by John Williams
50th Anniversary Edition
New York Review of Books Classics, 313 pages
reviewed by Michelle E. Crouch
This edition of the 1965 novel Stoner arrived with a gold band around the front cover printed with exuberant blurbs that call it “as sweeping, intimate, and mysterious as life itself” and “the most beautiful book in the world.” Such loud praise seems almost at odds with a quiet, serious book; it’s the sort of praise that its hero, William Stoner, neither receives nor (for more than a fleeting moment) desires. Following Stoner from birth to death, the novel presents a seemingly unexceptional life as a subject worthy of the closest examination.
Stoner’s reputation preceded it, but in my case I approached the book without any knowledge beyond the general adulation, unsure if I might be opening a trippy beatnik road novel or a Shirley Jackson style horror mystery. I would encourage any other reader to do the same, if possible. Do not finish this review and do not read John McGahern’s introduction. Of course, readers of Stoner won’t find a potboiler or a twist ending, but for much of the pleasure is derived from the experience of living William Stoner’s quiet life alongside him, and like him, nearly blind to his future.
Nearly, not entirely, as Williams does begin the novel by setting some parameters for his main character’s life, reflecting on a medieval manuscript in the University of Missouri library that his colleagues donated in his honor after his death in 1956. Stoner attended the university, earned his Ph.D., and taught as an assistant professor in the English department: this is the nutshell scope of his life and career. The narrator makes immediately clear that Stoner met no standard definition of success:
An occasional student who comes across 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.
The precision of Williams’s prose cuts this cleanly throughout the novel. One of the yellow-band-quotes describes the book as austere, though I’m not sure I entirely agree, as the term fails to convey the strong pulse of emotion that beats beneath the words. The novel is all about the internal: we are given the external facts of Stoner’s life from the first page, so the suspense comes from how he will take the blows thrown his way. The disappointments in his life are just this side of Job: his marriage is unhappy, his career stalled by university politics, his love affair destroyed by the same, his daughter turns from a beloved child to a stranger. He only has two friends and one of them is dead for most of the book. He never succumbs to total despair, but neither is he delusional about his plight, and the clarity of his observations are heartbreaking at times, as in the following passage from a visit with his adult daughter:
They talked late into the night, as if they were old friends. And Stoner came to realize that she was, as she had said, almost happy with her despair; she would live her days out quietly, drinking a little more, year by year, numbing herself against the nothingness her life had become. He was glad she had that, at least; he was grateful that she could drink.
Stoner’s armor against the disappointments of his life is literature, not alcohol. As a college sophomore, enrolled to study soil science and improve the arid dirt of his family’s farm, he has an out of body experience in a literature survey course. Before long he has switched his major, and when he graduates, his mentor suggests he stay and teach while completing a graduate degree. Williams sees Stoner as a type of saint, and literature is the light and spiritual manna he worships. The exact nature of his passion isn’t quite explained. His academic focus is on classical Latin influence in work of the English Renaissance, but the content of his papers and courses is little discussed. Rather than the particular works he’s reading, it seems to be literature’s ability to unlock a deeper experience of emotion that sustains his fascination. A brilliant graduate student who unlocks a similarly deeper experience of love serves as a physical manifestation of the same power. “‘Lust and learning,’” she says at one point. “‘That’s really all there is, isn’t it?’”
John Williams himself met with more professional success than his hero, publishing two volumes of poetry and four novels. Augustus, his Roman historical novel, won a National Book Award in 1973. But Stoner only sold 2,000 copies on its initial release and was more or less forgotten, though a literary critic would write an occasional essay full of praise, especially after its return to print in 2003. Its recent popularity stems from French novelist Anna Gavalda’s 2011 translation, which led to other European editions and sudden appearances on bestseller lists. A subsequent New Yorker article, “The Greatest American Novel You’ve Never Heard Of,” showed that Americans were finally ready to take notice of a homegrown classic.
Why Stoner? Surely there are many great but overlooked novels that are due for rediscovery. In part it may be that Williams’ understated prose style feels classic as a white Oxford shirt, not datable to any particular decade, without ever becoming generic. And moreover it asks one of the most fundamental questions any novel can ask: What is a good life? Would you know one if you lived it?
