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Nineteen eighty-eight, the year of Raymond Williams' death, seems an inauspicious dateline for a rigorous, book-length appraisal of his work. For one thing, several posthumous volumes of his essays are now appearing, including an important collection of his television criticism. Furthermore, Jan Gorak's study shows signs of last-minute reediting in its opening and closing paragraphs. Although it ends on a hastily-mustered elegiac note, this book begins negatively with a series of invidious and often trivial comparisons between Williams and his critical contemporaries. Doubtless these were originally written in the present tense.
The Alien Mind of Raymond Williams is best read as a counterpart to Gorak's Critic of Crisis: A Study of Frank Kermode (1987), also in Missouri's Literary Frontiers series. Kermode and Williams are perhaps the most prominent figures, and implicitly the major antagonists, in postwar British criticism. Gorak's excellent study of Kermode was, in the main, a work of advocacy. He plainly feels much less sympathy for Williams' achievement and is often testy and equivocal in his dealings with it.
"Alienation," he suggests, is the master-key to Williams' writing from the early drama criticism to the visionary sociology of Towards 2000 (1983). (Gorak deploys his key term in several senses, much as Williams himself would have done.) A chapter devoted to Williams' novels reads them as attempts to overcome alienation through the pastoral celebration of Welsh working-class community values; the novels are parochial, Gorak implies, in a way that the criticism is not.
The force of this argument lies in its claim that the depth of Williams' alienation was never acknowledged and that it remained hidden from his many admirers. Socialism, whether to be achieved through the cultural consensus advocated in Culture and Society or by the revolutionary measures presupposed in his Marxist phase, was thus the compensatory fantasy of an intellectual outsider engaged in a lifelong battle with despair. Gorak is moved to eloquence on the subject of the "occupational hazards" and "potentially self-defeating" tendencies resulting from this, but his own convictions are completely hidden from the reader's scrutiny. Nor will he grant that a disaffection like Williams' could be (as Williams himself wrote on another occasion) "one of the perennial sources of politics." Gorak evidently does not share the high value Williams gave to politics.
Williams was the author of five published novels and three plays, as well as of more than twenty volumes of criticism and theory. Although he reviews [End Page 821] nearly the whole oeuvre, Gorak gives little consideration to Williams' conceptual and methodological innovations. Very late in the book, however, he offers a brief definition of "structure of feeling," the term that most readers will remember from Williams' analyses of fiction and drama. The structure of feeling is "a rhythm of personal obsessions . . . that corresponds to some larger social crisis or ideological fissure." At this point we realize that Williams' method has been turned back, without acknowledgment, on its principal exponent. Alienation, Gorak is saying, is Raymond Williams' structure of feeling.