Sunday, March 16, 2008

A Touch Of Class

I’m still reading through the work of Raymond Williams, which is going to take a while. He’s always readable, but I keep coming across ideas and arguments which are unfamiliar to me, which slows me down. And that’s fine: I take a lot of pleasure, and also relief, in finding that I’m still learning new things as I get older. (And also, I confess, frustration that there will not be time to learn everything I need and want to learn.) I’m getting through Politics and Letters slowly, slowly. But here’s something I found in the posthumous collection What I Came to Say (London: Hutchinson Radius, 1989). It comes from an autobiographical essay in which Williams describes his arrival at Cambridge University as a scholarship boy from Wales in 1939.

In this and other ways, over the first week, I found out what is now obvious: that I was arriving, more or less isolated, within what was generally the arrival of a whole formation, an age-group, which already had behind it years of shared acquaintance, and shared training and expectations, from its boarding schools. I was reminded of a conversation my father had reported to me, from his advance visit. The porter had asked him, rather haughtily, whether my name was already down. ‘Yes, since last autumn.’ ‘Last autumn? Many of them, you know, are put down at birth.’ I try to be charitable, and find it easier now. But I remember sitting on the benches in hall, surrounded by these people, and wishing they had been put down at birth. There was little personal difficulty or dislike, but the formation was easy to hate – is still easy to hate – and I have to record that I responded aggressively. The myth of the working-class boy arriving in Cambridge – it has happened more since the war, though the proportion is still quite unreasonably low – is that he is an awkward misfit and has to learn new manners. It may depend on where you come from. Out of rural Wales it didn’t feel like that. The class which has dominated Cambridge is given to describing itself as well-mannered, polite, sensitive. It continually contrasts itself favourably with the rougher and coarser others. When it turns to the arts, it congratulates itself, overtly, on its taste and its sensibility; speaks of its poise and tone. If I then say that what I found was an extraordinarily coarse, pushing, name-ridden group, I shall be told that I am showing class-feeling, class-envy, class-resentment. That I showed class-feeling is not in any doubt. All I would insist on is that nobody fortunate enough to grow up in a good home, in a genuinely well-mannered and sensitive community, could for a moment envy these loud, competitive and deprived people. All I did not know then was how cold that class is. That comes with experience.

The first thing this passage makes me think of is the Harry Potter books. Harry also arrives at Hogwarts alone, though he’s quickly adopted by the Weasleys, and is preceded by his reputation as the boy whom Voldemort tried and failed to kill. Unlike Harry, who was raised by his hostile human relatives in isolation from other wizards, Williams grew up in a very self-aware working-class community. His father (unlike Harry’s) was alive and able to instruct him, having participated in the great railroad strike of 1926, and labor organizing and activism were in the air Williams breathed as a child and adolescent. Williams’s excellence as a scholar, rather than his parentage (indeed Harry’s race, as a Wizard rather than a Muggle), was what won his way into Cambridge; and thanks to his background Williams was much less conflicted than Harry about his outsider status; unlike Harry, Williams never seems to have felt pressured to be an insider.

Williams’s description of the upper-class students at Cambridge will be familiar to Potter readers; he could easily be describing the Malfoys and the others who felt it was their right to rule. I recognize them too, as a subset of the students I encountered at the large state university I attended, and where I still work. Though my family was working-class, like most Americans we thought of ourselves as middle-class, so I didn’t have Williams’s identification with a working-class community and its traditions of organizing and struggle; my parents were pretty apolitical, and since we weren’t churchgoers either, I grew up with little sense of community outside my family. (Considering my background, I find it interesting that when I came out, getting involved in gay politics and activism seemed like the natural course for me, though in the end I never did that much, and I turned out more like my parents in this respect than I like to acknowledge.) So it took me a long time to realize that a large part of my feelings of alienation came from class differences. Unfortunately I didn’t have a background of “class-feeling,” as Williams did, to make sense of my situation.

Eventually I came to recognize myself as a familiar enough type: the intellectual from a working-class background who ends up feeling out of place whether among my class of origin, or among the class I’m supposed to aspire to. That’s one reason I find Williams so interesting: despite that alienation, he found a way to build a career of important work that was true to his principles without being imprisoned by his background (which actually seems to have supported and liberated him) or by the structure of the great English universities.