Tuesday, May 18, 2010


First published in 1965, John Williams' novel Stoner might seem at first glance to be utterly out of touch with the times. A college novel with no student unrest, with no racial issues or politically sensitized students? Indeed, this realistic novel from the mid-Sixties narrates a story of the previous generation, giving Williams' novel a quiet force and meaning for troubled times. In following the story of a teacher, William Stoner, from his birth in 1891 on a Missouri farm, to his enrollment, at his father's urging, to study agriculture at the state university in 1910, to his becoming an English major and an instructor at that same university, to his marriage, fatherhood, promotion to assistant professor, single extramarital affair, and eventual retirement and death, in 1956, Williams shows us how even the simplest, most unassuming life has complications, and how the quiet dignity of doing one's job and performing one's appointed task, can be enough to sustain a life.

Such a message, one imagines, would have been rather lost at the time of the novel's initial publication. Republished in 2003 by The New York Review of Books, Stoner is not only a restored American classic, it also is a realist antidote to the modernists of Stoner's generation and the postmodernists of Williams'. Stoner is predominantly a grammarian in the hoary mode handed down from Aristotle to medieval scholasticists and thence to the Renaissance scholars that are Professor Stoner's true precursors. In his world, fads -- like modernism -- are suggested only by his wife Edith's brief inclination to bobbed hair and sheath-like, sleeveless dresses. In fortysome years of teaching, Stoner is never confronted by a sense that the world the university serves is changing very much, nor that the subject matter itself has been altered by new knowledge, nor is he pressured to meet the challenges of young men who, after 1945, had been to war before they had been to college.

Stoner is a novel of a life, and of a life of the mind, that are both almost hermetically sealed, but it is not Williams' intention to be critical of or the least bit satirical toward Stoner's involvement in his vocation, or toward his rather grim dissociation from most other people. In Stoner we find a readily sympathetic product of the Missouri farmlands, a laconic, deeply introspective young man who goes to college and shocks himself by beginning to think for himself, and, thanks to charismatic English professor Archer Sloane, about matters that have nothing to do with crops and livestock. Williams does not overly romanticize the quest for knowledge, nor does he belittle Stoner's humble origins. One of the great assets of Williams' style is that its clarity is so forceful, so direct and right we never feel that we are being misled or asked to make dubious flights of the imagination. Stoner is always what he appears to be, and the fascination of the story is watching him -- a somewhat glum but never insensitive, despairing, or self-important hero -- come to terms with what, exactly, he is.

Williams, who himself taught for a long career at the University of Denver, has too much respect for the mystery of teaching, and of learning, to treat Stoner ironically. Irony is presented as the attitude of the bad guys of the novel: the crippled and brilliant Hollis Lomax and his crippled and would-be brilliant protegé, Charles Walker. That this duo's high ironic mode is inimical to Stoner seems fitting; certainly a teacher of Stoner's earnestness would be somewhat guarded when faced with the verbal self-regard of the highly respected Lomax. But that both Stoner's antagonists should have crippled limbs might indicate in Williams an assumption that a twisted soul must accompany a great mind and stunted body. Further, the fact that Lomax and Walker are Romanticists pitches them -- as asserters of self and the sublime -- against the less showy because more sound scholarship of Stoner. Williams does not belabor the point, but enough space is given to Walker's highly romantic and floridly rhetorical defense of Shakespeare as a unique verbal genius against a fellow student's account of what Renaissance poets owed to Roman models for us to laugh as the narrator lets Walker be hoist with his own petard.

Lomax's villainy takes the form of nothing more than professional antagonism: because Stoner sees through Walker's flimsy facades and tries to fail the student, he incurs the ire of Lomax and so comes to be Lomax's whipping boy when the latter becomes chair of the department. But the suffering Stoner bears in his professional life -- he is given a trying schedule and course assignments that are almost insulting -- has already been matched by suffering in his private life. In the same way that Lomax tries to separate Stoner from his love of teaching classical grammar and rhetoric, Stoner's own wife separates him from, first, their daughter and, later, his efforts to work on a second book.

Stoner's suffering is presented by Williams not as some kind of ethical test, but rather simply as the inevitable outcome of certain fortuitous circumstances and, perhaps, of choices. Stoner could have capitulated to Lomax, but chose not to. Lomax is by his nature vindictive, so Stoner must suffer for it. Stoner, as he realizes poignantly late in life, could have loved his wife more -- if he had, perhaps she would not have felt such jealousy over his close relation with Grace, their daughter. But could he have loved her more? Is such a thing a matter of choice? The other side of that coin is that perhaps Edith could have loved Stoner more. But Stoner accepts it as a given that she loved him as much as she was capable. Everything else -- her absences to visit her family in St. Louis, her meddling with their daughter, her indifference to his career and rejection of the possibility, after Lomax's ascendancy, of his finding a position elsewhere -- simply becomes the given of what being married to Edith means.

The unknowableness of women also seems a given of the novel. We never really have access to Edith's mind nor to the thoughts of Grace because Stoner never does either. He understands them both intuitively, but never makes much effort to really know what they think or feel. Thin as these characters may seem at times, Williams convinces us that Stoner's background and nature make venturing into the interiority of others nearly impossible.

Even in his one great love, in his forties, with a grad student named Katherine Driscoll, Stoner is circumspect about his own feelings and hers. The success of these characterizations lies in the skill with with Williams delineates the effect of circumstance on the character of life. The oddly attenuated courtship of Stoner and Edith is very deftly presented, and the love affair between Stoner and Katherine, in its power, everyday beauty, and failed secrecy, is one of the most commanding segments in the novel. While the women are kept mostly dark to us, Stoner's experience, in its limitations and guarded exaltations, is knowingly and precisely represented. Like Stoner, we know his women through what they do and its effect on him.

Ultimately, Stoner is a novel concerned with the fate of character and circumstance. By living so closely with Stoner's nature throughout the novel, we inhabit a world presented with such clarity that we must grasp the value of its deliberate focus. We enter into a life where decisions are made and consequences occur, and only death can resolve the struggle with the given. We have to watch Stoner play to the very end the cards he has been dealt.

We experience Stoner's life from childhood to grave in less than three hundred pages. If Stoner's life were more extraordinary that would be too little to do him justice; if his life were less interesting, if the prose rendering that life were less exemplary, the length would be too much. The task Williams sets himself is presenting closely, with admiring but not fawning attention, a life that could be easily and quickly summed up, to show us both its sorrows and its joys, to render as deliberatively as possible life in the American midwest in the twentieth century. The novel suggests that a life, any life, is always consistent with itself, even as it is touched by the encouragement and decline of a mentor, loss of parents, three wars, early death of a friend, professional contention, an estrangement from wife and child, and a love that must be sacrificed for the sake of an onerous status quo. Through it all Stoner comes to know himself, and we come to know him, as a man assigned certain qualities he must live by. Though religion plays no significant part in the novel, Stoner's attitude toward life could be said to be quintessentially Protestant in that sense found in Martin Luther's famous declaration of inner necessity: "Here I stand I can do no other."

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This review appears as a participant in the Spotlight Series, a book discussion focusing on small press books, sponsored by The New York Review of Books; this is a link to a site where you can access info on other books published by NYRB Classics.


Chris said...

Sounds like the quiet kind of novel I enjoy.

Thanks for participating!

Aarti said...

This sounds like a really nice book. I think today, a lot of people feel restless about their jobs and whether what they're doing is what they WANT to be doing, and it's nice that there is a book out there with a message that doing work well is a good thing.

Megan said...

This is one of the must read books about faculty politics.