Classics Review: Stoner by John Williams

Review originally written 19 July 2015.
stonerStoner by John Williams was published in 1965 and in fifty years has developed a reputation as a sort of under-the-radar classic, much admired among the literati, little known in the popular market. Fifty Shades of Gray it is not and the novel would shudder with embarrassment to be classed among such vulgar fare. Stoner has been proclaimed by many reviewers as a brilliant but “quiet” piece of literature. I agree with that general assessment – that is if a novel about the storms and agonies of a human soul can be considered quiet. And a novel that can portray such storms and agonies in a way that pulls you in and makes you want to keep reading has to be brilliant.

Williams offers no flashy gimmicky hooks such as sex or murder and certainly not a hint of glamour. In fact, if he promises anything, it to deliver an truthful account of an undistinguished ordinary life. The book begins with an obituary of sorts, telling us that the main character, William Stoner, taught at the University of Missouri for nearly 40 years, until his death in 1956. In part it says:

“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.”

* * * * * * *

Born in 1891, William Stoner is the only child of a pair of dirt poor farmers who live 40 miles outside of Columbia, Missouri.

“From the earliest time his could remember, William Stoner had duties. At the age of six he milked the bony cows, slopped the pigs in the sty a few yards from the house, and gathered small eggs from a flock of spindly chickens. And even when he started attending the rural school eight miles from the farm, his day, from before dawn until after dark, was filled with work of one sort or another. At seventeen his shoulders were already beginning to stoop beneath the weight of his occupation.”

I quickly developed a caring interest in this big awkward farm kid. I am a bit discouraged to think that a farm life can be as joyless as that of William’s parents. Although they have a humble dignity, they are worn to and emotionally drained, seeming to barely able rise above the dirt they work. I guess I have this image of the agricultural life as healthy, wholesome, and happy, like Leo Tolstoy’s happy peasants or the colorful pictures in some long-ago Little Golden Book, with smiling pigs, cows, and chickens, happy overall-clad children sitting on fences, and town gatherings with pie and dancing like in Oklahoma! The Stoner farm is devoid of anything like these images; the family seems to live a quiet lonely life of backbreaking drudgery.

In 1910 a county agent suggests to his father that William be sent to the University in Columbia to study at the new School of Agriculture. So Williams goes and lives in the attic of a relation of his mother’s. In return for bare bones room and board William does work around the farm while studying at the University. In his second year at the school, he takes Sophomore English with a cynical crotchety professor named Archer Sloane. Dr. Sloane, by a rare miracle, is able to ignite in Stoner’s mind a love for literature. It happens in a moment. Dr. Sloane has just recited Shakespeare’s sonnet #73, which he expects to fall on a class full of deaf ears as usual.

“Sloane’s eyes came back to William Stoner, and he sad dryly, ‘Mr. Shakespeare speaks to you from across three hundred years, Mr. Stoner; do you hear him? William Stoner realized that for several moments he had been holding his breath. He expelled it gently, minutely aware of his clothing moving upon his body as his breath went out of his lungs.”

In that moment Stoner’s consciousness enters a new level of awareness. He has fallen in love with literature. Dr. Sloane knows he has hit the chord and invites him to change his major. Sloane becomes his mentor and helper in his transition from farmer to scholar. I know that one of the strengths of this novel is its elegant unsentimental prose, but my gosh. When William Stoner goes home one day in the 1920s to bury his father, and sees the shriveled state of the corpse and the wisp of life that is left of his mother, it really hits home what he has escaped. Whatever the drawbacks of the academic life we see that it is better than the life he escaped, which for his parents, has become not much more than a living death.

World War I happens and most of the young men run off to sign up, including Stoner’s two best friends, David Masters and Gordon Finch. Stoner is drawn by the pull of the crowd until Dr. Sloane advises him to think. Does he really want to join up? Does he believe that his work at the university is at least as important as fighting a war in Europe? Does he value the mind enough to continue his studies despite the pressure and loss of worldly respect if he chooses not to go? Stoner spends a day in contemplation and decides to stay and continue his studies. David Masters, a brilliant student, is killed in France shortly after his arrival. Gordan Finch returns and becomes a dean at the college.

Like many of us who stumbled blindly through our twenties, Stoner is book-smart but socially ignorant. When he meets Edith, the daughter of a wealthy business man, at a college social event, I wanted to scream, “Don’t do it!” But he didn’t listen to me. He marries her and incurs much misery for the rest of his life. Edith is an ethereal girl who seems incapable of real love or even affection. Apparently she hates Stoner for wanting to have sex with her.

The author does not pass judgment on Edith as a person; he just reports the facts in an almost tender way. In fact he provides a possible explanation for her behavior:

“Her moral training, both at the schools she attended and at home, was negative in nature, prohibitive in intent, and almost entirely sexual. The sexuality, however, was indirect and unacknowledged; therefore it suffused every other part of her education, which received most of its energy from that recessive and unspoken moral force. She learned that she would have duties toward her husband and family and that she must fulfill them.”

They do manage to have one child, a sensitive girl named Grace, who Stoner adores. As Edith is always sick, delicate, and cannot stand the smell of diapers, Stoner is the baby’s primary caregiver during her earliest years. However, when Edith notices the happy father/daughter relationship, she sets out to use the child against him in every insidious way she can think of. Edith seemed deeply disturbed to me, a really chilling character. .

Stoner continues to find meaning and refuge in his teaching and his studies, but when Archer Sloane dies, his replacement, Hollis Lomax has issues and takes a severe disliking to him. When Lomax becomes head of the English department, he sets out to stymie Stoner’s academic career through bad class assignments and petty persecution. The best part of the book is when Stoner, at age 43, finds his true love, a fellow instructor named Katherine Driscoll. Sharing a passion for medieval and Renaissance literature they love being together; it is like fresh rain on dry parched farm land. Of course it doesn’t last. Although they keep their romance low key and secret, the university is a fish bowl and there are those who can’t stand for Stoner to be happy.

Years later, shortly before William Stoner’s death, Katherine publishes her book. The tiny dedication “To W.S.” means everything to him. Although his life has fallen short in nearly every way, he has escaped the life of mind-numbing drudgery and has been faithful to the life of the mind. When he arrives at the end of his life, he is able to face it with the stoicism inherited from his parents and is blessed with a certain grace resulting from his faithfulness to the life of mind. He dies better than his father did. As he reviews his life and its many disappointments, he keeps repeating a refrain to himself: “What did you expect?” How often is a death scene the most uplifting and intriguing scene in a book? I loved this death scene. I think Stoner’s faithfulness and integrity pay off in a higher spiritual life, but you’ll have to read the book to see if you agree.

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