This anniversary edition contains letters between Williams and his agent Marie Rodell. Tempering any hopes he might have of brisk sales, she notes that the book is not done in a fashionable style – it would be published just one year before Been Down So Long It Looked Like Up to Me, Richard Fariña’s countercultural vision of Cornell University. In fact, Stoner feels apart from much of the literary project of the 20th century. Although the character is of the World War I generation, the prose doesn’t reflect the fractured modern lens of the writers associated with that era, and neither does its worldview align with later artistic movements that would seek to further destabilize notions of reason, natural order, and authority.
Williams’s novel creates a universe in which a quiet man who keeps his head down and follows an unbending internal moral compass, unable to articulate many of his emotions or to ask others to articulate theirs, is a noble hero. It’s easy to imagine a contemporary novel casting such a man as an unintentional villain or at least a fool. In Stoner, redemption comes not through his actions but through what he is able to experience. His life cannot have been a failure, for it contained both love and joy. Success can be defined negatively: Stoner succeeds through what he is not. Born on a farm, his parents expect him to study agriculture and then return home to work the land for the rest of his days. His escape from this fate is an invisible success his students and colleagues never perceive—even as his methodical, thankless teaching career turns out to be the intellectual equivalent of tending crops year after year. Williams locates integrity, even victory, in just this sort of work. “The important thing is to keep the tradition going, because the tradition is civilization,” he states in an interview—an essentially conservative point of view, one that many readers in the 1960s and 70s may not have found compelling.
Some of the contents of these letters discuss publishing and editing minutiae that may only be of interest to other writers—rights of refusal, marketing strategies, whether a publisher has remaindered the copies of his first novel. They also reveal something of Williams’ revision process. His editor poses that dreaded fiction workshop challenge: I don’t understand Edith’s motivations. Williams reports that he has fleshed out the character with some extra pages and she should now be “more believable.” My guess is that some of this revised material is contained in the few passages that follow Edith alone, not filtered through Stoner’s point of view. As the rest of the book is so embedded in Stoner’s consciousness, it feels odd not to have him in the room. The longest of these sections take place after Edith’s father’s death. She travels to her childhood home in St. Louis, burns the toys and clothes her father had given her over the years, and then gets a dramatic makeover, bobbing her hair and buying flapperish dresses. This scene may give Edith more flesh but it also introduces new mysteries.
The portrayal of Edith caused Elaine Showalter to deem the book misogynistic in a 2015 review. I’m not sure I agree; Edith is terrible to Stoner, but the reader senses the complexity of her motivation. She is also complexly miserable. Stoner doesn’t understand her, but rarely does anyone understand anyone else fully in this book—or real life. The dialogue exchanged between characters often serves to highlight how little of a person’s inner life is expressed through his or her speech; the most loquacious characters, rival professor Hollis Lomax and his protégé Charles Walker, turn out to be the most villainous.
The more problematic female character may be the graduate student Katherine Driscoll; she is uncomplicatedly perfect for Stoner – smart, quiet, pretty, in love with him, and ready to leave with minimal fuss when their affair becomes untenable. If there is one cliché of the academic novel Williams can’t resist, it’s that of the male professor enamored with a female student/teaching assistant/junior faculty member. (This is admittedly a pet peeve of mine. I know that it happens in real life, but surely not at such an alarming rate as on fictional campuses.)
The 2003 introduction, besides completely giving away the little action that the plot contains, includes excerpts from a 1985 interview with John Williams. He expresses concern over the shift in higher education from “pure study” to utilitarian problem solving, which of course can be measured quantitatively. (Fortunate for Mr. Williams that he is not here to witness the current attacks on the humanities and other non-remunerative and therefore useless fields of study.) Although Williams and Stoner do not share a great deal of biographical similarities other than being English professors, they are clearly in accord in conceiving of the power of literature as an experiential, emotional one. The interviewer asks whether literature is meant to be entertaining—a merely is perhaps implied. “Absolutely,” Williams replies. “My god, to read without joy is stupid.”
Michelle E. Crouch, a co-founder of APIARY Magazine, has published fiction and non-fiction in Gigantic Sequins, Indiana Review, The Rumpus, and others. She received an MFA from the University of North Carolina Wilmington and lives in Philadelphia. Her website is mcrouch.com.