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Raymond Williams

(1921—1988) literary scholar and novelist

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Welsh Marxistliterary and cultural critic who, through the elaboration of what he called Cultural Materialism had an enormous influence on Cultural Studies and New Historicism.

Williams was born near the small railway and market town of Abergavenny on the Welsh-English border. Although this was not a Welsh-speaking region, Williams nonetheless identified very strongly with his Welsh heritage, writing several novels on the theme in later life. He began his undergraduate degree at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he also joined the Communist Party and met people like Eric Hobsbawm, but interrupted his studies in 1941 to join the army. He saw active service in Europe during the Second World War as a tank commander, returning to Cambridge in 1946 and completing his BA and MA. He then took a job at Oxford as an adult education tutor, a position he held until 1961 when he was invited back to Cambridge as a lecturer. He remained there until his retirement in 1983, having been appointed professor in 1974. Among his most notable students were Terry Eagleton and Stephen Greenblatt.

His first books were on drama and criticism, but his reputation as a critic of rare insight and distinction was made in 1958 with the publication of Culture and Society. In it Williams explores the changes in meaning of the idea of ‘culture’ from 1780 to 1950, arguing that such changes record and reflect the changed conditions of everyday life. He distances himself from the Leavisite model of Practical Criticism, which took pains to avoid any direct reference to society or what Williams describes as ‘lived experience’. Eagleton's famous description of him as a ‘Left-Leavisite’ was perhaps a calculated insult. He followed this book with The Long Revolution (1961), which theorizes in detail the relationship between social relations, cultural institutions, and subjectivity, with the aim of showing how progressive political ideas emerge and become established as the norm. He expands the concepts of structure of feeling (introduced in the early work, Preface to Film (1954) and of dominant, residual, and emergent to explain the kinds of cultural mood shifts required for ideological change to occur. This is developed further in Marxism and Literature (1977).

In the early 1970s, Williams wrote several books that were to have a formative and lasting impact on the incipient field of Cultural Studies: Communications (1962), Television (1974), and Keywords (1976). However his most influential book from this period was undoubtedly the Country and the City (1973). A prolific author and an engaged public intellectual, Williams was a towering influence on Anglophone literary and cultural studies throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

Further Reading:

J. Higgins Raymond Williams (1999).F. Inglis Raymond Williams (1995).P. Jones Raymond Williams' Sociology of Culture (2003).D. Smith Raymond Williams: A Warrior's Tale (2008).

Subjects: Literature

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