A Lost Classic: Stoner by John Williams
Last week came the surprising news that Waterstones, a leading bookstore chain in the UK, had chosen as its Book of the Year for 2013 a novel that was first published in 1965 and fell out of print within a year. That novel is Stoner by John Edward Williams, long the obscure preserve of a few dedicated American scholars but finally entering into popular knowledge. It was re-released in the US and UK in 2006, and has been championed by authors such as Ian McEwan, Bret Easton Ellis, Colum McCann, and Julian Barnes, who calls it “one of those purely sad, sadly pure novels that deserves to be rediscovered.” In the last seven years its readership has grown steadily.
All the same, the odds are that you have never heard of novelist John Williams, or of Stoner. If you’ve seen a few too many Judd Apatow movies recently, you might be expecting some kind of pothead comedy, but nothing could be further from the truth. Instead Stoner is a quiet masterpiece about the humble life of a college professor named William Stoner; it is simultaneously ‘about’ very little but also encompassing the whole of a life, with all its minor triumphs, disappointments, and tragedies.
William Stoner grows up on a farm and enters the University of Missouri in 1910 to study agriculture but, gripped by his literature classes, soon switches to English literature. He stays on to do a Master’s, disappointing his family (who expect him to come back and run the farm), and afterwards is offered a teaching job in the department. A colleague seems to understand better than Stoner himself that he is destined to be a professor: “‘But don’t you know, Mr. Stoner?’ Sloane asked. ‘Don’t you understand about yourself yet? You’re going to be a teacher.’” And with that almost accidental sense of resolve, his teaching career begins: “So Stoner began where he had started, a tall, thin, stooped man in the same room in which he had sat as a tall, thin, stooped boy.”
Before he knows it, Stoner has been at the University of Missouri for over 40 years, first as a student and then as an assistant professor. His delight in books is something any bibliophile can relate to: “In the University library he wandered through the stacks, among the thousands of books, inhaling the musty odor of leather, cloth, and drying page as if it were an exotic incense.” Throughout the book the quiet non-events of this individual life contrast with the momentous events of wider history: the narrative spans two world wars and the Great Depression, costing Stoner a good friend and his wife’s father. Yet nothing nearly so weighty and external comes to disturb the plodding course of Stoner’s existence.
Rather, the cataclysms in Stoner’s life are of deceptively simple origin: his marriage to Edith Bostwick, an emotionally disturbed and sexually frigid woman, and their fight over raising their daughter; his undistinguished career, blighted by department politics; and a single affair at the age of 43 that brings him alive like never before but is doomed to failure, like so much else in his life.
From the beginning, Stoner’s relationship with Edith seems ill-fated; she agrees to the wedding but has precise stipulations: “‘If it’s to be done,’ Edith said, ‘I want it done quickly.’” That ominous echo of Macbeth, along with the fairly disastrous consummation of their marriage (Edith rushes to the bathroom to vomit afterwards, though she blames this on a second glass of champagne), hints at their fundamental incompatibility. Indeed, “Within a month [Stoner] knew that his marriage was a failure; within a year he stopped hoping that it would improve. He learned silence and did not insist upon his love.”
Initially Stoner has a tender relationship with his daughter Grace, who he raises singlehandedly for the few years that Edith suffers from mental collapse. Grace is perfectly happy being her father’s little muse in his study, until Edith decides to take her over – making their daughter the battleground of the marriage. Grace’s story is a sad footnote in an already somber plot: she goes wild in high school and gets pregnant in her freshman year at the University of Missouri. She marries the boy, but when he dies in the war six months later, she hands baby Eddie over to her in-laws to raise and becomes an alcoholic; “she would live her days out quietly, drinking a little more, year by year, numbing herself against the nothingness her life had become.” There are no happy endings in this family.
Professional disappointment joins family dysfunction as a second major source of conflict. Stoner gets caught up in internal university politics with the arrival of a new English department head. Hollis Lomax has movie-star good looks but is half crippled; his protégé, a PhD student named Charles Walker, is a strange sort of doppelganger, also part-crippled, who seems both genius and ignoramus.
