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The Welshness of William Emrys Williams

William Emrys Williams (1896–1977), the writer, educator, arts administrator and publisher, was a human powerhouse in the field of cultural transmission. Notions of Welshness reverberated in the epicentre of British cultural life in the middle of the twentieth century; Williams emphasized his links with Wales, and others who knew him treated his Welshness as a factor in the way they constructed his identity. This essay takes as its focus a scholarly biography of Williams by Sander Meredeen, whose comprehensive treatment of Williams’s life includes his Welshness as a significant strand.2

Life-writing about cultural figures within Wales has frequently carried national resonances, supported by recognisable literary tropes. Readers of articles in the Anglo-Welsh Review often encountered attributions of remote birth-places, with fervent national sentiment around links to humble origins in rural Wales. The role of early education in encouraging self-expression is often emphasized, together with formative affiliations to Welsh non-conformity.3 It will be seen that these characteristic formations recur in relation to Williams. They are exploited positively by Williams and his friends – but they are also interpreted negatively by his critics. At a time when numbers of Welshmen figured at the heart of the British cultural establishment, Welshness could become a two-edged sword.