Review- Williams, The Country and the City

city and country

Raymond Williams, “The Country and the City” (1973) – The great British social historians of the mid-twentieth century were almost obnoxiously overachieving. Raymond Williams may not have had the star power in history that his peers Eric Hobsbawm and EP Thompson had, but he shared their multifaceted intellectual productivity (he was a novelist on top of being a historian, critic, and activist- I wonder if his novels are any good). And I’d say he actually mastered and interwove two fields — history and criticism — in a way that the others mastered one (and dabbled in others).

The Country and the City is notionally about depictions of the countryside (and the city it is contrasted to) in English literature. It is that, but it’s more than that. It uses history — social history, the history of lived experience and changes in the basis of production and reproduction — to view literature and vice-versa, but it does more than that too. He really uses literature and history to interrogate each other. He traces the inner life of the British class structure through its literature, not not by taking the writings as prima facie evidence for a given belief or feeling common at a certain point, but by contrasting the imagery and tone of novels and poetry with what we know of the facts on the ground.

Perhaps the best example of this is his treatment of the consistent theme of “the good old days,” when good small landlords cared for their tenants and earned their respect, before big mean capitalist agriculture gave everyone the boot and created class society. Williams shows how successive generations of English writers cast that golden pastoral earlier and earlier in the past, up to at least the 14th century. But he doesn’t just dismiss these feelings, either. He interrogates the way pastoral idylls and laments (and he seems to know every piece of English literature ever produced) change over time, in structure, language, and tone, and incorporates them into his analysis of the “structure of feeling” about class society and history, primarily in the period of the agricultural and industrial revolutions between the 17th and 19th centuries.

These feelings went on to define, more than facts can, how people came to look at the past… and make decisions for the present. Williams was a socialist, and wanted to both excavate usable pasts — like the self-educated rural working people who resisted agrarian capitalism and its fantasies of contented (or better yet, doomed) small-folk — and illuminate better ways of understanding rural life, a frequent stumbling block for leftists (and sometimes a fatal one for leftists who attain power). There are, as he points out, really a lot of ways to understand it wrong. Learning to get it right the way Williams did — with immense erudition, a sharp critical eye, and deep empathy — sounds hard but also rewarding (and maybe necessary?).

There’s things to nitpick — his stuff on the city seems comparatively perfunctory next to his country material — but all in all it’s a masterful work, and deeply felt. Williams was a Welsh working-class country boy before going to Cambridge and becoming an academic, and he sees himself as providing lineaments for understanding the countryside (one wonders how he got along with Hobsbawm, a consummate urbanite even if he did help gentrify rural Wales). The Country and the City helps give the lie to the idea that social history has to be ignorant of culture, or drily written. *****

Review- Williams, The Country and the City

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