A life played out on centre page

Sean Matthews discusses Raymond Williams' reliance on his own life experiences in his work

October 16, 2008

Twenty years after his untimely death, the publication of this valuable and unusual biography has rekindled debate about the importance of Raymond Williams' work in literary and cultural studies. It is revealing that it should take a biography to relight the fire, rather than a more conventional scholarly study, since Williams' critics have often argued that his work was autobiographical at the expense of being representative.

Given the way that theory and criticism have turned away from the ideal of the common, or ordinary, culture that was at the heart of his writing, perhaps it is only through the form of life-writing that we can now approach Williams' achievements.

There is no doubt that the author of such seminal texts as Culture and Society (1958), The Long Revolution (1961), The Country and the City (1973) and Marxism and Literature (1977) was a dominant figure in postwar intellectual history. Williams was instrumental in the scholarly and institutional emergence of cultural studies, and he had a radical impact on the study of dramatic performance. His steady, exemplary articulation of the critical practice known as cultural materialism contributed to a major shift in the paradigm of English studies. It is more difficult, however, to find agreement as to his current influence or even relevance.

In a world that is so radically changed from the one in which he was formed, does his writing still meaningfully address us? We might reply that Williams was centrally concerned with the representation and analysis of social, political, intellectual and cultural change, and that he does offer a conceptual and theoretical resource for our turbulent times. But to think of him in such academic terms is to ignore something less readily defined, something stubbornly idiosyncratic about his contribution, which is nonetheless crucial to his significance. Indeed, how he would smart at the evacuation from our contemporary academic discourse of so many of the questions he struggled to articulate. It is this quality, which relates above all to Williams' use of a category that has long proven problematic for literary studies and critical theory, the category of "experience", that A Warrior's Tale brings powerfully into focus.

A recurrent criticism of Williams' work has concerned his insistence on the representative quality of his own experience, his habit of building general arguments, or drawing wide-ranging conclusions, from his own life. Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton damningly characterised this tendency as the projection on to the public stage of a private drama, suggesting that the problems Williams addressed were "self-set" and singular rather than of wider concern.

What Dai Smith has accomplished, steeped as he is in the social and political history of Wales, is to show why the world in which Williams was formed - that particular family and community under those specific historical pressures - should have taken on such talismanic force in his thinking and writing, and why that thinking and writing cannot be fully comprehended without grasping those defining contexts. What A Warrior's Tale also indicates, one should add, is that the emphasis that Williams placed on those experiences, and the conclusions he drew, were politically and ethically correct.

Smith takes the story of Raymond Williams as far as 1960. Although he offers a full account of his subject's postwar career, the real core of A Warrior's Tale is the narrative of life in Pandy and Abergavenny in the 1920s and 1930s, in Cambridge in 1939-41, and then in the consecutive campaigns that took the Allied forces from Normandy to Berlin, during which Williams served as a tank commander.

Part of the value of this narrative is in the new materials Smith brings to light, the unpublished manuscripts and correspondence, and the private family papers and journals, from which he quotes generously. A further telling element is the surprising and fully substantiated case he makes (too fully, some critics have suggested) about Williams' enduring ambitions as a writer of fiction. Smith, however, lacks the necessary bearings in literary criticism and history properly to place Williams in relation either to currents in contemporary writing or to the realist tradition with which he was explicitly aligned.

Smith's original contribution is, above all, in the way he tells Williams' story. This is no simple matter. The formal balance Smith achieves, in his recognition that the nature of Williams' life, in its close relation to his thought, offers a particular challenge for the life-writer, is hard won. Williams' own use of autobiographical detail was unerringly precise and consistent. It was an exemplification of the argument he made frequently about refusing the conventional opposition of individual and society, an affirmation of the fact that our experience (his experience) is shared or collective, even "ordinary", and as such can come to constitute, as he famously put it, "a whole way of life" - a culture.

Smith avoids the conventional biographical tropes of revelation, and explanation-by-origins, in a narrative that seeks rather to embed Williams in his history and demonstrate how that history becomes a part of him. It is a narrative that catches, as the character Matthew Price puts it in Williams' finest novel, Border Country, "what change does to people, change from outside them, the big movements".

The importance of A Warrior's Tale is, in some ways, a measure of the continuing significance of Raymond Williams. In his insightful retrieval of the context and conditions of Williams' development as a man and as a thinker, Smith also provides an impressive defence of the terms of Williams' whole intellectual project. Williams gave determined attention to the general qualities of the way of life he came to know in his first 25 years. The manner in which he understood and represented that experience in his writing involved the careful distinguishing of public forms from properly private elements, and acute sensitivity to the ways in which any individual is necessarily part of an interlocking pattern of communities and societies.

In an age in which the individual is synonymous with the consumer, and the narrative of experience has dwindled to mere confession or preening self-display and self-regard, the work of Raymond Williams, which Smith does so much to elucidate in this fascinating book, is an example to which we must pay renewed attention.

Raymond Williams: A Warrior's Tale

By Dai Smith

Parthian, 532pp, £24.99

ISBN 9781905762569

Published 1 May 2008

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