Stoner by John Williams (1965) NYRB Classics (2006) 278 pp
Earlier this year I read and reviewed John Williams’s other well known works, each a masterpiece: Butcher’s Crossing and Augustus (my reviews here and here, respectively). The first John Williams book I bought, though — and the first I’d heard of, and the first I heard great things about, indeed, the book that made me go out and read the other two — was Stoner (1965). Last year it seemed everyone I follow on the blogosphere was picking up and reading this book. Everything written about it made the book appealing to me: a story set in the academy in the American mid-West, early twentieth century, precise prose, humble character, a man who “did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and [whom] few students remember [. . .] with any sharpness after they had taken his courses.” But it was the first few lines that made me stop reading the book each time I picked it up:
An occasional student who comes upon the name may wonder idly who William Stoner was, but he seldom pursues his curiosity beyond a casual question. Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers.
See, I found them so beautiful, I could sense the love John Williams had for William Stoner, that I couldn’t bear to read the book yet.
And you’ll not be surprsied to find out that I loved this book. Williams shows once again that he was a master worthy of holding a place among the greatest American writers. His observations and precise language about human relationships reminds me of Edith Wharton, his sense for place and time and ability to invoke it through language reminds me of Sherwood Anderson, his compassion for people reminds me of William Maxwell, and his ability to imbue deep meaning into the quotidian reminds me of Emily Dickinson.
Though the book begins by telling us that Stoner has died in 1956 and that no one much remembers his life, the book is all about Stoner’s life, though he himself will eventually wonder “if his life were worth living; if it ever had been.” He was born on a farm to a “lonely household [. . .] bound together by the necessity of its toil.” When Stoner is old enough, his father suggests he go to university to study agriculture, hoping Stoner could then return to the farm and help improve it. Unexpected by either father or son, Stoner falls in love with language and literature, eventually dropping his science classes to focus on the impractical study of words and thought. The rest of his life will be spent — sequestered, some would say — in the halls of academia, where a friend and fellow graduate instructor will say:
But you have the taint, the old infirmity. You think there’s something here, something to find.
It’s for us that the University exists, for the dispossessed of the world; not for the students, not for the selfless pursuit of knowledge, not for any of the reasons that you hear.
Williams does an exceptional job showing just how dispossessed Stoner is. He still has contact with his parents, but theirs is such a tired life that nothing much comes out of the infrequent visits. Eventually Stoner meets a beautiful young woman from a higher social class. The awkward budding of their relationship is really difficult to watch. There is so much silence, so much unsaid, so much they simply don’t know about each other, and so much they will never know about each other. We don’t want them to get married, but they do.
They went into marriage innocent, but innocent in profoundly different ways. They were both virginal, and they were conscious of their inexperience; but whereas William, having been raised on a farm, took as unremarkable the natural processes of life, they were to Edith profoundly mysterious and unexpected. She knew nothing of them, and there was something within her which did not wish to know of them.
And so, like many others, their honeymoon was a failure; yet they would not admit this to themselves, and they did not realize the significance of the failure until long afterward.
Eventually, when Stoner is forty-two years old, “he could see nothing before him that he wished to enjoy and little behind him that he cared to remember.” Yet he still feels passion about literature and language, and he has a passion for teaching it to others. It seems so strange that a man whose life is, by his own account, hardly worth living can find so much in examining deeply thoughts about life and death and love. In many ways, then, this book is about that quest that, even if futile in life, can still be life-sustaining. Stoner still manages to see truth and beauty, even in the toil:
He wondered again at the easy, graceful manner in which the Roman lyricists accepted the fact of death, as if the nothingness they faced were a tribute to the richness of the years they had enjoyed; and he marveled at the bitterness, the terror, the barely concealed hatred he found in some of the later Christian poets of the Latin tradition when they looked to that death which promised, however vaguely, a rich and ecstatic eternity of life, as if that death and promise were a mockery that soured the days of their living.
This all connects together into one of the most pleasurable and profound examinations of the link between heart and mind I’ve ever read. That link is the key to understanding this book and to seeing it as more than just a biography of an unlucky, quiet man. Stoner takes us through the early twentieth century. When World War I is taking students from the university and teaching them to despise the Germans, Stoner sees one of his beloved professors weeping. Not long after, Stoner has the misfortune to witness a repeat of all of this during World War II:
One part of him recoiled in instinctive horror at the daily waste, the inundation of destruction and death that inexorably assaulted the mind and heart; once again he saw the faculty depleted, he saw the classrooms emptied of their young men, he saw the haunted looks upon those who remained behind, and saw in those looks the slow death of the heart, the bitter attrition of feeling and care.
This book about the humanities is filled to the brim with humanity. Stoner‘s aesthetic beauty underlines its own themes, which Williams explores in a variety of ways. The book isn’t simply about a man growing old alongside a wife who never loved him. There is a daughter involved, inter-departmental politics, old friendships, and old enemies who (as was touched on in Augustus) after so many years gain some of the qualities of a friend. I do hope that the resurgence this book had a year ago, when everyone seemed to be reading it, doesn’t die down.