Back to Campus
John Williams's Stoner, published in 1965 and reissued by New York Review Books in 2003, is a strange work. Its a campus novel that, unlike many of its predecessors in the genre, refuses to devolve into farce or caricature. In the world of Stoner, academics are quirky and petty, but they are never merely quirky, never merely petty; in their mixture of flaws and strengths, they resemble actual human beings. It's a narrative with few moments of obvious dramaa professional scorning here, a failed love affair there, but that's about it, and even these moments are met not with wailing and gnashing of teeth but with quiet, sad resignation. The novel is written in a style so lucid that it's easy to dismiss as flat (though it isn't, at all), and it's about a state, Missouri, that has received little literary attention since the days of Mark Twain. Finally, Stoner advertises its eponymous hero, a reserved academic named William Stoner, as exceptional only in his unexceptionalness.
In the novel's first paragraph, we read that, despite decades of service to the University of Missouri Department of English, Stoner 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, the passage continues, he was quickly forgotten, and whatever effect he may have had on the institution he gave his life to was all but erased. Now, if hes remembered at all, it is as a memento mori to the older faculty, a reminder of the end that awaits them all.
Stoner, we soon learn, was born in 1891 on a small farm in central Missouri. From a young age, Stoner learned that to live was to labor: it was a lonely household, Williams writes, and it was bound together by the necessity of its toil. At twenty-five, his father is stooped by labor, and his mother, even younger, regarded her life patiently, as if it were a long moment that she had to endure. (Few novels are as sensitive to the simultaneously enervating and ennobling nature of work, whether this work is slopping pigs on the farm or grading papers in a university.)
After Stoner finishes high school, his father recommends that he attend the University of Missouri in order to study agriculture and make the land yield its bounty more easily. He goes and falls in love with English literature. His parents are surprised but, in their own gruff manner, supportive when he decides to stay on as a graduate student. He soon becomes an instructor and finally a professor. He marries a young, high-strung woman from a wealthy St. Louis family (their marriage is a disappointment from their wedding day on), leads seminars on medieval literature and composition, grades endless papers, and eventually dies in his study. It is, on the surface, a quiet, even boring life. And yet, by the novel's end, the reader has come to see Stoner as something altogether different: noble despite his occasional moments of cowardice, passionate despite his outward reserve, a deeply committed teacher, father, and lover despite his lack of obvious charisma.There are some books that you don't want to spoil by criticism. Instead, you just want to exhort whoever is in front of you--friend or stranger, student or professor--to go, read, and discover the book's wonders firsthand. This is how I feel about Stoner: I can't recommend it highly enough, but I dont want to offer my own reading of it, at least not yet. Instead, I'll offer a sampling of some of the novel's most beautiful passages.The writing, as you will see, is marked by restraint and clarity. Sentences don't burst forth with exuberance, as in novels by Saul Bellow or Peter Carey; they slowly gain strength and nuance. (Williams was a writing instructor at the University of Denver for decades, and his sentences are bravura examples of how, through the careful modulation of pacing and syntax, clarity and complexity need not rule one another out). It is a patient style, willing to withhold the lyrical image or beautiful phrase until the perfect moment, and this is true of the novel as a whole: it builds its characters and its actions unobtrusively, so that by the end you can't believe how much sadness and joy you have been made to feel by these seemingly ordinary characters. On the joys of teaching well:
He felt himself at least beginning to be a teacher, which was simply a man to whom his book is true, to whom is given a dignity of art that has little to do with his foolishness or weakness or inadequacy as a man. It was a knowledge of which he could not speak, but one which changed him, once he had it, so that no one could mistake its presence.
On a newly formed romance:
He dreamed of perfections, of worlds in which they could always be together, and half believed in the possibility of what he dreamed. What, he said, would it be like if, and went on to construct a possibility hardly more attractive than the one in which they existed. It was an unspoken knowledge they both had, that the possibilities they imagined and elaborated were gestures of love and a celebration of the life they had together now.
He had come to that moment in his age when there occurred to him, with increasing intensity, a question of such overwhelming simplicity that he had no means to face it. He found himself wondering if his life were worth the living; if it had ever been. It was a question, he suspected, that came to all men at one time or another; he wondered if it came to them with such impersonal force as it came to him. The question brought with it a sadness, but it was a general sadness which (he thought) had little to do with himself or with his particular fate; he was not even sure that the question sprang from the most immediate and obvious causes, from what his own life had become. It came, he believed, from the accretion of his years, from the density of accident and circumstance, and from what he had come to understand of them.
Finally, on the nature of love:
He had, in odd ways, given [passion] to every moment of his life, and had perhaps given it most fully when he was unaware of his giving. It was a passion neither of the mind nor of the flesh; rather, it was a force that comprehended them both, as if they were but the matter of love, its specific substance. To a woman or to a poem, it said simply: Look! I am alive.
About the Author
Anthony Domestico is an assistant professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY.