Thursday, December 2, 2010

Raymond Williams: Life, Works and Critical Reception

Born in Llanfihangel Crucorney, Wales, the son of a railway worker in a village where all of the railwaymen voted Labour while the local small farmers mostly voted Liberal. It was not a Welsh-speaking area - he described it as ‘Anglicised in the 1840s’ (Politics and Letters). There was however a strong Welsh identity.
“There is the joke that someone says his family came over with the Normans and we reply: ‘Are you liking it here?’”. He attended King Henry VIII Grammar School in Abergavenny. His teenage years were overshadowed by the rise of Nazis and the threat of war. He was 14 when the Spanish Civil War broke out, and was very conscious of what was happening through his membership of the local Left Book Club. He also mentions the Italian invasion of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) and Edgar Snow‘s Red Star Over China, originally published in Britain by the Left Book Club (Politics and Letters). At this time he was supporter of the League of Nations, attending a League-organised youth conference in Geneva. On the way back, his group visited Paris and he visited the Soviet pavilion at the international Exhibition. There he bought a copy of The Communist Manifesto and read Marx for the first time.

World War Two

He went to Trinity College, Cambridge, but his education was interrupted by his war service. He joined the British Communist Party while at Cambridge. Along with Eric Hobsbawm, he was given the task of writing a Communist Party pamphlet about the Russo-Finnish War. He says in (Politics and Letters) that they “were given the job as people who could write quickly, from historical materials supplied for us. You were often in there writing about topics you did not know very much about, as a professional with words.” (Politics and Letters). No copies of this work seem to have survived. At the time, the British government was keen to join in the war against the Soviet Union, while still being at war with Nazi Germany. In the winter of 1940, he decided that he should join the British Army. This was against the Party line at the time, though in fact he stayed at Cambridge to take his exams in June 1941, the same month that Germany invaded Russia. As he describes it, his membership lapsed, without him ever formally resigning.

At the time he joined the army, it was normal for undergraduates to be directed into the signal corps. He received some initial training, but was then switched to artillery and anti-tank weapons. He was seen as ‘officer material’ and served as an officer in the Anti-Tank Regiment of the Guards Armoured Division, 1941-1945, being sent into the early fighting in Normandy. In Politics and Letters he says “I don’t think the intricate chaos of that Normandy fighting has ever been recorded”. He commanded a unit of four tanks and mentions fighting against SS Panzer forces and losing touch with two of them - he never discovered what happened to them, because there was then a withdrawal. He was part of the fighting from Normandy through to Germany, where he was involved with the liberation of one of the smaller concentration camps, which was then used to detain SS officers. He was also shocked to find that Hamburg had suffered saturation bombing, not just military targets and docks as they had been told.

Adult education

He received his M.A. from Trinity in 1946 and then taught for many years in adult education. He made his reputation with Culture and Society, published in 1958 and an immediate success. This was followed in 1961 by The Long Revolution. On the strength of his books, he was invited to return to Cambridge in 1961, eventually becoming Professor of Drama there (1974 - 1983). He was appointed Visiting Professor of Political Science at Stanford University in 1973. A committed socialist, he was greatly interested in the relationships between language, literature, and society and published many books, essays and articles on these and other issues. He retired from Cambridge in 1983 and spent his last years in Saffron Walden. While there, he wrote Loyalties, a novel about a fictional group of upper-class radicals attracted to 1930s Communism. He was also working on People of the Black Mountains, a number of short stories about people who lived or might have lived around the Black Mountains, the part of Wales he came from. It begins in the Old Stone Age and was intended to come right up to modern times, always focusing on ordinary people. He had completed it as mediaeval times when he died in 1988. It was published in two volumes, along with a brief description of what the remaining work would have been.

Works and critical reception

Raymond Williams was to become one of Britain’s greatest post-war cultural historians, theorists and polemicists. He was a distinguished literary and social thinker in the Left-Leavisite tradition. He was concerned to understand literature and related cultural forms not as the outcome of an isolated aesthetic adventure, but as the manifestation of a deeply social process that involved a series of complex relationships between authorial ideology, institutional process, and generic/aesthetic form. Pioneering in the context of the British literary academy, these concerns are heralded in the brief-lived post-war journal Politics and Letters, which he co-founded. They are perhaps best summarised in Culture and Society 1780-1950, his critical panorama of literary tradition from the Romantics to Orwell, predicated on the key terms “industry”, “democracy”, “class”, “art” and “culture”. This ideological sense of cultural etymology became the basis of his influential pocket dictionary Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society.

