Stoner by John Williams

“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.


2 thoughts on “Stoner by John Williams

  1. Pingback: Black Academic Fiction | "Schoolsville:" Academic/Campus/College/University Fiction

  2. Pingback: Storifying the Academy | THE OVER-EDUCATED NEGRO

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