Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Country and the City (1973): Raymond Williams

Many literary theoretical texts seem to make a big splash when they are first published and, almost as quickly, slip out of mind: destined to quietly fade away and collect dust on university library shelves. Raymond Williams’ The Country and the City is not one of these, though. Nearly thirty five years after its first publication in 1973, and through at least fifteen print-runs, Williams’ text still impacts the way people think about the relationship between the country and the city and how geographical space itself can contour ideas of social structure and artistic achievement. In The Country and the City, Williams endeavors to explore how the country and city (specifically the English country and city) have been constructed and shaped throughout history and specifically what role literature has played in this process. There is a measurable difference between the country and the city, and Williams avers that, “In and through these differences. . .certain images and associations persist; and it is the purpose of this book to describe and analyse them, to see them in relation to the historically varied experience” (2). In The Country and the City, Williams realizes his stated purpose and provides his reader with an erudite, yet accessible, tour of the English country, city, and literature and along the way showcases numerous examples of English literary writing. On nearly every page, the reader encounters snippets (and not infrequently longish selections) from poems, essays, and novels that help elucidate Williams’ main points.

From a structural standpoint, The Country and the City is essentially arranged chronologically. After establishing the basis of his text’s argument in the first two chapters, Williams, using the image of an escalator that can travel back and forth in time, begins in chapter three to explicate early historical conceptions of the country. In each proceeding chapter, Williams moves his “escalator” from the past towards the present, stopping along the way to view major historical and literary epochs and how these epochs aided in the development of ideas about the country and the city. Williams encompasses a wide breadth of these epochs, including discussions of the emergence of pastoral and counter-pastoral poetry, the era of enclosure laws, the rise of industrialization, and the birth of modernist novels, among many others.

In the early chapters of his text, Williams uses many different writers to illustrate his thematic points. In chapter nine “Nature’s Threads,” for example, Williams includes excerpts from and commentary on the works of Goldsmith, Thomson, Cowper, Herrick, Shenstone, Gray, Langhorne, and Crabbe. Starting in chapter fifteen, though, Williams makes a shift in his text and begins to hone in on specific writers. In the latter chapters of The Country and the City, Williams spends much time discussing in particular the works of Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Richard Jefferies, Thomas Hardy, and D. H. Lawrence, often times giving each of these authors a chapter all their own. In both the chapters that incorporate numerous authors, and those that focus specifically on a few, Williams’ readings of the primary texts themselves seem fresh and pertinent to literary scholarship today.

While The Country and the City, in my opinion, has stood the test of time rather well, it is not without its criticisms. In his book Culture and Imperialism, published in 1994, Edward Said takes a very polite stab at Williams’ work in The Country and the City, countering Williams’ claim of when imperialism found its way into English literature, and stating, “It is dangerous to disagree with Williams, yet I would venture to say that if one began to look for something like an imperial map of the world in English literature, it would turn up with amazing insistence and frequency well before the mid-nineteenth century” (82-83) (Said’s deference to Williams in his critique goes far to illustrate the impact The Country and the City has had on literary studies). Said makes a valid point here regarding the scope of Williams’ work, but it must be remembered that Williams’ and Said’s projects are different in nature. Said’s post-colonial readings of English literature positions his text at a different vantage point from that of Williams.

Speaking of ideological vantage points, Williams’ Marxist leanings can definitely be seen in The Country and the City, as illustrated by lines such as, “I have been arguing that capitalism, as a mode of production, is the basic process of most of what we know as the history of country and city...Seeing the history in this way, I am then of course convinced that resistance to capitalism is the decisive form of the necessary human defence” (302). While sentences like these do appear in the text, the impressive thing about The Country and the City is that the ideology generally doesn’t overpower the ideas and literature Williams is discussing. Williams is able to find balance between his personal ideology and his readings of literature, and thus does not lose sight of the texts he is explicating. The Country and the City is essentially a text about history and literature that incorporates Marxist readings, not a Marxist text that merely includes a smattering of literary and historical references to bolster political ideology.

One of the few problems encountered in The Country and the City is that at times Williams over-simplifies issues in order to fit them neatly into his theoretical framework. A major instance of this truncation can be seen in Williams’ discussion of George Eliot. Regarding Eliot, Williams says, “though George Eliot restores the real inhabitants of rural England to their places in what had been a socially selective landscape, she does not get much further than restoring them as a landscape” (168). Williams’ statement may be true, but I believe George Eliot accomplishes much more in her novels than merely restoring the rural inhabitants of England to a position of reified landscape. Williams does spend much time discussing the works of Eliot, but the conclusion he arrives at regarding her “landscape” writing appears short-sighted at best.

Throughout his presentation of English historical and literary development, Williams continually returns to the major theme of “mystification.” Mystification, as used by Williams in The Country and the City, refers to the process of how contemporary views of the past are misinformed due to a presentation of history that overlooks, or purposefully misrepresents, the “realities” of life for certain social groups (for Williams these groups are specifically farmers and laborers). By looking critically at how contemporary notions of both the country and the city are constructed, Williams believes a “real” history of both of these areas can be ascertained and that humankind can use this knowledge to move forward and attempt to create more just societies, ones where divisions of labor will be erased.

Williams includes a strain of personal commentary that runs throughout The Country and the City. Being raised in the country, and having spent much time in the city, Williams’ exploration of the construction of these two places seems almost at times to be an exploration of his own life and past. This personal element allows Williams to find embodiment in his text and keeps his theoretical positions from becoming too stodgy or inaccessible. Williams, time and again in The Country and the City, shows himself as not just a literary theorist or cultural historian, but as a lover of and a very adept reader of literary texts themselves. Be it a line of 16th century pastoral verse or a 1,000 page Charles Dickens novel, Williams, in The Country and the City, provides commentary that is both intellectually challenging and a joy to read.

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