The publication of a first biography of Raymond Williams was bound to be a significant event for anyone touched by his work and yet now, in a period of immense uncertainty, doubtful of its enduring value and political resonance.footnote1 Michel Foucault died of aids in 1984 and still seems to speak, however circuitously, to our present condition. Williams, on the other hand, died of premature old age four years later and, to some, has come quite soon to appear passé. It is the fate of the work that is of interest since Williams himself, as Inglis puts it, led an ‘ordinary life’. You can make a good biography, in the literary sense, out of an extraordinary life or at least a larger-than-life personality, as Richard Ellmann demonstrated brilliantly in his life of Oscar Wilde. Williams is a much more intractable figure. A few of us may be intrigued by the details of his life but, to labour the point, not many of us. One is tempted to ask, in the tone of Inglis, from reading this biography, what would ‘a young person’ make of Williams? It is unlikely, I fear, to encourage a fresh engagement with the work. The dangers of hagiography are great in writing biography, especially if the biographer wants to introduce his or her subject to a new readership. Inglis quite rightly is assiduous in avoiding hagiography in his ‘homage’ to Williams. He succeeds in finding much to criticize in Williams both as a man and a writer. The general effect of such scrupulous treatment, however, unbeknownst perhaps to the author and no doubt against his own better wishes, might be a serious disservice to the memory of the man and the work.
Raymond Williams has been moderately well received, albeit lukewarmly, in various reviews in the British press. In New Statesman and Society the usually ironic, all-purpose media intellectual Laurie Taylor dubbed it ‘excellent’. Both he and Tony Benn lent their names to endorsement on the dust jacket. Terry Eagleton, perhaps Williams’s most gifted former student, gave it faint praise, also in the New Statesman, whilst registering the ‘peculiar problems’ confronting any would-be biographer of Raymond Williams, ‘a human being who might genuinely be described as great’. Writing in the Observer, Williams’s one-time colleague Frank Kermode noted the tension between ‘homage’ and Inglis’s propensity to
As yet, unfortunately, there has been a distinct absence of genuine debate concerning the biography itself and, beyond that, any really searching discussion of the current meaning of Raymond Williams’s life and work. I may, however, be referring here to a peculiarly British negligence since, on reading Cornel West’s generous tribute to Williams in his preface to Christopher Prendergast’s collection of essays by a number of American critics, Cultural Materialism. On Raymond Williams, I am struck by how left intellectuals in the US are working constructively with Williams’s legacy.footnote2 It is Williams’s hopeful vision and existential feeling that West admires and finds of continuing inspiration in struggles of class and ‘race’.
The biography, which was so little assessed as a text in the ‘quality’ press, has many solid virtues. Inglis had access to a wide range of what he calls ‘dramatis personae’ and also to some really quite moving documentation, particularly Williams’s letters to Perry Anderson and Francis Mulhern concerning his eventual distress over the interviews gathered together in Politics and Letters. Interviews with New Left Review.footnote3 Eagleton’s wicked and hilarious parody of Williams’s novel-writing style is also included. However, the account of the later part of Williams’s life is rather thinly documented, apparently drawing little from private papers and depending heavily upon interviews. The view of Williams that is presented is very much externalized. Furthermore, Inglis is not always careful in citing the source of particular pieces of information or explicit about the cross-checking of evidence. In terms of formal technique, Inglis self-consciously adopts the strategy of television biography by interspersing authoritative narration with the diverse voices of witnesses—and this is marked as such typographically in the printed text. It is fascinating to read the remarks of the likes of Barnett, Eagleton and Hall, none of whom would have written a full-scale biography of Williams themselves, though they were well positioned to do so.
In many respects, Fred Inglis looks like a suitable biographer for Raymond Williams, not as old as Williams but not too young either, someone who passed through the same intellectual and political milieux as Williams, someone with a sense of the recent history and with sufficient maturity to make sense of the life. Moreover, Inglis himself claims some connection with cultural studies, the field of scholarship and education