Raymond Williams (1921-88)
Key Figures in Literary Theory
Raymond Williams was born in Llanfihangel Crocorney, a small village in Wales. He began as a scholarship student at Trinity College, Cambridge University, in 1939. War service intervened on his education when, in 1941, he became a tank commander. He returned to Cambridge and received his MA in 1946. He began teaching at Oxford University as an extra-mural tutor in literature, mostly in adult education. In 1961, he became a Fellow at Jesus College, Oxford, only to return to Cambridge as a Reader in 1967. By 1974 he was Professor of Drama, a position he held until 1983.
Williams’s earliest works were on modern drama, but his reputation began with two volumes of literary and cultural history, Culture and Society: 1780-1950 (1958) and The Long Revolution (1961). These volumes are revisionist cultural histories in the New Left tradition of British CULTURAL MATERIALISM. Culture and Society reconsidered canonical literary and cultural works in terms of their role in the development of “culture,” which he understood in Gramscian terms as a complex web of IDEOLOGICAL commitments and “structures of feeling.” In The Long Revolution, Williams critiqued the concept of organicism that had shaped the conservative tradition of social theory that began with Edmund Burke. Of special importance was his analysis of English educational institutions and the role they play in the creation and preservation of culture.
These works form the basis of Williams’s contribution to British Cultural Studies and cultural materialism. His work in the 1970s, beginning with The English Novel from Dickens to Lawrence (1970), continued the emphasis on cultural and literary history. This study was one of the first to submit the English novel tradition to a sustained materialist analysis. The Country and the City (1973), a penetrating analysis of the English pastoral tradition, highlights the political realities of both the country and the city. Other major works include Keywords (1985), an in-depth glossary of terms in cultural analysis, and Marxism and Literature (1977), one of the first general studies of Marxism and its uses for literary criticism.
Williams was also instrumental in developing programs in communications. His Communications (1967) became a textbook for new academic programs throughout the UK and the US. His later work focused on the popular media and the problems in cultural materialism. His last book, The Politics of Modernism, published the year after his death, explored the problematic relationship between radical politics and Modernism. Evidence of his continuing relevance for literary and cultural theory is the new revised edition of Keywords (2005).
Williams, Raymond. Culture and Society: 1780-1950. Rpt. New York: Columbia University Press, 1983.
---- . The Long Revolution. New York: Columbia University Press; London: Chatto & Windus, 1961.
---- . Marxism and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977.
---- . The Politics of Modernism: Against the New Conformists. Ed. Tony Pinkney. London and New York: Verso, 1989.
---- . The Raymond Williams Reader. Ed. John Higgins. Oxford and Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2001.