Whenever a great intellectual and moral presence like Raymond Williams suddenly disappears from his habitual place among us it is natural at first to restore him by various ceremonies and activites of commemoration.footnote＊ The sense of loss and bereavement that was felt immediately after Williams’s death in 1988 has been an instigation not only for public observances of grief and respect but also for our many private acts of recollection and retrospective admiration. I knew him mainly from his immensely grand but directly appealing oeuvre. Certainly the handful of times that I had met him came to mind with all sorts of poignant emphases as, along with many others, I reconstructed from our intermittent meetings the vital personality of his engaging and thoughtful human presence. He was someone many of us listened to—the sound patterns of his direct communication to audiences as speaker, conversationalist and lecturer are discernible in everything he wrote—and from whom all of us quite literally learned a great deal of what is important about modern Western culture.
In time, however, vivid recollections of the man we miss are evident as anchored in something deeper and more reliable than personal memory. For of all the great critics of the twentieth century Raymond Williams is, in my opinion, the most abiding, the most organically grounded in the profound and sustaining rhythms of human life. And as the actual date of his death slowly recedes one finds oneself taking stock of what in the solid foundations of social life his work depends on so finely, so scrupulously, so resolutely. Who more than he rooted his observations and analyses of English literature in the actual lived life not just of poets, novelists and dramatists but of city and country folk, workers, families, peasants, gentry, young people, adventurers, pamphleteers, teachers, children, technicians, policemen, and bureaucrats? And who more than Williams nourished his literary work with the generative and regenerative processes by which human life produces itself locally, nationally, regionally?
I would like to begin by elucidating the connection in Raymond Williams’s work between the literary text and the lived life of knowable social groups—a connection brilliantly refined and mapped in The Country and the City—and then go on to develop and otherwise to rediscover it in one major instance not discussed by Williams. Just as Williams, when he is read, enables us to move directly beyond what he called the ideological capture of the text and into the life of communities, so too does his work posthumously and over time enable us to perceive the generous perspectives on other literatures and societies afforded and made possible by his approach to English literature and society.
In his books Williams was powerfully focused on the British Isles, so much so that he appeared to be, as in his own description of Cobbett returning to England in 1801, ‘in close contact with the country and political system’ that so many other English men and women had only idealized. The Country and the City gets much of its force from its direct and unflinching look at the land itself, the struggles to possess it, to speak on its behalf, to build or colonize on it and in its name, to dispossess, ruin, maim and distort the lives of many, all in the cause of land. Property, as Williams demonstrates with extraordinary skill, authorizes schemes, establishes discourses, founds ideologies, many of them leading back to the earth, ‘England’s green and pleasant land’ for some, ‘the heart of an immense darkness’ for others. In Williams’s dialectical vision of it English culture was not a single stable object to be venerated and celebrated, but rather a remarkably varied set of structures deriving from the land, over and on which rights and ideas dispute each other, as also of course do classes and individuals. Thus the country-house poems of the 17th century are taken back by Williams to the dispossession of peasants and the programmatic manufacture of a scene from which only artificial serenity and grace have not been excluded.
The conception of Britain that underpins Williams’s work is in a quite radical sense a geographical one, geography understood here as the science of the earth, its physical, political, historical, social and ideological features contributing each in its own way to the culture of which Williams was so distinguished a critic and participant. And exactly because Williams was such a remarkable writer on that complex of nations to which he belonged we can now retrospectively begin to discern all around his Britain, those other nations of the world without which any true geography of the historical adventure of mankind would be incomplete. There is a paradox here that we should not mute. Because Williams’s Anglocentrism is so pronounced and stubborn a theme in his work, because of that we can distinguish and differentiate the other ethnocentrisms with which his work in geographical and historical terms interacts contrapuntally.