John Williams’ Stoner

How does a literary masterpiece pass into obscurity? Blame the critics, the times, the society that had the good fortune to receive it first but lacked the judgment to cherish and champion it. In hindsight, it’s understandable – though no less excusable – that John Williams’ 1965 novel Stoner, about the humble life of a farmer who becomes an academic, would fail to find an audience in the counter-cultural decade. Its first edition sold just 2,000 copies, and by the time of its author’s death, in 1994, it was out of print. The corrective came only in the past decade: a 2006 reissue by the New York Review of Books Classics attracted new readers, as did a 2011 French translation. By 2013, it was an unlikely bestseller in the Netherlands, France, Spain, Italy and Israel. Stoner, I am happy to report, richly rewards this renewed attention.

Our protagonist is William Stoner, whom we will follow from his humble beginnings on a small Missouri farm in the late 19th century until his death. The novel’s first sentences preemptively erase any notion we might have that Stoner lived a heroic or exciting life:

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.

Nor did it seem he inspired any powerful friendships: “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.” Not a very auspicious beginning – we might even be tempted to forgive the many readers who put down or passed over this book. But then the story begins in earnest, with William Stoner’s childhood, and the reader is held rapt by the beauty of the prose and Williams’ keen eye for detail.

Stoner grows up in a “lonely household […] bound together by the necessity of its toil.” Farm work begins early and ends late, and demands every last ounce of energy from a person. It was the work of Stoner’s parents and grandparents, and he has every reason to suspect it will be the work of his life, too – until his father takes him aside one night, after dinner, and upsets his world by suggesting he attend a university. The passage merits quoting, if only because Williams’ prose is infinitely subtle:

His father shifted his weight on the chair. He looked at his thick, callused fingers, into the cracks of which soil had penetrated so deeply that it could not be washed away. He laced his fingers together and held them up from the table, almost in an attitude of prayer.

“I never had no schooling to speak of,” he said, looking at his hands. “I started working a farm when I finished sixth grade. Never held with schooling when I was a young’un. But now I don’t know. Seems like the land gets drier and harder to work every year; it ain’t rich like it was when I was a boy. County agent says they got new ideas, ways of doing things they teach you at the University. Maybe he’s right. Sometimes when I’m working the field I get to thinking.” He paused. His fingers tightened upon themselves, and his clasped hands dropped to the table. “I get to thinking –” He scowled at his hands and shook his head. “You go on to the university come fall. Your ma and me will manage.”

The sparsity of the dialogue and the father’s shifting of his weight suggest what the reader will have already intuited: that the father is not a man of many words, and that his relationship with his son – though clearly marked by affection – is not one of easy communication. Then Williams shifts our focus to the father’s hands, stained by decades of dirty toil and rough work, and we might again intuit why he clasps his hands “almost in an attitude of prayer.” He wants for his son something greater than he has had for himself, which is why that image segues into a description of his own childhood. Has the land really gotten more arid, less rich with time, or perhaps has time weakened his body and alerted him to the pitfalls of a life of labour? Then an abortive sentence: “Sometimes when I’m working the field I get to thinking.” Thinking, the great opposite of manual labour. We return to the image of his father’s hands, but now they are not clasped in prayer but clenched in anger: his own life leaves precious little time for reflection. By the time he speaks again, he is assertive, though only the reader is privileged to the thought processes behind his insistence.

Stoner attends university in the fall, intending to major in agriculture, but a required survey course in English literature once again upsets his world, awakening him to the possibilities of the life of the mind that his father could only imagine. He completes his undergraduate studies, and a subsequent masters, in literature, and begins what promises to be a fruitful teaching career at the University of Missouri. And it is here, at the moment of his triumphant escape from a life of drudgery, that the troubles begin. One of his classmates is killed in the First World War; he marries a cold, calculating woman, who does not love him and whose only enjoyment in life seems to come from depriving him of his own happiness; and he makes an enemy of the head of his department, whose petty vindictiveness stymies Stoner’s career. Every hope and aspiration Stoner has, Williams snuffs out; every pleasure he has in life is subverted or undermined. Denied the conventional route to happiness, Williams turns inward, to literature and philosophy, to teaching and to erudition; he cultivates within himself a stoic strength to countervail every misery with which life assails him. “[…] there was always near his consciousness the blood knowledge of his inheritance, given him by forefathers whose lives were obscure and hard and stoical and whose common ethic was to present to an oppressive world faces that were expressionless and hard and bleak.”

In his lifetime, Stoner declines to divorce a hateful wife; he declines to participate in two World Wars; he does not even fight the petty bureaucracy of the university for the promotions and reverence due to a professor of his standing and ability. He is not a hero, in any conventional sense, and yet he lives heroically, taking every new blow with head unbowed, finding meaning and purpose even in the face of bitter disappointment. He was not an appropriate hero for the 1960s, but, fittingly, our decade has rediscovered and embraced him. Perhaps we will even recognize what now seems obvious to me: that John Williams is a talent on par with the very best American writers of the 20th century, and that the character of William Stoner deserves the kind of sympathy and attention we now have for Jay Gatsby.