“The iconoclasm need not be loud and messy.”
According to Michelle Latiolais, a former student of John Williams at the University of Denver where he taught for many years, this was a recurring bit of advice that Williams gave to his creative writing students. Latiolais wrote about this in her introduction to another of Williams’s fine novels, Butcher’s Crossing. Both Butcher’s Crossing and Stoner were recently published through the New York Review of Books Classics series which has brought back into circulation several titles that deserve to be revisited. The cover designs in this series are all beautifully done as well, and the handsome cover of Stoner features a Thomas Eakins painting that perfectly fits the somber, contemplative mood of the novel.
(For the record, this John Williams is not to be confused with “John A. Williams” the African-American novelist and author of The Man Who Cried I Am.)
Stoner is among the most beautifully written of all the academic novels I’ve read. In Stoner John Williams certainly fulfilled the principles that he taught to his own students. The novel was first published in 1965, and I have come to think of it as a novel of “The 1960s”, but one that took a different angle on the social upheaval of that time. While you can turn to Ginsburg or Burroughs for the noise and messiness, Williams provides a nuanced look at some of the social background that produced this rebellion: the conformity of middle-class respectability, the stifling norms of gender and sexuality, the worship of wealth and finance, the violence and death of perpetual wars. It isn’t a book that aims to be loudly political. While all those themes are present in Stoner in various forms, they are all tucked away into a simple, powerful, and resonant tale about the life and career of a simple Missouri farm boy who becomes an English professor.
On the first page of the novel John Williams gives us a biographical blurb on Stoner that is as good a summary of the novel as any reviewer could write:
“William Stoner entered the University of Missouri as a freshman in the year 1910, at the age of nineteen. Eight years later, during the height of World War I, he received his Doctor of Philosophy degree and accepted an instructorship at the same University, where he taught until his death in 1956. He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses. When he died his colleagues made a memorial contribution of a medieval manuscript to the University library. This manuscript may still be found in the Rare Books Collection, bearing the inscription: ‘Presented to the Library of the University of Missouri, in memory of William Stoner, Department of English. By his colleagues.’”
That is his core story, but there’s so much more. Stoner is born into a poor farming family in Booneville, Missouri. He goes off to college with the idea that he will study agriculture and bring that knowledge back to the family farm. Instead he discovers a passion for medieval English literature, and when his advisor presents him with an opportunity to teach some courses and pursue his Ph.D., Stoner finds himself on his way to career in academia.
In his personal life, Stoner ends up married to Edith, a socially awkward young society girl born into a family of “means” in St. Louis, Missouri. Her father is a pompous man of the financial industry, and let’s just say 1929 was not kind to him and his family. Edith has been cultivated by her parents to be little more than ornamentation for some wealthy husband who will give her the comfortably dull life that she is accustomed to. Despite the fact that he is not well off, Edith senses some kind of freedom in marrying Stoner (though she is unable to articulate it) and decides to accept his proposal. The social and sexual awkwardness between them is apparent throughout their entire marriage, from their very first days together on through the later years as they grow into little more than emotionally distant roommates raising a young daughter together.
The most powerful section in the novel comes when Stoner falls into an affair with Katherine Driscoll, a graduate student who takes one of his seminars. Driscoll is younger than Stoner, but is a world wise and experienced woman in her own right. This could easily be dismissed as just another in the long line of sordid affairs portrayed in academic fictions (and nearly any fictional work involving heterosexual middle aged men.) At one point Stoner acknowledges that his own situation has devolved into just such a cliché and in a moment of despair he sees himself as, “a pitiable fellow going into his middle age, misunderstood by his wife, seeking to renew his youth, taking up with a girl years younger than himself, awkwardly and apishly reaching for the youth he could not have, a fatuous, garishly got-up clown at whom the world laughed out of discomfort, pity and contempt.”
Though Stoner and Driscoll’s relationship is as innocent and sincere as extra-marital relations come, they run aground of the morality of the college community. When a rival professor catches wind of their relationship he uses it as ammunition against Stoner. Eventually his meddling forces Stoner and Driscoll to make a difficult decision about their relationship.
The language of the novel is quite beautiful and I could single out any number of passages that seem so precise and resonant in describing physical or emotional details in the story. I’ve seen more than one review compare it to Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House, another gracefully written academic novel full of longing and desire. One of the passages that stands out is when Stoner has just buried his parents and ponders the fleeting insignificance of the meager agrarian lives that they led:
“He thought of the cost exacted, year after year, by the soil; and it remained as it had been – a little more barren, perhaps, a little more frugal of increase. Nothing had changed. Their lives had been expended in cheerless labor, their wills broken, their intelligences numbed. Now they were in the earth to which they had given their lives; and slowly, year by year, the earth would take them. Slowly the damp and rot would infest the pine boxes which held their bodies, and slowly it would touch their flesh, and finally it would consume the last vestiges of their substances. And they would become a meaningless part of that stubborn earth to which they had long ago given themselves.”
As far as the academic world goes, Stoner subtly portrays some of the mundane activities of the academic life in a way few other novels accomplish, and it does so in an engaging style that doesn’t alienate the non-academic reader. That said, one character who academics will certainly recognize is Charles Walker a graduate student in one of Stoner’s seminars. Walker is one of those students who never lets the fact that he is unprepared for class keep him from participating in the discussions anyway. In one particularly scandalous scene Walker is supposed to be presenting a paper of his own, but instead he improvises his presentation by bashing another student’s paper. Now much ink has been spilled over the way that some theory junkies in literary studies rely on their pre-fabricated psychoanalysis or post-structural jargon and apply the same dull terms to whatever literary work they happen to be talking about. Though “theory” came later, Williams shows us that the academic bullshitter was not invented in the 1980s and 1990s. When Stoner is drafted to sit in on Walker’s orals committee he not only takes the shoddy student down a peg, he also provides a rather useful summary of the basic things that one should know as a scholar of early English literature. I think the best academic novels manage to be pedagogical in this way, by not only dramatizing the academic life, but also teaching something about the disciplines depicted in the work.
It’s no secret we are in a period of uncertainty about the future of the novel (or any other long forms of writing for that matter). I think of novels like Stoner whenever I hear someone crowing about how many hundreds of books they just downloaded on their snazzy new Kindle. (I’m posting this on a blog, so obviously I’m no Luddite.) For me, the worst part of these technological changes is the brazenly arrogant attitude some people seem to take toward the amount of toil, effort and care that goes into producing just one of the novel titles that these technocrats so callously flip through in their fancy gadgets. It seems that the owners of e-readers always seem to brag about how many books they have accumulated on the device before they talk in detail about any particular one that they have read. Stoner strikes me as the kind of finely tuned, elegant writing that we will never see again in this fast, cheap and out-of-control media environment. Who has the patience to write such novels? Who has the patience to read them? Or even read about them? I love novels like Stoner because they remind me of the value of the novel, the pleasures of reading the great ones over and over, and the ability of the novel to capture unique aspects of humanity that can only be articulated by the hand of a diligent, careful observer of the human condition. A narrative artist like Williams can give shape and form to that confusing jumble of accumulated consequences and decisions that we call life. I just hope that we can find strategies to preserve and cultivate this type of art, and this type of contemplation, somewhere inside or outside of this digital hive.
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