Raymond Williams


Raymond Williams : biography

31 August 1921 – 26 January 1988

He was part of the fighting from Normandy in 1944 through Belgium and Holland to Germany in 1945, where he was involved in the liberation of one of the smaller Nazi concentration camps, which was afterwards used to detain SS officers. He was also shocked to find that Hamburg had suffered saturation bombing by the Royal Air Force, not just of military targets and docks as they had been told.

Adult education

He received his M.A. from Trinity College, Cambridge in 1946 and then served as a tutor in adult education at the University of Oxford for several years.Politics and Letters: Interviews with New Left Review. Page 12 In 1951 he was recalled to the army as a reservist to fight in the Korean War. He refused to go, and registered as a conscientious objector.

Early publications

He made his reputation with Culture and Society, published in 1958, which was an immediate success. This was followed in 1961 by The Long Revolution. Williams’s writings were taken up by the New Left and received a wide readership. He was also well known as a regular book reviewer for the Manchester Guardian newspaper. His years in adult education were an important experience and Williams was always something of an outsider at Cambridge University. Asked to contribute to a book called My Cambridge, he began his essay by saying, "It was never my Cambridge. That was clear from the start".My Oxford, My Cambridge (ed. Ann Thwaite, 1979)

Academic career

Raymond Williams in 1972 On the strength of his books, Williams was invited to return to Cambridge in 1961,Ward, J. P. Raymond Williams. Page 8 eventually becoming Professor of Drama there (1974–1983). He was Visiting Professor of Political Science at Stanford University in 1973, an experience that he used to good effect in his still useful book Television: Technology and Cultural Form (1974). A committed socialist, he was greatly interested in the relationships between language, literature, and society and published many books, essays and articles on these and other issues. Among the most important is The Country and the City (1973), in which chapters about literature alternate with chapters of social history. His tightly written Marxism and Literature (1977) is mainly for specialists, but it also sets out his own approach to cultural studies, which he called cultural materialism. This book was in part a response to structuralism in literary studies and pressure on Williams to make a more theoretical statement of his own position against criticisms that it was a humanist Marxism, based on unexamined assumptions about lived experience. He makes considerable use of the ideas of Antonio Gramsci, though the book is uniquely Williams’ and written in his own characteristic voice. For a more accessible version, see Culture (1981/1982), which develops an important argument about cultural sociology, which he hoped would become "a new major discipline".Raymond Williams, Culture (London: Fontana, 1981), p.233. Introducing the US edition, Bruce Robbins identifies this book as "an implicit self-critique" of Williams’s earlier ideas, and a basis on which "to conceive the oppositionality of the critic in a permanently fragmented society"Bruce Robbins, "Foreword", The Sociology of Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), p.xi.

Concepts and theory


Williams was concerned to establish the changing meanings of the vocabulary used in discussions of culture. He began with the word culture itself, and his notes on sixty significant but often difficult words were to have appeared as an appendix to Culture and Society in 1958. This was not possible, and an extended version, with notes and short essays on 110 words, appeared as Keywords in 1976. Words examined include “Aesthetic”, “Bourgeois”, “Culture”, “Hegemony”, “Isms”, “Organic”, “Romantic”, “Status”, “Violence” and “Work”. A revised version in 1983 added twenty-one new words, including "Anarchism", "Ecology", "Liberation"and "Sex". Williams wrote that The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) “is primarily philological and etymological”, whilst his work was on “meanings and contexts”.Raymond Williams, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (London: Fontana/Croom Helm, 1976), p.16. In 1981 Williams published Culture, in which the term is given extended discussion. Here it is defined as “a realized signifying system”,Raymond Williams, Culture (London: Fontana, 1981), p.207. Published in the US in 1987 by Schocken, and in 1995 by Chicago University Press as The Sociology of Culture. and is supported by chapters discussing “the means of cultural production, and the process of cultural reproduction” (206).