Raymond Williams and Keywords


Raymond Williams (1921-1988)

By Stephen Heath
  • Swansea Archive Material
  • Books by Raymond Williams
  • Television Plays by Raymond Williams

Raymond Williams was one of the most significant thinkers of the second half of the twentieth century, and a major figure in a socialist tradition that he continued, questioned, and renewed. His many books and articles transformed understanding of culture and society, and made a decisive contribution to the development of cultural studies in Britain, Europe, and the United States.

Born in the Welsh border country in 1921, Williams’ childhood was spent in a close-knit rural working-class community that provided him with the values and concerns that were to underlie his life’s work. After attending the local grammar school, he won a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he arrived in 1939 to study English. His studies were interrupted in 1941, however, when he was called up for military service. Williams served four years in an anti-tank regiment, taking part in the 1944 Normandy landings, then returned to Cambridge in 1945. He completed his degree and became a tutor in the Workers’ Educational Association, on the periphery of the British educational establishment.

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Williams’ experience of the Workers’ Educational Association was crucial for his work: in the first instance, for the task he set himself of analysing the idea of culture as it had gained importance in a line of social critics from Coleridge through to cinemaboxhd.orgis, and in relation to the contemporary deployment of the term culture in arguments against democracy and socialism – arguments that were cast increasingly in terms of a conflict between the threatened necessary values of ‘minority culture’ and the threatening amorphous mediocrity of ‘mass civilisation’.

Williams’ analysis became the enormously influential book Culture and Society (1958). Work for that book also involved a series of studies of cultural production, with the aim of understanding the history of industrial capitalism in relation to the forms of communication that were an integral part of it: the press, advertising, education, the new media. The Long Revolution (1961) brought these studies together and marked Williams’ insistence on the importance of struggles for the public ownership and control of ‘communications’. The book also expressed Williams’ commitment to recognising cultural activity as a primary and productive activity within the whole social process, not to be seen simply as the reflection of economic and political determinations. Williams went on to explore these concerns further in books such as Communications (1962; revised edition 1976), Television: Technology and Cultural Form written during a period at Stanford (1974), and Towards 2000 (1983). The underlying theoretical framework for such works was set out in, for example, his critical revision of Marxist thinking about culture and society in Marxism and Literature (1977).

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Raymond Williams returned to Cambridge in 1961, following appointment as a University Lecturer in English and as a Fellow of Jesus College. He published substantially on literature, always with an attention to literary works as social forms. Books included Modern Tragedy (1966), The English Novel: Dickens to Lawrence (1970), The Country and the City (1973), Problems in Materialism and Culture (1980), Writing in Society (1984) – these last two being collections of some of his most important essays. Drama and its social reality in different historical contexts had always been a central interest. Indeed, Williams’ first books were Drama from Ibsen to Eliot (1952; revised as Drama from Ibsen to Brecht, 1968); Drama in Performance (1954); and Preface to Film (with Michael Orrom, 1954). In 1974 he became Cambridge’s Judith E. Wilson Professor of Drama.

Raymond Williams wrote plays for BBC television, as well as six novels: from the autobiographical Border Country (1960) to the posthumously published, historical People of the Black Mountains (1989 & 1990). This final novel, rooted in the mountains on the Welsh borderland, tells stories of their people from the Stone Age to the Middle Ages in the form of flashbacks as a man in the present day searches for his grandfather who has not returned from a mountain walk. Politics and Letters (1979), a set of substantial interviews with New Left Review, stands as an excellent introduction to Williams’ life and work in all its complexity.

Keywords, published in 1976, stemmed from work done during the writing of Culture and Society some twenty years earlier. Looking at the idea of culture and its development had shown Williams that it was only by returning to modulations of the word through history that one could understand even the term itself. Realisation of the value of, and need for, such a historical semantics of culture and of other related words led Williams to prepare a number of entries for these words which were to have formed an appendix to Culture and Society. Owing to the publisher’s worries about length, however, the appendix was finally omitted. It was to this material, which Williams had been expanding and revising over the years, that Williams returned for Keywords.

The guiding principle in the composition of Keywords was to look at historical changes in the meaning of 109 key words, in order to bring out the significance of the facts of these changes. As Williams put it in the book’s Introduction:

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This is not a neutral review of meanings. It is an exploration of the vocabulary of a crucial area of social and cultural discussion, which has been inherited within precise historical and social conditions and which has to be made at once conscious and critical – subject to change as well as to continuity.

The network of the particular, culturally important words shifts in time, and a revised edition of Keywords, containing entries for an additional twenty keywords, was published in 1983. It is that edition which is currently available.

Raymond Williams died in January 1988 at his home in Saffron Walden, near Cambridge.

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