Labour Party in response. In 1967 and 1968, he contributed to the building of an alternative politics with the May Day Manifesto movement, which sought to reconstitute and expand the agenda of the original New Left. Williams was so disenchanted with Labour politics that he actually welcomed the election of the Conservative Edward Heath as prime minister in June 1970.
His disillusionment with the Labour Party coincided with a new openness toward Marxism, or its variant, ‘‘Western Marxism.’’ His attitude is reflected in ‘‘Literature and Sociology: In Memory of Lucien Goldmann’’ and ‘‘Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory,’’ published in the New Left Review in 1971 and 1973, respectively, and anthologized in Problems in Materialism and Culture (1980).
Taught in United States. Also in 1973 was the publication of his The Country and the City. In this work, Williams traced ideas of the urban and the rural in the English literary tradition from the early modern era to the contemporary period—critiquing early seventeenth-century poems he said celebrate the paternalistic culture of the landlords while ignoring the people of the countryside whose labor made the culture possible. The year this work was published, Williams was teaching at Stanford University in California, though he had previously refused to teach in the United States because of the country’s involvement in the Vietnam War.
For the cultural theorist, his stay in California was highlighted by his exposure to American television. Throughout his career, he had demonstrated a scholarly and critical interest in popular cultural forms, and from 1968 to 1972, he had written a weekly column on television for the BBC publication the Listener, collected in Raymond Williams on Television: Selected Writings (1989). Thus, watching American television did not create an interest where none had existed; rather, it forced him to see television from a fresh perspective. The result was his best-known critical work, Television: Technology and Cultural Form (1974).
Returning to “Welshness”. Cultural studies, the field Williams had helped to found, had developed in multiple directions in the 1960s and 1970s. Williams became professor of drama at Cambridge in 1974. In 1977, he published Marxism and Literature, a definitive statement of the position he called ‘‘cultural materialism.’’ Following his retirement from Cambridge in 1983, Williams devoted most of his energy to a multivolume novel encompassing all of Welsh history, People of the Black Mountains. The work remained unfinished at his death in London on January 26, 1988.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Williams's famous contemporaries include:
Dylan Thomas (1914-1953): Welsh poet famous as much for his writing as for his distinctive recorded readings of his own work. His best known work is Under Milk Wood (1953).
Richard Burton (1925-1984): Eminent Welsh actor who was at one time the highest-paid actor in Hollywood. Famous for his tumultuous relationship with actress Elizabeth Taylor, Burton was celebrated for both his stage and film work.
Toni Morrison (1931-): An African American Pulitzer Prize- and Nobel Prize-winning author, she wrote such novels as The Bluest Eye (1970) and Beloved (1987).
Ernest ''Che'' Guevara (1928-1967): Marxist revolutionary leader from Argentina. Guevara was a hero of the countercultural movement of the 1960s.
Works in Literary Context
Williams’s work was influenced by or prompted by his responses to other theory. For example, based on his critiques of the elitist view of culture held by F. R. Leavis and based on Marxist views of class consciousness, he created a new theoretical space he called ‘‘cultural materialism.’’ He rejected the distinction between high culture and popular culture. Instead, he saw cultural representations—whether epic poetry or workers’s cooperatives—as ‘‘ordinary.’’ He saw these representations not in the sense of being common but as giving meaning to everyday life.
Antielitist Theory of Culture. Culture and Society, for another example, is an act of historical recovery that fleshes out a tradition whose scope was not understood at the time he wrote the book: the ‘‘culture and society’’ tradition. This tradition includes, in addition to Leavis, the inspiration of T. S. Eliot and his influential Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (1949). Williams rejected both Leavis’s and Eliot’s theories, considering them culturally elitist. He refuted the idea that culture is incompatible with democracy, socialism, and popular education. He argued that the capitalist social order that underpins Eliot’s cultural elite must be held responsible. He also rejected the conventional distinction between ‘‘high’’ and ‘‘low’’ culture, and argued for a more encompassing view: culture as ‘‘the whole way of life.’’
Influence. Instrumental in creating cultural studies, Williams’s influence can be seen in each academic who studies in this intellectual area. His influence can similarly be seen in sociology and intellectual history as well as modern, popular analyses of culture like literature, television, radio, drama, and film. Williams’s left-leaning political and social beliefs also affected authors who followed him.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Here are a few works by writers who also critiqued culture in general or some specific aspect of culture.
Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (1985), critical nonfiction by Neil Postman. The author analyzes the cultural medium of television.
Civilization and Its Discontents (1929), critical nonfiction by Sigmund Freud. The author studies culture versus the individual.
Critique of Dialectical Reason (1960), critical nonfiction by Jean-Paul Sartre. The author challenges definitions of class and social methods of grouping.
Women, Culture, and Politics (1990), critical nonfiction by Angela Davis. The author discusses her notions of class with regards to minority, working, and gender groupings.
