Raymond Henry Williams

Administrative / Biographical History

Williams, Raymond Henry (1921–1988), literary scholar and novelist, was born on 31 August 1921 in Pandy, near Abergavenny, the only child of Henry Joseph Williams, railway signalman, of Pandy, and his wife, (Esther) Gwendolene, daughter of James Bird, farm bailiff. He was educated at King Henry VIII Grammar School in Abergavenny and then went in 1939 on a state scholarship to read English at Trinity College, Cambridge. In part one of the tripos (1941) he gained a second class (division two). He was called up in 1941, commissioned in 1942, and fought with no. 21 anti-tank regiment in the Normandy campaign and on to the Kiel Canal. He attained the rank of captain.

In October 1945 Williams returned to Cambridge and took first-class honours in part two of the tripos in 1946. Although he briefly considered a research degree Williams entered the world of adult education as a staff tutor of the Oxford University extra-mural delegacy (1946–61). He was based in east Sussex. He had married, in 1942, Joyce (Joy) Mary (d. 1991), daughter of Charles Dalling, coal factor, of Barnstaple. They had met at Cambridge when the London School of Economics was evacuated there during the war. They had two sons and one daughter. Joy Williams was a central influence on her husband's life and work. Later she was concerned with direct research for his books but throughout she was intimately involved with the evolution of his ideas and the publication of his numerous books. It was a deep and formidable partnership.

Although never a pupil of F. R. Leavis, Williams was influenced by Leavis's emphasis on the life-enhancing properties of a close reading of literature. To this end he founded and edited, with Clifford Collins and Leavis's pupil Wolf Mankowitz, The Critic and Politics and Letters (which absorbed the former) in 1947–8. It was an uneasy marriage of socialist politics with cultural perspectives derived from Leavis. Despite severe disappointments with the wider social impact of any such approach, then and later, Williams consistently returned to the themes and principles of these early years. This firmness of purpose and integrity of behaviour, no less than an attractive diffidence and a generosity of spirit, were commented upon by all who met him throughout his lifetime. The public and private persona were all of a piece.

Williams's first published books were on film and drama, notably Drama from Ibsen to Eliot (1952), and heralded a lifelong concern with the manner in which the form of literary works, no less than their content, was directly affected by the material changes wrought by social history. However, the key aspect of his work in the 1950s was his study of the connection between ‘culture’ and ‘society’, which was brought to its first conclusion in his path-breaking Culture and Society (1958). Its dissection of the meaning that British writers, and a wider society, had given to the word ‘culture’ since industrialization and under the pressures of democratic changes had an immediate impact. It can be seen now as the main progenitor of the cultural studies which would flourish from the late 1960s. Williams followed it up with the important, though very different, volumes, The Long Revolution (1961), a provocative analysis of the interconnection between institutions, education, and ideas in Britain, and The Country and the City (1973), which used wide-ranging literary studies to dispute the notion of accepted boundaries between the rural and urban experience. All his critical writing challenged conventional boundaries of thought and their academic compartmentalization. The techniques of modern technology, advertising, and mass communications were, in a number of suggestive books, analysed as carefully as poems and novels had once been.

In 1961 Williams moved back to Cambridge as a lecturer in English and a fellow of Jesus College and, from 1967 to 1974, reader in drama. He received a Cambridge LittD in 1969 and was made the university's first professor of drama in 1974, retiring in 1983. Honours and appointments were many: membership of the Arts Council (1976–8), honorary doctorates from the universities of Wales (1980) and Kent (1984), and from the Open University (1975), and visiting professorships in Europe and the USA. He deeply affected a younger generation through weekly book reviews in The Guardian and revealed a keen interest in television, for which he wrote plays and presented documentary films, in a regular column in The Listener. His writing had made him a dominant figure, though slightly distanced in some respects, on the so-called ‘new left’. In 1967 he largely edited the May Day Manifesto (a Pelican Special in 1968), a spirited but doomed attempt to redirect the merely pragmatic stance of the contemporary Labour Party by reinvigorating the broader labour movement with a sense of its socialist traditions and potential. Williams was active for a time in that party but more readily committed himself to wider left causes, such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. From the 1970s, as in his innovative interview/autobiography, Politics and Letters (1979), he called himself a ‘Welsh European’, a coupling as neat and as provocative as the phrases he used to signify his work, ‘cultural materialism’ and ‘structure of feeling’. The whole corpus had established him, in his own lifetime, as a major socialist thinker. Steadfastly, Towards 2000 (1983) rebutted nostalgia and defeatism.

Williams insisted that his fiction and better-known non-fiction writing should be seen as a unity. He had made his impressive début as a novelist with Border Country (1960); the first of a Welsh trilogy, Second Generation (1964); and The Fight for Manod (1979), in which his own individual background and general forces external to it were given shape. The Volunteers (1978) was a political thriller of the near future, and Loyalties (1985) an indictment of political thrill-seekers of the near past. Two volumes of an incomplete historical novel, about the people of his native Black Mountains from the Ice Age to the present, appeared posthumously in 1989 and 1991. Their startling ability to be both realistic and experimental in tone again broke the mould at the very end of a life that had been heroically dedicated to the proposition that ‘culture is ordinary’.

Williams's tall, rather upright figure and long, etched face were instantly recognizable at conferences where, without ever striving for effect, he never failed to hold an audience. He was often said to look ‘like a countryman’ rather than a don, and certainly the pipe, the rather deliberate drawl which was not quite a burr, and an unpretentious manner of dress and bearing all added to the image. Williams died on 26 January 1988 at his home, 4 Common Hill, Saffron Walden, Essex.

Dai Smith, rev.

Sources: The Independent (28 Jan 1988) · The Guardian (27 Jan 1988) · R. Williams, Politics and letters (1979) · personal knowledge (1996) · private information (1996) · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1989)

Archives: National Library of Wales, literary MSS and papers · University of Bristol, corresp. and statements relating to trial of Lady Chatterley's lover

Dai Smith, ‘Williams, Raymond Henry (1921–1988)’, rev. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2009 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/39847, accessed 8 Aug 2013]

Raymond Henry Williams (1921–1988): doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/39847