In 1976 there appeared a landmark book by the Welsh European socialist intellectual Raymond Williams (1921–1988) titled Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society . With an expanded second edition in 1983, Keywords has remained in print continuously and during these years has proved its value for scholars of the novel. Now in a new volume, Keywords for Today: A 21st Century Vocabulary, edited by Colin MacCabe and Holly Yanacek, a multidisciplinary and international team of fourteen scholars revises and updates Williams's classic. On this occasion, Novel has invited us to sketch for its readers something of the continuing resource an updated keywords approach offers.
Williams began work on Keywords in the 1950s, while writing the book that first won him renown: Culture and Society: 1780–1950 (1958). Culture and Society demonstrates how British writers, living amid the immense social and political changes of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, repurposed words to characterize these tumultuous changes, to think about them, and to act on them. Among its great virtues, Culture and Society treats works of nonfiction with the close attention to language and its complications usually reserved for works of fiction and poetry.
Williams made a startling discovery, gleaned from the vast resources of the Oxford English Dictionary (only completed in 1928). Around 1800, a crucial cluster of English words—he highlights industry, democracy, class, art, and culture—drastically changed their meanings as new conditions of life emerged. These terms already suggest an exemplary narrative of modernity: as industry and democracy remade the world, a new class challenged both in the name of art and culture. Williams found also a much larger group of new words (such as intellectual) or transformed words (such as experience) that required attention within the overall argument. Originally intended as an appendix to Culture and Society, this larger cluster of around 130 words eventually formed Keywords.
Keywords for Today adds about eighty words that the twenty-first century requires (for example, appropriation, faith, secular, trans), retains about forty of Williams's words (such as art, literature, nature), adds “Recent Developments” to update them, and eliminates about eighty of Williams's words that nowadays no longer register crucial aspects of social change (including alienation, mechanical, utilitarian). Finally, a few of Williams's words were retained but with wholly newly written entries (image, native, sexuality, theory, West).
Williams's vantage point in the middle twentieth century looked back over the great age of print culture, now superseded by new media. Therefore the Keywords Project, which produced Keywords for Today, also maintains a website: https://keywords.pitt.edu/. Keywords for Today carries forward Williams's fundamental project while expanding the field of reference for language usages to the digital corpora now available to scholarship. In The Bourgeois, Franco Moretti invoked Williams's Keywords while also making use of digital corpora, combining the best of close and distant reading.
Both over time and at a given moment, Williams argued, social conflict between groups produces stresses that lead different people to use the same word in different ways. Williams's entry on democracy (retained and updated in Keywords for Today) demonstrates this conflict and change with a force likely to startle many readers. Mikhail Bakhtin demonstrates that novels can build their form from the interplay of different discourses identified with conflicting social groups. Keywords works at a finer grain. Williams gained his academic training in the Cambridge English tradition of I. A. Richards (Practical Criticism ) and William Empson (Seven Types of Ambiguity , and The Structure of Complex Words ). This Cambridge philology intensely focused on the potential plurality of meaning within single words, and to this Williams added the Marxism that mobilized his politics and view of history. In the United States, Williams's older contemporary Ralph Ellison learned a similar lesson of politically acute verbal analysis from Kenneth Burke, and he shaped the dynamic of Invisible Man (1952) through the keyword identity, newly included in Keywords for Today (see Arac). Important recent American novels obviously amenable to keywords analysis include two with title terms newly included in Keywords for Today: Chang-Rae Lee's Native Speaker (1995), and Jonathan Franzen's Freedom (2010).
Williams's Keywords has proved continuingly valuable for the study of the novel because the words it analyzes often immediately enrich critical reading and also because its method proves generative for analytic inquiry exploring words beyond those it includes (consider Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping ). Moreover, it has benefited novel scholars' capacity to think historically, even suspiciously, about the words we use in our own writing, which threaten to become unreflective second nature. Williams had already drawn attention to art, history, literature, and realism, and Keywords for Today adds, among others, gender, narrative, representation, and text. The intellectual perspective and political commitment that give Keywords its strength allowed Williams to produce a body of important criticism of novels, novelists, and the institution of the novel.
Williams's signature formulation, structure of feeling, calls out for meshing with keywords analysis. He never quite did it himself, but the potential remains live and great. Williams begins his introduction to Keywords with an anecdote from 1945, when he returned to complete his BA at Cambridge after four and a half years of combat service against the Germans as an antitank officer. Cambridge was the same place, but he found it “strange.” Talking with a friend from four years before, also a veteran, he reports, “[W]e both said, in effect simultaneously, ‘They don't speak the same language’” (11). The structure of feeling had changed, and painstaking linguistic analysis of keywords proved one resource for understanding the difference—but Williams does not invoke the formulation. He preferred to use it when coming to terms with cultural works rather than practices, and one of the ways a new work, or genre, affects us comes through changes it makes in the language.
