Cultural materialism undermines the idea that great literature is ‘timeless’ and seeks, instead, to recover the historical grounds of literary texts.
Raymond Williams’ essay ‘Literature and Rural Society’ presents the argument that the image of the British countryside has undergone a change throughout each generation's minds. Each generation believes that they have lost Eden and, although respectively the change is very specific, each generation imagines the change as the same; the devastation of Eden.
Williams’ argument is that writers have a misconception of the change. He presents that by going back in intervals from the 1920s to the 16th Century using a ‘historical escalator’ to present this claim. Throughout the ‘historical escalator’ it is clear to see that every generation believes that have suffered from a great change that has replaced Eden.
It is the memories of the writer’s rather than the actual scenery which has changed. That is not to say that the countryside has not undergone any change, but not to the extent that the writers believe is catastrophic to their idea of Eden.
The idea of the countryside is very powerful as it lives on throughout history and each generation has written about the loss of Eden in one way or the other. It should be remembered that there is a key difference between the time the texts are written and when they are written about.
David Macey defines cultural materialism within The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory. He states: “Cultural materialism stresses that culture is a consecutive social process which actively creates different ways of life.”
This links to idea of change in the countryside as William’s writes about Ben Johnson’s poem, To Penshurst which is said to be about a natural order, however William’s states that this is more about a social order due to the comparison of the houses.
Thou art not, Penshurst, built to envious show,
Of touch or marble; nor canst boast a row
Of polished pillars, or a roof of gold;
Thou hast no lantern, whereof tales are told,
Or stair, or courts; but stand’st an ancient pile,
And, these grudged at, art reverenced the while.
(To Penshurst — Ben Johnson)
During the time that Johnson penned this poem, many countryside houses were built as a display of wealth. They acted as a retreat for a courtier when overwhelmed by the court and city life. Country houses originally, were not large houses in the country in which rich people lived; they were actually power houses — the houses of a ruling class. Williams’ argument comes out within this about the poem being about a social order due to the upper, ruling class still possessing power even within the countryside. To put it simply, people did not live in a country house unless they either possessed power or were making a bid to possess it.
There is a difference of life and living itself because of the social process of change and progress. The historical grounds of this text exemplify cultural materialism because William’s states it is “of a convincingly rural economy” which coincides with F. R. Leavis’ idea of culture as an organic community and this furthers William’s point about change.
So, what are your thoughts? Are you a great Romantic and feel as though we’ve lost the best of times? Or do you believe that this thought process occurs to most people along with age? Comment below and let me know!