Seeing a Man Running
By Raymond Williams
Raymond Williams (31 August 1921 – 26 January 1988), a distinguished figure in the post-War British cultural scene, was a Welsh Marxist theorist, academic, novelist and critic. After completing his M. A. from Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1946, Williams taught in adult education at the University of Oxford for several years. His writings have been variously described as Marxist, structuralist and post-structuralist.
Raymond Williams is also known for his contributions to the sociology of culture and is believed to have laid the foundations for cultural studies and the cultural materialist approach. Along with Richard Hoggart, he is considered a founding figure of cultural studies. Williams argued that culture is ordinary and not elite, calling for a democratic approach to the arts.
At Cambridge he came under the influence of two cultural seers, Karl Marx and the literary critic F.R.Leavis. However there is a remarkable difference between the approaches of the Leavis and Williams. Leavis was a cultural pessimist and an elitist like Eliot. He was suspicious of the effects of mass American culture and feared that culture was corrupted by the industrial society. Raymond Williams on the other hand argued that culture is not the preserve of a tiny minority. In 'Culture is Ordinary' published in 1958, Williams contends that, 'An interest in learning or the arts is simple, pleasant and natural.'
The essay “ Seeing a Man Running” by Raymond Williams contains his impressions of F R Leavis, one of the most influential figures in the history of 20th century literary criticism. During his tenure as a teacher in Cambridge, f R Leavis established a new critical approach that largely superseded the historical and narrative type of literary history favored by George Edward Saintsbury, a doyen of Victorian taste in literature. The most important contribution of F R Leavis lay not in his assessment of individual authors, but in the introduction of a new seriousness into English studies.
As a teacher he was admired and revered and his influence spread throughout the educational world. His vehement dismissal of opposing views often earned him much hostility. Leavis was a controversial figure who inspired both deep devotion and profound antagonism and occasionally both.
Raymond Williams, critic, novelist and political thinker was an inspiration to a generation of British dissenters. ‘Seeing a Man Running’ is included in his book ‘What I Came to Say’ which is a collection of personal essays, informed by his deeply felt loyalty to his Welsh working class background and his complex ambivalence towards Cambridge University where he taught. The tone and style of these essays are different from his usual godlike personality with all quirks of temperament and rough edges of passion sublimated to a benign crystalline lucidity. In his reviews of books on Welsh culture and his essay ‘Seeing a Man Running’ which is about his relations with F R Leavis, Raymond Williams releases the drive, edginess, arrogance, self-obsession and an almost distasteful competitiveness normally suppressed in his writings. These essays have a jerky rhythm and are frequently elliptical and undeveloped.
The essay opens with a description of the author’s chance meeting with F R Leavis one February afternoon in 1963. Raymond Williams was reluctant to speak to Leavis considering the instructions from his teachers that it was not appropriate to speak to acquaintances in Cambridge. This practice went contrary to his Welsh upbringing which always encouraged mutual acknowledgement and greeting no matter if it was a friend or a stranger. Leavis just passed him by without a word and this surprised Raymond Williams as he thought Leavis was walking towards him. But again Leavis surprised him by informing him rather apologetically that he was in a hurry and then just went on with his work.
This incident, though not significant, had left a lasting impression on Williams mind as he saw it as a mark of his own relation with the great critic. He proceeds to elaborate on the peculiar nature of the relation he had with Leavis. Among his colleagues Leavis had the reputation of being a difficult person to deal with. But Raymond William’s experience was different as Leavis had always been polite to him whenever they met. But he also admits that his acquaintance with Leavis had not been long enough to enable him to judge him properly. But Williams was also aware that much of the allegations regarding the nature of Leavis was caused due to misunderstanding. Williams has himself had a similar experience when he was told a story about Leavis made a nasty remark about him. The story apparently spread by Leavis and his gang was that Raymond Williams was becoming disloyal to the very state that had funded his education. It was later that Williams came to know that Leavis had absolutely rejected this description of Williams. Leavis was an enigmatic character with several confident beliefs and opinions. Such was his personality that it was not difficult for people to misunderstand him. It was probably easier to judge him at a public level, but certainly not a personal level.