Part of the haziness concerning structure of feeling—Williams attempted to codify it in a chapter of Marxism and Literature (1977), too didactic and abstract for most readers—comes because neither of its terms merited entry as a keyword. Keywords does include structural, which seemed too tied to the brief vogue for “structuralism” to be retained in Keywords for Today. A moment in the discussion indicates the problem structure of feeling hoped to resolve. Discussing the emergence of structural linguistics, Williams observes, “Structure was preferred to process because it emphasized a particular and complex organization of relations, often at very deep levels. But what was being studied were nonetheless living processes, while structure . . . from its uses in building and engineering . . . expressed something relatively fixed and permanent, even hard” (Keywords 303). Structure of feeling used its second term to loosen things up and bring the structure back to living human process.
The formulation begins to take shape in Culture and Society , in conjunction with that book's only major engagement with novels. The chapter titled “The Industrial Novels” (which include Mary Barton, North and South, Hard Times, Sybil, Alton Locke, and Felix Holt), just about the book's longest, does not get very close to the language of these nineteenth-century novels, but it does try to elucidate a “structure of feeling,” by which Williams means “certain common assumptions” that framed the authors' attempts at “direct response” to “life in an unsettled industrial society” (87). Each novel receives quick discerning comment, but Williams reaches a negative assessment. Read together, the novels show the “criticism of industrialism, which the tradition was establishing”; but even more important, they illustrate a “structure of feeling” that is “determining”: “Recognition of evil was balanced by fear of becoming involved. Sympathy was transformed, not into action, but into withdrawal” (109). At this stage, structure of feeling seems no more than a synonym, or even a euphemism, for ideology. As Williams continues in later works, the term names more an exploration than a determination, a path forward more than a limit.
In The Long Revolution (1961), structure of feeling comes to life, not only in the long final chapter where Williams attempts to read the signs of his own times—the early 1960s—but already in the second chapter, “The Analysis of Culture,” focusing on the 1840s. Just a few years earlier, Kathleen Tillotson's great work of literary history, Novels of the Eighteen-Forties (1954), had characterized a new literary culture for this decade and had begun to specify a canon, with extended chapters on Mary Barton, Dombey and Son, Vanity Fair, and Jane Eyre. These titles remain familiar to scholars and readers, teachers and students a long lifetime later, but the major previous work of academic novel study, The Great Tradition (1948), by F. R. Leavis, had simply ignored them. In Williams's lifetime some opponents dismissively taunted him as offering no more than left Leavisism, but this second chapter of The Long Revolution , and the whole book, show him analyzing and assessing the possibilities within cultural developments—such as mass literacy and the popular press—that Leavis preferred simply to disdain.
Williams builds up to “structure of feeling” (64) through the “key-word” (63) of pattern, meaning what one must notice in order to recognize culture actively and creatively taking shape. This insistence on formative social practice links Williams to the masterwork of his younger contemporary and sometime comrade, the historian E. P. Thompson in The Making of the English Working Class (1963). The structure of feeling is what makes possible the “communication” among the diverse “actual communities” (65) that coexist within a given society and that through their interaction produce a culture. Williams zooms in tighter in his 1978 essay “Forms of English Fiction in 1848,” and he adds to the analysis the terms dominant, residual, and emergent, developed in what may be his most influential essay, “Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory” (1973).
Williams gives his largest attention to the novel in two closely related books, The English Novel from Dickens to Lawrence (1970; including important pages on Joyce) and the more comprehensive, polemical, and transformative The Country and the City (1973), which incorporates much of the previous book while adding attention to the eighteenth-century novel, science fiction, and colonial/postcolonial writing, all counterpointed to other literary forms such as pastoral and georgic poetry, plays, protest, and memoir. The whole of The Country and the City grows from a keywords analysis, involving the contrasting title terms and their interaction charted from the sixteenth century into the twentieth. Williams envisions a future in which their contrast may disappear, along with the division of labor and the capitalist world economy that has shaped them.
