Culture and Society 1780-1950 by Raymond Williams

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Culture and Society 1780-1950 by Raymond Williams

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Category: Politics and Society
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Sean Barrs
Reviewed by Sean Barrs
Summary: As a writer of true penetrating wisdom, Raymond Williams looks into the heart of fluctuating ideas such as culture and society and attempts to define them as per their context.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 477 Date: August 2017
Publisher: Vintage Classics
ISBN: 978-1784870812

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From the last decades of the eighteenth century to the final words of modernism, this book tracks societal changes through exploring five key words: industry, democracy, class, art and culture. The meanings of such things, their essence, changes as per their use and the era in which their implications were considered.

This raises many questions in the field of cultural materialism. Can we derive different meanings from literary works based upon the changes in such ideas? They are, of course, represented differently, but if their actual semantic meanings change how does this effect things? Williams explores these ideas in great detail across different literary eras, contrasting many notable writers and thinkers. This edition is a recent reprint of the original published in 1958, and the need for more work in this area shows as his timeline ends long before the contemporary space can be explored.

By the end of Williams' lengthy study he comes to his own conclusions about the development of such ideas. He begins with looking at the Romantics, the group of intellectuals that first started talking about culture to track the changes of industrialism and revolution across the age. The Romantics viewed culture as the spirit of the people; such a thing stands in contrast with the Victorian notions of what proper culture should be and the modernist notions of T.S Eliot. Williams looks at the criticism of the age, namely Shelley's famous essay A Defence of Poetry in which he referred to poets the unacknowledged legislators of the world. They are the carriers of history and culture itself. Wordsworth would also agree. Poetry became a form of art in which the writers were public figures who very much lived their works and poems. Their ideas became a large part exactly what constituted Romantic culture and society.

As such I found the chapter on the Romantics the most engaging of all, though this is because of my own literary interests. The later chapters such as one George Orwell I found considerably less interesting due to my lack of specialism in the era in which he wrote, my unfamiliarity with many of his writings and my general dislike with those that I have read. The level of investment in this book depends on the reader's breadth of reading. I would not hesitate to recommend this to academics who study all literature on a broad scale, but to those who do not read widely it will be of little interest because it is the comparison between eras that form the backbone of the study.

Moreover, Williams has an erudite scholarly voice. In spite of this, his work is still very approachable and explanatory; however, that being said, it is not a piece of writing I would attempt to read if I was unfamiliar with cultural and literary criticism. An informed reader is required to get the most out of this work, one who has studied not only lots of literary movements but the thinkers who helped shape their respective cultures and societies. So this is a very rewarding read, though only if you have the knowledge to tackle it with.

We have enjoyed William and Dorothy Wordsworth: A Miscellany by Gavin Herbertson.

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