Walker constantly provokes Stoner, using his seminar presentation to bash a previous presenter, refusing to hand in his paper, and failing to answer even simple questions about the history of literature. Yet he performs brilliantly when he knows the topic, or has been specially coached by Lomax. In the particularly excellent – and excruciating – scene of Walker’s oral examinations, Stoner wants to fail the student but the others pass him or defer judgment. From then on, Stoner and Lomax communicate only by proxy, never actually conversing again despite being colleagues for another decade or more.
Lomax is Stoner’s ongoing nemesis: he finds out about his affair with Katherine Driscoll, a young teacher in the department, and tries to blackmail him into leaving; gives him an awful teaching schedule fit for a newbie; and forces him into early retirement. Stoner never gains the distinguished career his talents might have merited, beginning with the lukewarm reception of his first published academic study: “His expectations for his first book had been both cautious and modest, and they had been appropriate; one reviewer had called it ‘pedestrian’ and another had called it ‘a competent survey.’”
At times Stoner’s only haven is his study, a kind of ‘room of his own’ that stands in for his own psyche: “as he repaired his furniture and arranged it in the room, it was himself that he was slowly shaping, it was himself that he was putting into a kind of order, it was himself that he was making possible.” Thus it is all the more crushing when Edith takes over the room, turfing out Stoner’s precious books and forcing him to retreat to his office on campus. I was reminded of Larry’s ex-wife destroying his garden maze in Carol Shields’s Larry’s Party: both are acts of revenge, taking away the only thing the main character ever loved.
If it sometimes seems a paltry and unfulfilled life (“He found himself wondering if his life were worth the living; if it had ever been…he could see nothing before him that he wished to enjoy and little behind him that he cared to remember”), there are still occasional moments of satisfaction: “Thus he found it possible to live, and even to be happy, now and then.” And then comes his great love affair.
“In his forty-third year William Stoner learned what others, much younger, had learned before him: that the person one loves at first is not the person one loves at last, and that love is not an end but a process through which one person attempts to know another.”
Meeting Katherine convinces Stoner that he has never experienced real love before; “he had never known another human being with any intimacy or trust or with the human warmth of commitment.” This new relationship feels like a chance at starting over, a fresh reaching for joy, but like so many other aspects of Stoner’s life, it cannot last. Lomax finds out, and so does Grace; Katherine sacrifices her own budding career at the university to allow Stoner to stay, and that is the end of that. “He foresaw the years that stretched ahead, and knew that the worst was to come.”
This might all sound rather depressing, but Stoner has a raw truth and brilliance that makes it essential reading. On nearly every page you will encounter a line that stops you short, that speaks so authentically to the human condition that you gasp to think Williams understood you, the reader in 2013, so perfectly. I won’t spoil the beauty of the final chapter for you, except to say that it surely has one of the best deathbed scenes ever to grace world literature.
Like Stoner, Williams himself grew up on a farm (though in Texas) and worked for several decades as a professor of English, at the University of Denver. He wrote two books of poetry and four novels, including Butcher’s Crossing (1960), a Western that paved the way for Cormac McCarthy’s works, and Augustus, an epistolary novel about Augustus Caesar, for which he shared the 1972 National Book Award with John Barth. Williams died in 1994, never having received the recognition he deserved. Shortly after his retirement in 1985, he gave an interview in which he argued for Stoner’s true worth:
“I think he’s a real hero. A lot of people who have read the novel think that Stoner had such a sad and bad life. I think he had a very good life. He had a better life than most people do, certainly. He was doing what he wanted to do, he had some feeling for what he was doing, he had some sense of the importance of the job he was doing. He was a witness to values that are important…The important thing in the novel to me is Stoner’s sense of a job. Teaching to him is a job – a job in the good and honourable sense of the word. His job gave him a particular kind of identity and made him what he was.”
Still, as the very first pages of the novel have hinted, Stoner’s colleagues rarely remember him after he is gone; the only memorial to him is a medieval manuscript in the college’s Rare Books Collection. What dispiriting smallness there is to this life (and to Williams’s too?) – and yet it contains everything worthwhile: love, struggle, marriage, career, affair, fulfillment, illness, and death. I can hardly recall the last time I read a more powerful or affecting novel, even though, as I’ve already emphasized, not much happens. Like the other lost classic I’ve profiled, Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, Stoner is much more about atmosphere than plot – and that melancholy atmosphere will stay with you for longer than you might expect. A book for 2013, or any year.