The Country and the City 's analysis requires Williams to make “critical discriminations” to distinguish and analyze the various “important structures of feeling” (12) by which people shaped their grasp of the world in different genres at different times. Part of the work's energy comes from seeing the contrasts across genres. The chapter on the eighteenth-century novel, “The Morality of Improvement,” locates Defoe, Fielding, and Richardson under a crucial term (improve would appear in Keywords) that links the moral and the economic, and then it contrasts their works to those of the agricultural writer Arthur Young. The discussion of Jane Austen follows upon that of her older contemporary William Cobbett, whose Rural Rides (1830) registers a very different England than hers, although geographically proximate. In Austen, Williams spotlights a keyword contradiction between production and consumption: “There is the improvement of soil, stock, yields, in a working agriculture. And there is the improvement of houses, parks, artificial landscapes, which absorbed so much of the actually increasing wealth” (115–16).
To see keywords analysis as an avowed way of working with the complexities of important novels far beyond Williams's ken, we may turn to ongoing work on the language of German fiction around 1900 by Holly Yanacek, coeditor of Keywords for Today. In his introduction to the first edition of Keywords (1976), Williams highlighted the need for even more discussion of linguistic developments in other languages: “Many of the most important words that I have worked on either developed key meanings in languages other than English, or went through a complicated and interactive development in a number of major languages” (20). And yet Williams also acknowledged, “To do such comparative studies adequately would be an extraordinary international collaborative enterprise, and the difficulties of that may seem sufficient excuse” (20).
Williams's keywords analysis has opened a path to studying emotions as represented in German literary fiction. His concern with language “not as a shared understanding but rather as a site of division,” as discussed in the introduction to Keywords for Today (xi), helps to elucidate the contestation of different emotional styles in German novels published around 1900—the subject of Yanacek's book in progress, “Rethinking Feeling: Nietzsche, Emotion, and fin-de-siècle German Literature.” The fin de siècle in German society was a period of rapid cultural change when the question of how one should feel in different situations was disputed. Particularly the social or moral emotions, such as compassion, love, honor, pride, shame, and pity, were topics of public and intellectual debate, and German novels of this period renegotiated these emotions by making them a central subject of literary discourse and depicting the insufficiency of nineteenth-century emotional styles. Yanacek proposes “heteropathia” to name the conflict among differing ways of feeling in a single literary work (see Yanacek 13–14). While heteropathia is indebted to Bakhtin's heteroglossia, the project as a whole follows Williams in its concern with specific words in German novels and extraliterary discourses around 1900.
Close attention to language—especially to historically complex, polysemous keywords in a novel—can enrich critical reading and open up new interpretations, even of canonical texts. The capacity for literary scholars to think historically and skeptically about complex words in novels and in our own writing is especially important when addressing vocabularies of feeling in different languages. In The History of Emotions (2018), Rob Boddice recounts an exchange at a conference where a question from the floor asked if new ideas and methods in the history of emotions “meant that they could no longer read Jane Austen novels, for example, as exemplary accounts of authentic love.” Boddice writes, “There is no ‘authentic love,’ anywhere, any time” (54). Williams's keywords analysis underlines that both “authentic” and “love” are words with long, complex histories and multiple active and competing strands of meaning. Both are, in fact, new entries in Keywords for Today. A keywords approach historicizes language and examines simultaneous senses and semantic change over time; similarly, a history-of-emotions approach understands certain aspects of emotions—their expression, meanings, range, intensity, and so on—as socioculturally shaped. As evident in Emotional Lexicons (Frevert et al.), vocabularies of feeling are often an important starting point for historians and literary and cultural scholars studying emotions.
Ideas about the historical and cultural variability of both language and emotion destabilize notions like “authentic love” and challenge assumptions or claims about the universality of emotions in novel studies scholarship. A process of linguistic, cultural, and emotional translation may be needed to access the lost meanings and cultural values associated with a particular emotion word. Novels provide insight into shifting modes of thinking and feeling: by communicating through different narrative techniques and emotion words and metaphors, novels indicate how certain emotions were theorized, expressed, experienced, perceived, and valued in different societies throughout history.
Some important German emotion words—including Stolz (pride), Mitleid (compassion; pity), Scham (shame), Ehre (honor), and Liebe (love)—had important meanings and associations in the nineteenth century that were already shifting around 1900. For example, Scham was a nineteenth-century emotional imperative for women from bourgeois families, and masculine Ehre, associated with the practice of dueling, fueled public debates in German-speaking countries at the fin de siècle. Theodor Fontane's most famous novel of female adultery, Effi Briest (1895), addresses the married couple's inability to have what late nineteenth-century Prussian aristocratic society would consider “das richtige Gefühl” (259), or the proper feelings in their situations. Fontane thereby indicates the declining relevance of the emotional imperatives of feminine shame and masculine honor and the need for different, more humane emotional styles. Fontane's concept of “rechte Liebe” (proper love) in Effi Briest, which recalls Arthur Schopenhauer's definition of “reine Liebe” (pure love), suggests not romantic love but a broader sense of love and fellow feeling for all humanity—namely, Mitleid, or compassion. Effi Briest imagines Mitleid as an alternative to the emotional imperatives of shame and honor.