Works in Critical Context
Cultural studies has developed in directions that Williams could never have imagined, but the growth of the field is in large part indebted to his pioneering work. Speaking at a memorial service for Williams, former student and, later, friend and colleague Stephen Heath said, ‘‘To remember Raymond Williams here today is to pay tribute to a thinker whose work transformed our understanding of society and culture.’’ Several scholars have since agreed. Yet, Williams is not without his critics. Some have charged him with having such an unshakable certitude in the truth of his own experience that his work borders on being preachy. Nevertheless, his creation of cultural studies as a field of study remains of the greatest importance, and the origin and continued inspiration he has left are forever reflected in his body of writings. This is demonstrated in such works as The Country and the City.
The Country and the City (1973). According to the Marxist philosophy of the period, the logical progression of history requires that industrial production displace agricultural society. In The Country and the City, Williams opposes—among other things—mainstream Marxism. He acknowledges the accelerating spread of modernization, but also claims that the developmental process entails the growing rather than the shrinking of the agrarian sector.
The Country and the City was received enthusiastically by the British intellectual Left. Scholar E. P. Thompson echoed the general reception when he described the book as ‘‘part of that stubborn, uncompromising clarification of socialist thought which historians will come to see as more important and more lasting in influence than better advertised products of the international new left.’’ He concluded: ‘‘There is something in the unruffled stamina of this man which suggests a major thinker.’’
Responses to Literature
1. Williams expressed a profound interest in culture and the language of culture in such works as Culture and Society, The Long Revolution, and Keywords. He regarded culture in his and the previous eras by considering the development of ideas. He studied culture as a kind of response—revealed in the political and social changes that came about because of the Industrial Revolution. Williams offered three kinds of culture:
In anthropology, culture signifies the meanings, values, and institutions of a society, or what he called a ‘‘whole way of life’’;
The term culture also refers to the intellectual and imaginative work associated with the arts and humanities;
Ideal culture includes that intellectual and imaginative work that is what Matthew Arnold called ‘‘the best that has been thought and written.’’
2. To come to a better understanding of at least one of Williams’s approaches to the term ‘‘culture,’’ imagine you are an ambassador of your society who has been called to travel to another planet to characterize and demonstrate what your culture involves. Choose one of the above definitions/forms of culture. Go out in the world (or online) and ‘‘collect’’ artifacts that will best demonstrate your culture for the new planet. Justify your choices, whether they include foods, arts, writings, technologies, rituals, costumes, or any other elements you think will illustrate your culture, by writing a brief speech that points out each item you collected.
3. How does The Country and the City argue in favor of the natural world (country) or the progressive world (city) as vital for a person’s moral growth? What descriptions, scenes, dialogue, or other elements suggest this? What does the comparison say about personal preferences, values, and beliefs?
4. In the early 1970s, Williams focused on his ‘‘Welshness.’’ This increasing interest found its way into his critical works, such as People of the Black Mountains, and it appears in his fiction, such as Border Country, Second Generation, and The Fight for Manod. To better appreciate Williams’s persistent ‘‘return to Welshness,’’ consider your own nationality and/or ethnicity for a paper. Make note of all that makes up who you are—including values, orientations or preferences, community concerns, family histories, and anything else that contributes to how you identify yourself.
5. Consider Williams’s comment about King Henry VIII Grammar School for Boys in Abergavenny, found in his Politics and Letters: Interviews with New Left Review (1979): ‘‘What I did not perceive at the time but I now understand is that the grammar schools ...in the towns of Wales ... imposed a completely English orientation, which cut one off thoroughly from Welshness.’’ With a small group of your classmates, share similar experiences you have had regarding an institution or group that has disturbed your identity.
Eagleton, Terry, ed. Raymond Williams: Critical Perspectives Cambridge: Polity, 1989.
Inglis, Fred. Raymond Williams. New York: Routledge, 1995.
Thompson, E. P. ‘‘Country and City.’’ In Making History: Writings on History and Culture. New York: New Press, 1994.
Milligan, Don. ‘‘Raymond Williams: Hope and Defeat and the Struggle for Socialism.’’ Retrieved April 25, 2008, from http://www.studiesinanti-capitalism.net/StudiesInAnti-Capitalism/RaymondWilliams.html.
Museum of Broadcast Communications. ‘‘Williams, Raymond: British Media Critic.’’ Retrieved April 25, 2008, from http://www.museum.tv/archives/etv/W/htmlW/williamsray/williamsray.htm.
The Raymond Williams Society. Retrieved April 25, 2008, from http://www.raymondwilliams.co.uk. Last updated on February 5, 2008.
Williams, Raymond. Excerpts from Keywords. Retrieved April 25, 2008, from http://pubpages.unh.edu/~dml3/880williams.htm#N_1_.