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.
Consider the possibilities now offered to Anglophone studies, to take an example very near at hand. There are the colonial relationships, first of all, between the Britain of the seventeenth through twentieth centuries, and places like Ireland, Africa, India, the Caribbean, the Americas, Australia and New Zealand. The kind of interpretation offered by Williams allows for the emergence of various structures of feeling involving those places, structures fashioned from within Britain as the imperial, metropolitan centre. The themes of emigration and banishment in the colonies, the relationship between the novel’s narrative form as realized in Robinson Crusoe and the colonial expansion of Britain, the whole idea of imperial domination and with it the specific issues of subject races, racial types, indirect rule, national destiny as intrinsic to the late nineteenth and twentieth-century cultural archive of Britain: these major topics surely emerge from the reconsiderations of English literature begun by Williams and continued by many of his able students. Yet, secondly, there is also the vast and burgeoning literature of the former colonies, in which a sustained reaction and response to the metropolitan literature of the British centre plays a very important decolonizing role. Think of the importance of The Tempest to Caribbean writers, or of Kipling to Indian writers, of Conrad to Africans. What used to be the citadel of an English literature composed of great stonelike slabs, the master-pieces that constitute the canon or great tradition, has been transformed into sites of intersection, where class, racial and gender interests form not only the actual texts but the reading of texts in highly determinate ways, many of which we are only just beginning to understand.
In the late twentieth century, therefore, ‘English’ has become not just the linguistic possession of one people but a world language, distending beyond recognition the tidy and relatively discrete map of Britain on which such fields as English studies have always been based. For not only do we have to take account of the particular North American extensions of ‘English’ but we must also, as Williams so often did in both his early and late research, take account of the new media networks, the technological revolution in communications, and the remarkable multi-national economic and political schemes that have re-distributed the old imperial patterns in alarmingly familiar