Contestation over emotional styles and the meanings of emotion words can also take place between novels. For example, the emotion word Mitleid takes on different connotations and senses in Fontane's Effi Briest and Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks (1901). In Effi Briest, Mitleid best translates as “compassion,” but in Buddenbrooks as “pity.” Effi Briest positively represents Mitleid and performances of compassion, but in Buddenbrooks, Mitleid and performances of pity are more suspect, as Mann adapts Friedrich Nietzsche's critique of pity as a morality of weakness.
Keywords analysis of novels also helps us to understand larger changes in language and cultural practices over time, for instance in relation to the three German emotion words Empfindung (sentiment; feeling; sensation), Gefühl (feeling; emotion), and Emotion (emotion). The eighteenth century saw the greatest valuation and usage of the term Empfindung. In literary history the century's major cultural period is called Empfindsamkeit, or “sensibility” (1720–1789). Yet in this period, Empfindung was not alone. Gefühl was also common. Both words appear repeatedly in Goethe's oeuvre, and Das Goethe-Wörterbuch (The Goethe Dictionary) lists seven different main senses of the word Empfindung and seven main senses of the word Gefühl found in Goethe's collected works. In Goethe's Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sufferings of Young Werther  1787), a key novel of Empfindsamkeit, these terms are both used and are distinguished from each other. The novel sets up Gefühle as feelings common to all human beings, but individuals have Empfindungen of different kinds and degrees. Sometimes Werther's Empfindung takes the form of overwhelming sensory experience, while at other times it is a developed skill and sign of an artistic genius, as in the letter of May 17:
War unser Umgang nicht ein ewiges Weben von der feinsten Empfindung, dem schärfsten Witze, dessen Modifikationen, bis zur Unart, alle mit dem Stempel des Genies bezeichnet waren? (Goethe 22)
Wasn't our time together an endless weave of the subtlest feeling, the sharpest wit, whose variations even to the point of misbehavior bore the stamp of genius? (Corngold 26)
By the end of the eighteenth century, writers began to reevaluate this culture of Empfindsamkeit. Sensibility and sensitivity, once considered agreeable qualities for both men and women of virtue, began to be viewed as feminine, and eventually Goethe himself dismissed the culture of Empfindsamkeit as a sickness.
Nineteenth-century novels continued this distance from earlier emphasis on Empfindsamkeit, and the more neutral word Gefühl became predominant. Might we consider this a change in the structure of feeling? The entries for “Empfindung” and “Gefühl” in Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm's dictionary (1854) describe Gefühl as more objective and Empfindung as more subjective, suggesting that a preference for objective terms, a partiality still present today, emerged in the nineteenth century. The growing fields of psychiatry, psychology, and evolutionary studies likely fueled this desire for objectivity in the study of human feelings and mental states. Nineteenth-century historical dictionaries and literary texts document a wide variety of compounds or neologisms formed with Gefühl. Works of German realist fiction and psychoanalytic texts in the later part of the century indicate that not all feelings were productive or desirable in society. Methods of categorizing Gefühle, purging negative feelings, and encouraging socially desirable ones were still being developed at this time.
In the twentieth century, Gefühl remains the most frequently used emotion word, but the borrowed term Emotion has made its mark in the German language, especially since the mid-1990s. Emotion is now replacing the older term, Gemütsbewegung (emotion), in many German scientific, literary, and philosophical texts. Similar to the word emotion in English, the German Emotion has spawned a variety of compound words, including emotionale Kompetenz (emotional competence), emotionale Intelligenz (emotional intelligence), Emotionsbildung (emotional literacy), Emotionsregulation (emotional regulation), and Emotionsarbeit (emotional labor). When the word Emotion entered the German language in the early seventeenth century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it carried its historical baggage and negative senses along with it—the term originally meant civil unrest or a social disturbance. This German borrowing, with its recent ability to form compounds like those listed above, reflects a parallel development in English described in Keywords for Today: the understanding that emotions can be objectified—categorized, measured, and controlled.
Williams's keywords analysis has much to offer novel studies, especially when scholars avail themselves of digital tools (e.g., linguistic corpora, Google Ngrams) and literary critical practices that combine close and distant reading strategies. This method can alert us to polysemy, contestations of meaning, and semantic change over time, enabling us to rethink our assumptions about language and adding what Williams called “that extra edge of consciousness” (Keywords 24), whether in studies of the novel or in daily speech and writing, especially on social media.