Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Country and the City, by Raymond Williams

It is both a shame and also perfectly understandable that Raymond Williams's The Country and the City is one of those title-line citation books: those monographs which are obligatorily footnoted whenever certain keywords turn up—in this case, the combination or interaction of "city and country." But that citation is usually no more than a quod vide, a sort of ritual genuflection or ass-covering acknowledgment ("yes, reader, I know the locus classicus too").

This desultory reference is a shame because the book does repay more in-depth discussion or elaboration and because, at least in my experience, few historians and fewer literature scholars engage with this dynamic very deeply with or without Williams's guidance.

Yet it is also, as I say, perfectly understandable because a very great proportion of The Country and the City lends itself only very weakly to adaptation or appropriation; only the final few chapters really seem meant to inspire further work or to indicate the possibility of connection to other questions, projects, or histories. The rather foxy title belies the monograph's more hedgehoggy content. Williams's study of English literature depicting the English countryside (and, rather cursorily, the English city, meaning almost exclusively London) is resolutely single-minded; after a bit of throat-clearing about classical pastoral traditions, I count only 14 references to non-Anglo-Irish writers in the remainder of the book.1 Over about 290 pages (excluding the chapter on classical pastorals), that's around one every 21 pages. That is certainly not very expansive or wide-ranging; there is little else besides the very particular literary history of this particular set of tropes in English literature. To do more than name-check Williams's book in any context other than the one he actually wrote about would essentially require taking the book's argumentative skeleton and graft on everything else—muscles, tendons, skin and blood. It would take a complete re-writing. It is not, in other words, a Foucault-type genealogy or archaeology of knowledge.

Which begs the question whether there have been comparable studies of the tropes of "country-and-city" in, say, the U.S. or in Canada, in India or France, Russia or Mexico, Nigeria or Brasil. I may simply have missed these wonderful books, but I think the answer is actually 'no'—at least for U.S. literature, there have been attempts to write literary histories of depictions of the city and there have been attempts to write literary histories of depictions of the country, but there is no single study which actively attempts to fuse those together and read them as not only the same history but the result of a single process or regime (capitalism), which is what Williams does. Now, that might simply amount to asking for a Marxist study of American literature with a particular attention to images and symbols of geography, but is that really so much to ask?

In a subsequent post, I'd like to outline what Williams actually does in his own study and what the tropes which he identifies are, and then I'd like to discuss how they may be adapted or supplemented to fit the U.S. case a little better, but for now I'd like merely to pose the question of why it seems to be difficult to think of the literary history of the countryside and the literary history of the city as existing together. In part, Williams's book is an analysis of the ideologies which keep those literary histories apart, why it is even popular to see the country and the city as cleanly and self-evidently separate in history and more especially in literature. One particular reason which he gives between the lines, as it were, is most interesting to me: when Williams speaks of his own life's journey, as he does very movingly, or of the three figures whom one benighted British Council critic called "our three great autodidacts"—George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, and D. H. Lawrence—or even with Hardy's character Jude, Williams notes the personal impact of the basic life pattern of moving from the countryside to a city or an intellectual metropole of sorts (i.e., Oxford or Cambridge). It is difficult not to take the basic autobiographical bifurcation of country and city as existing in different parts or moments of one's life and turn it into a more general historical or sociological paradigm.

1Actually, I also did not count references from a chapter near the end which specifically treats contemporary Third-World literature and British imperialism. This is the chapter I meant as inspiring further work.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed, appreciated and learned from what you'd written
An MA student in English Literature