I first heard about Stoner back in grad school. I’d been on a Denis Johnson jag (weren’t we all?) and so naturally assumed the novel was a florid account of reefer madness. This is how Stoner begins:
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 course.
To understand how audacious I found this opening you would have to know how loyal I was, back then, to the bromides of MFA programs: show, don’t tell, make it new, and so on. Because I lacked confidence in the stories I was trying to tell, and because those stories were half-formed at best, I was constantly withholding basic facts from the reader. It was my assumption this would beguile them. I also crammed my pieces with histrionic plot twists and quirky characters. When that didn’t work, I flogged the language mercilessly.
Stoner changed all that for me. It is written in the most plainspoken of styles, with long passages of exposition. Its hero is an obscure academic who endures a series of personal and professional agonies. Yet the novel is utterly riveting, and for one simple reason: because the author, John Williams, treats his characters with such tender and ruthless honesty that we cannot help but to love them.
Here is how Williams describes a young William Stoner, who has left his family’s farm to attend the university:
In the winter the only heat he got seeped up through the floor from the rooms below; he wrapped himself in the tattered quilts and blankets allowed him and blew on his hands so that he could turn the pages of his books without tearing them … In every season he wore the same black broadcloth suit, white shirt, and string tie; his wrists protruded from the sleeves of the jacket, and the trousers rode awkwardly about his legs, as if it were a uniform that had once belonged to someone else.
Stoner has been sent to study agriculture. But he soon encounters an unexpected love: “of literature, of language, of the mystery of the mind and of the heart showing themselves in the minute, strange, and unexpected combinations of letters and words, in the blackest and coldest print…” He switches majors to English and decides to become a teacher.
Sadly for him, Stoner then falls in love with a woman. Edith Stoner is one of the most chilling figures in modern literature, the kind of woman who makes Mrs. Bridge look like a free spirit. “Her moral training,” Williams notes, “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.” Little wonder, then, at her reaction to their first sexual encounter: she throws up.
It gets worse. Indeed, many of the novel’s most painful passages are given over to Edith’s unceasing abuse of her husband. She rebuffs his efforts at intimacy, undermines his work, and tortures their daughter. She is a monstrous repressive force whose sadism is a function of her own bottomless self-loathing.
Whenever I read Stoner, I find myself wanting to grab our hero by the lapels and shout Get the hell out, man, can’t you see she’s a nutcase? But Stoner recognizes that his wife’s tyranny is a function of her own pain. He pities her, instead. And she punishes him anew for this pity.
Our hero’s professional life is no more sanguine. At the university Stoner finds himself running afoul of an ambitious colleague named Lomax. The introduction of the novel’s second (and, thankfully, final antagonist) is as follows:
He was a man barely over five feet in height, and his body was grotesquely misshapen … For several moments he stood with his blond head bend downward, as if he were inspecting his highly polished black shoes and the sharp crease of his black trousers. Then he lifted his head and shot his right arm out, exposing a stiff white length of cuff with gold links, there was a cigarette in his long pale fingers. He took a deep drag, inhaled, and expelled the smoke in a thin stream. And then they could see his face.
It was the face of a matinee idol. Long and thin and mobile, it was nevertheless strongly featured; his forehead was high and narrow, with heavy veins, and his thick waving hair, the color of ripe wheat, swept back from it in a somewhat theatrical pompadour. He dropped his cigarette on the floor, ground it beneath his sole, and spoke.
“I am Lomax.”
As should be obvious, Lomax is something of a drama queen – that face! those cuff links! – and the way in which he draws Stoner into a senseless feud is a masterpiece of passive-aggressive engineering. The scenes between are exquisite and excruciating.
The academy, with its cloistered entitlements and petty disputes, has long been the fodder for literary satires. But Williams treats the place as a sanctuary from the madness that infects the world at large. To Stoner, the son of subsistence farmers, the opportunity to learn and to teach is his sole redemption, and the passages given over to these pursuits are written with a reverence that borders on rapture.
This is not to say that our hero never experiences more earthly brands of joy. Nosiree. He has an affair with a shy, brilliant younger instructor named Katherine Driscoll. Their courtship is deliciously tentative, and when it does finally give way to passion, the reader is in much the same state as the lovers themselves: trembling and grateful.
Williams doesn’t shy from the ecstasies of sexuality (thank God). At the same time, he remains attuned to the deeper needs that romantic love nourishes. It is, in his words, “a human act of becoming,” which provides meaning and succor to our otherwise brutal existences.
It will come as no surprise that Stoner’s affair ends tragically, nor that Lomax is the agent of this tragedy. What stuns us is the intensity of Stoner’s reaction:
…he knew, somewhere within the numbness that grew from a small center of his being, that a part of his life was over, that a part of him was so near death that he could watch the approach almost with calm. He was vaguely conscious that he walked across the campus in the bright crisp heat of an early spring afternoon; the dogwood trees along the sidewalks and in the front yards were in full bloom, and they trembled like soft clouds, translucent and tenuous, before his gaze; the sweet scent of dying lilac blossoms drenched the air.
If you ever wanted an example of the old objective correlative – the way in which physical objects can be imbued with emotion – just take a look at those dogwoods and lilac blossoms.
I hope the reader will forgive my need to quote from the novel so extensively, but there is no better way for me to convey the pleasures of Williams’s prose. There is another, more practical, reason: Stoner, originally published by Viking in 1965, has been out of print for nearly fifteen years. It was last put out, in paperback, by the University of Arkansas. (I wish I could report that this was due to a lack of critical esteem for Williams. But actually, the man won the National Book Award, in 1972, for Augustus, his fictional account of the life of the first Roman Emperor.)
Although Stoner sold a paltry 2000 copies when it first appeared, critics have been raving about it for years. In his review of the British edition of Stoner, C. P. Snow posed the question that virtually every devoted Stonerian has asked since: “Why isn’t this book famous?”
I’m tempted to note the obvious irony – that the novel’s obscurity is emblematic of its pointedly obscure hero. And I’m tempted, also, to note that Stoner is somehow too good a novel to win mass appeal, too subtle, too grim, too nakedly emotional.
But that’s a bunch of hooey. The sad fact is that Stoner (like William Stoner) is the victim of rotten luck. I consider myself blessed to have found this novel, whose every page reminds me why I write: to learn more about what it is means to be human, and to use the words I stumble across — as a writer and a reader — to help me bear the most painful moments of that awareness.