Raymond Williams describes a meeting in which there was a very long argument between Leavis and the Chairman regarding a question raised on the previous summer’s exam paper. Leavis was persistent. On reflection Raymond Williams feels that Leavis was justified in taking the stand he took during the argument. But on other occasions he also acted in a clumsy manner trying to play along with the other members under the grip of a fierce collective existence as examiners insisting on maintaining standards.
Another incident Raymond Williams mentions is about when he wanted Leavis to be a part of a committee convened to decide on the syllabus of a new paper on the novel. There was an argument as to whether the paper should be English novel or novel in general. Majority of the members were not in favour of Leavis’s proposition that it should be purely English, to the exclusion of Greek and French. He argued that it would be a ‘misdirection’ to include translations and even American fiction. Leavis was open about his disapproval of American novelists, especially Faulkner whom he believed was deliberately chosen by the Americans as their great novelist. He was adamant in recommending the English novel from ‘Dickens to Laurence’, which was also the title of his main current lecture course. There was an effort to bring about a compromise which unfortunately did not work. Leavis could not take the defeat in his stride and went on to publicly denounce the whole idea in print. Raymond Williams observes that Leavis could never graciously accept the fact that he was most often in the minority when it came to academic decision making in meetings. Leavis was not too happy that Raymond Williams chose not to vote for “Dickens to Laurence” paper. Williams calls him “the heroic isolated individual” who was always appealing for Cambridge, for the common pursuit, more open discussion and for taking part in a very complex whole situation. This was the real Leavis contrary to the popular belief about his being an “intensely disagreeable, uncooperative and trouble-making man”.
Another reminiscence Raymond Williams shares is about his visit to Leavis’s house for a discussion on the faculty business. Instead of discussing that, Leavis talked at length about numerous other matters, which Williams knew he has told many others as well. He was a bit quirky and idiosyncratic and behaved in a manner quite unpredictable. The episodes Leavis narrated seemed a mix of fact and fancy, good enough to form an interesting subject matter for a novel. Leavis appeared vexed at the remarks made by Williams regarding the matter he had shared in such a compelling manner. He was particularly angry when Williams described it as “a powerful single-perspective account”, emphasizing on the self-centered nature of the story. At the same time Williams also added that the surprise element was the discovery of the actual people and events in the narrative. Williams mentions some more incidents to bring out the person that Leavis was. Another curious incident recounted here is about a Faculty Board meeting in which Leavis’s behavior actually made Williams laugh out loud. When serious discussions were going on to nominate an examiner for the Winchester Reading Prize. Williams saw Leavis staring at his hands and then spreading out his smooth hands examining them against Williams’s rough and hairy ones.
Raymond Williams sums up the essay recalling the unofficial memorial lecture for Leavis arranged by him. More than eulogizing him as is the convention in such memorial meetings, Raymond Williams spoke about Leavis’s contributions to Practical Criticism and academics in Cambridge. According to Williams, “the man was not separable from the critic”. He closes his tribute with the words that Leavis was in the true sense of the term, a “unique and irreplaceable man”.
The title of the essay “Seeing a Man Running” encapsulates the man that Leavis was- always busy and intellectually active. As Maurice Cowling puts it in his ‘Raymond Williams in Retrospect’, “Williams is best understood as the politicizer of Leavis, as the man who … brought him out of the closet and converted ‘critical discrimination’ into a set of Marxist slogans.” Though Williams has never directly been taught by him, he has himself admitted in one of his articles titled “Our Debt to Dr. Leavis” that the influence of his writing and teaching has grown year by year and that he was the most interesting critic of the generation”. His educational influence has been central to the best work of his period and that his life’s work is a major contribution to our culture”. Alongside discussing the brilliance of Leavis as the most influential critic of his times, Raymond Williams also explores and exposes the idiosyncrasies and oddities of a man who had immense conviction in his stand to the point of touchiness in rejecting associations and derivations if it required him to involve with work to which he cannot assent. It becomes evident that Raymond Williams knew Leavis well enough to defend him against all the criticisms leveled against him on account of his irksome nature. The essay gives us a clear insight into the man that Leavis was more than his important as an academician or a critic. Even as Raymond Williams mentions his battles with the Cambridge establishment, he does not fail to remind the reader that Leavis was “all intense concern and conviction”.
As Williams puts it aptly, “…there was a condition I have only ever seen in one or two other men; a true sense of mystery, which was ever harder to understand because this was the man of so many confident and well-known beliefs and opinions”.