Concerns with Film and Drama

Marked by a commitment to his class origins and his post-war experiences of adult education, his expansion of the traditional curriculum for English also entailed an early engagement with the allied representational pressures of film and cinema, in books such as Preface to Film, Drama from Ibsen to Eliot, Drama in Performance, Modern Tragedy and Drama from Ibsen to Brecht. His perception of the links between film and drama remains evident in his 1977 Screen essay on the politics of realism in Loach’s TV film The Big Flame and in his historical introduction to Curran’s and Porter’s British Cinema History (1983). His preoccupation with the relationships between ideology and culture, and the development of socialist perspectives in the communicative arts, were to continue in such works as The Long Revolution, May Day Manifesto 1968, The English Novel from Dickens to Lawrence, The Country and the City, Marxism and Literature, Problems in Materialism and Culture, Culture, Writing in Society, Towards 2000, Resources of Hope, The Politics of Modernism, and Politics, Education, Letters. Politics and Letters: Interviews with ‘New Left Review’ provides a useful retrospective. In the 1960s Williams’ work was to take on new dimensions. He published his first, autobiographical novel, Border Country, which was to be followed by Second Generation, The Volunteers and The Fight for Manod.

An Advancement in Thought

At the beginning of the decade, he was to write his first book directly addressing the new world of contemporary mass media, Communications, an informative and influential volume in the early history of media studies in Great Britain and internationally. He was to move to the centre of left cultural politics, in the crucible of 1968, with his chairmanship of the Left National Committee and his edition of the May Day Manifesto 1968. Throughout the 1960s he was participating in what he remembered as innumerable TV discussion programmes as the young medium found its style. Two of his novels became TV plays, now sadly lost--a “live” version of A Letter from the Country (1966) and Public Inquiry (1967), filmed in his native Wales. From 1968 to 1972 he contributed a weekly column on TV to the BBC magazine The Listener.

Media Criticism

Now collected as Raymond Williams on Television: Collected Writings, these illustrate Williams’ response to a wide range of TV themes and pleasures--from an enthusiasm for television sport to a distrust in the medium’s stress on “visibility”, to arguments about the economic and political relationships between production and transmission. He went on to develop these ideas more formally in the book Television: Technology and Cultural Form, one of the first major theoretical studies of the medium, largely written on a Visiting Professorship at Stanford in 1972. There he soaked up American TV, almost inevitably developed his influential concept of TV “flow”, and encountered the newly emerging technologies of satellite and cable. In 1970 he had contributed a personal documentary, Border Country, to the BBC series One Pair of Eyes, which was to be followed, at the end of the decade, by The Country and The City: A Film with Raymond Williams, the last of five programmes in the series Where We Live Now: Five Writers Look at Our Surroundings (1979). In the 1980s he contributed to a trio of Open University/BBC programmes--Language in Use: “The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd” (1981), Society, Education and the State: Worker, Scholar and Citizen (1982) and The State and Society In 1984 (1984). He also appeared in Identity Ascendant: The Home Counties (1988), an episode in the HTV/Channel 4 series The Divided Kingdom, and in Big Words, Small Worlds (1987), Channel 4’s record of the Strathclyde Linguistics of Writing Conference.

An Overall Estimation

Williams’ contribution to cultural thinking was that of the Cambridge professor who never forgot the Welsh village of his childhood. He was a theorist of literature who himself wrote novels; an historian of drama who was also a playwright; and a commentator on TV and the mass media who himself regularly contributed to the medium in a variety of ways. For him, unlike so many academics, the medium of television was a crucial cultural form, as relevant to education as the printed word. When Channel 4 began transmission in Great Britain in 1982, it was entirely appropriate that this innovative Channel’s opening feature film should be So That You Can Live, Cinema Action’s elegy for the industrial decay of the Welsh valleys, explicitly influenced by the work of Williams, from whose work the film offers us readings. The Second International Television Studies Conference, held in London in 1986, was honoured to appoint him as its co-president alongside Professor Hilde Himmelweit. But it was a gathering, eventually, that he could not join, and by the time the next event came round in 1988 the conference sadly honoured not his presence, but his passing. The breadth of his impact in the U.K. cultural arena can be gauged from the British Film Institute monograph, Raymond Williams: Film/TV/Cinema (1989), produced to accompany a Williams memorial season at the National Film Theatre and containing a contribution by his widow.

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