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.
Is it too much to ask that younger scholars comprehend the difference between a “topos” and “trope”? Williams knew the difference.
"Trope” is now a well-established synonym for “topos” and has been for at least thirty-five years, as far as I can tell.
I would add that you obviously don’t know what a “question-begging expression” is. Jesus, who’s educating you? A topos is a stock argument in classical/Renaissance rhetoric. A “trope” is a “turning” (do you know any Greek?) of the meaning of a word from its ordinary use. It’s important. If you care about history. So glad I’m at a land-grant university where we care about this shit.
There’s a historical narrative that you are effacing, perhaps: we don’t get Williams without Empson’s “Some Versions of Pastoral.” Williams is not writing in a vacuum, but in a tradition.
Leo Marx’s “Machine in the Garden” is the book that comes closest, I think, to the kind of AmLit history you want to do); 1964. You might want to look at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Machine_in_the_Garden --I do not know whether Williams knew Leo Marx’s work, but certainly, they have been brought into conversation by subsequent thinkers.
Marx would argue, I think, that the landscape is loaded differently in the US, and so he focuses on the tensions between machines and gardens, civilization and landscape.
Anyway: identifying the faults of a landmark work is a good way to create a space for your own work, Andrew. Maybe your reading of its problematic will be novel. But be careful about the linguistic tools you use to articulate those faults (JAA is right about topos and trope, and I doubt you could find a dictionary that gives you support; you meant to say “raises the question,” not “begs the question.") Let’s get to your argument to make these slipperinesses fade quickly.
You’re right about the “begging the question,” and, as rude as you’re being about it, I thank you for correcting me. It won’t happen again.
On the other hand, while I actually do know the etymology of “trope” and its original meaning, I also know that it has since acquired the meaning of “recurrent figure or motif,” and that most scholars not only use it in the manner I did, but accept that meaning as a completely valid usage.
Thanks, those are good references and I actually intended to bring both books up in the next post--particularly Marx (and the tradition of myth and symbol criticism), as I wanted to talk about why Marx’s book ultimately doesn’t work to fill this gap in American literary history. But as far as the American work that comes *closest* to reading the literary histories of the country and the city together, I guess it’s the reigning contender.
And not to belabor the point, but the OED actually does have the definition of ‘trope’ that I am using.
Andrew, I look forward to your take on Marx. His work remains one of my favorite pieces of literary/cultural criticism. Try as I might to see myth and symbol criticism as naive or wrongheaded, I continue to find it among the most illuminating perspectives on literature. Every September, I teach the first episode of *The Power of Myth* to my high school sophomores, who are about to begin a journey through Antigone, Les Miserables, The Odyssey, Much Ado about Nothing, and The Metamorphosis. And as much as I think I’m finally going to find Campbell hoaky, I’m always surprised by how much sense his ideas make. And contemporary scholars, like Lewis Hyde and Roberto Calasso, who follow in that tradition, are equally powerful.
I certainly count myself a fan of myth and symbol criticism--I probably feel about Henry Nash Smith’s Virgin Land the way you do about Marx. (And I plan on bringing up HNS’s chapter on The Myth of the Garden up as well in the next post.) But ultimately, myth and symbol analysis isn’t very interested in the kind of synthesis I’m after here. Not, of course, that it intended to be, or needed to be.
Andrew, there is something called “Country and the City Revisited,” an edited collection with essays focused specifically on the period Williams was looking at. It’s expensive, but if a copy could be acquired from a library it might enrich the discussion of your subsequent posts
It might also be worth pointing out that Williams does do a few pages in The Country and the City on postcolonial literature, including Caribbean, African and some Indian writing. I haven’t re-read it, but Books.google.com is showing a discussion between pp. 284-288.
I’m going to do a little digging at U-Penn to see if I can find studies of Indian literature in particular that cite Williams… and get back to you.
Williams’s chapter on postcolonial applications of the city-country dynamic was probably my favorite of the book--the style loosens up a lot, and he’s suddenly doing the broad-scope theorizing I had been hoping for from the beginning. Those few pages are probably worth at least a post in themselves, although I’m probably not the best qualified person to do it.
I’ll check out the Country and the City Revisited book you mention--thanks!
"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?”
This is what my dissertation proposes to do, although its less about “images and symbols” and more about literary form and genre. So thanks for analysis, very interesting and helpful.