Stoner (1965), by John Edward Williams
A brief commentary by Frank Wilson stimulated me to read the book. More on his thoughts later.
The story begins with a two-paragraph recap of his his life—entering the University of Missouri in 1910, receiving his PhD, his acceptance of an instructorship there, his lack of ascension in the ranks, and his death in 1956. Right away, the reader knows there are problems ahead, e.g. ”Stoners’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 which they can associate themselves or their careers.”
From a poor farm background, Stoner’s reticent father suggests that he go to U of M to study agriculture—they’d saved some egg money; but professor Archer Sloane changes his life. He wasn’t going back to the farm after school; he was going to be a professor of literature. There is an awkward scene during his graduation when he tells his parents his plans. The poignant conversation concludes with his father simply saying, “If you think you ought to stay here and study your books, then that’s what you ought to do. Your ma and me can manage.”
In graduate school, Stoner has two friends—David Masters and Gordon Finch. They’d meet at a saloon Friday afternoons and one day, Masters asks them if they’d “ever considered the question of the true nature of the University.” They smile, but say nothing. Masters then offers his version of their inner thoughts: “Stoner, here, I imagine, sees it as a great repository, like a library or a whorehouse, where men come of their free will and select that which will complete them, where all work together like little bees in a common hive. The True, the Good, and the Beautiful. They’re just around the corner, in the next corridor; they’re in the next book, the one you haven’t read or in the next stack, the one you haven’t got to. But you’ll get there someday. And when you do—when you do—” After covering Finch, Masters expresses his view that it “is an asylum…a rest home, for the infirm, the aged, the discontent, and the otherwise incompetent. Look at the three of us—we are the University….” He further tells Finch, “you’re capable of work, but you’re just lazy enough so that you can’t work as hard as the world would want you to. On the other hand, you’re not quite so lazy that you can impress upon the world a sense of your importance.” And again to Stoner: “You think there’s something here, something to find. Well, in the world you’d learn soon enough. You, too, are cut out for failure; not that you’d fight the world….” The whole sequence is fascinating; and in the introduction, John McGahern suggests that it reflects the author’s own views.
WWI occurs. Finch and Masters entered the military with Finch stationed in New York while Masters got killed killed in France. Stoner got a deferment and received his doctorate in 1918. Sloane then offered him a full-time job. He meets Edith, a beautiful girl, and falls in love, although it is so distant and awkward, one wonders how. Williams describes her in a way that gave me chills: “She was educated upon the premise that she would be protected from the gross events that life might thrust in her way, and upon the premise that she had no other duty than to be a graceful and accomplished accessory to that protection, since she belonged to a social and economic class to which protection was an almost sacred obligation…She learned that she would have duties toward her husband and family and that she must fulfill them…yet she was ignorant of her own bodily functions, she had never been alone to care for her own self one day of her life….” It was a disaster in the making, confirmed at their first sexual encounter, the second night of their honeymoon, and throughout their married life. The only time she was sexual was a brief period when she wanted a baby. It ended after she became pregnant with Grace.
Edith’s strange behaviors fill the book—Stoner sleeping on the couch, her “illnesses,” contrasted with periods of frenzied activity (usually for “good” ends), her manipulations (particularly with Stoner’s home office), and her erratic dealings with Grace. All while Stoner accepts it, muddling through his life, and focusing on his work as an escape. There’s a new element introduced with a crippled but lazy student named Walker; and Lomax, soon to be department chairman and Stoner’s nemesis in the inner world of campus politics. Stoner got assigned the worst schedules possible and without any upper classes. “A kind of lethargy descended upon him.” Then…
Stoner falls in love with Katherine Driscoll, a younger member of the staff. “In his forty-third year William Stoner learned what others, much younger, had learned before him: that…love is not an end but a process through which one person attempts to know another…Nearly every afternoon, when his classes were over, he came to her apartment. They made love, and talked, and made love again, like children who did not think of tiring at their play….”
Consider these thoughts:
“Now in his middle age he began to to know that it [love] was neither a state of grace nor an illusion; he saw it as a human act of becoming, a condition that was invented and modified moment by moment and day by day, by the will and the intelligence and the heart….
“He dreamed of perfections, of worlds in which they could always be together, and half believed in the possibility of what he dreamed….
“They grew from passion to lust to a deep sensuality that renewed itself from moment to moment….‘Lust and learning,’ Katherine once said. ‘That’s really all there is, isn’t it?’…
“They had been brought up in a tradition that told them…the life of the mind and the life of the senses were separate…That one could intensify the other had never occurred to them; and since the embodiment came before the recognition of the truth, it seemed a discovery that belonged to them alone.” I definitely wanted it to work out.
He was, of course, deceiving Edith; and the word was getting out that “Old Stoner” was having an affair. Enter the “son-of-a-bitch” Lomax who wouldn’t let it go. The matter-of-fact discussion between Stoner and Katherine—of their love and happiness and the end of it—is sad and touching.
Life with Edith, Grace and at the university were a strain as Stoner plodded through that which needed done. He became an oddity on campus. Grace got pregnant, on purpose, escaping the unhappy home. But after WWII, he had the best years of his teaching. “He worked harder than he had ever worked, the students, strange in their maturity, were intensely serious and contemptuous of triviality.”
In 1949, he learned Katherine had written a book, dedicated to W.S., and he got a copy as soon as he could. “It was as good as he thought it would be. The prose was graceful, and its passion was masked by a coolness and clarity of intelligence.” When I read that second sentence I thought it described Williams’ book.
Stoner gets cancer and there’s a brief but satisfying comeuppance with Lomax, but Stoner dies with his thoughts, Edith nearby.
Frank Wilson thought it “approached a sort of American Existential” and said, “This book really is a masterpiece – a quiet, unassuming masterpiece in which Williams captures the missed opportunities that, in the end, return to us with a frightening, unavoidable consistency.”
I just had to read it; and yes, it is a masterpiece. Beautifully written, the sad, lonely, but heroic life of college professor William Stoner emotionally grabs the reader—I wanted so much more for him—yet there was a fascination with how he dealt with his tribulations. After Katherine left, a little earlier in the book, there is this: “But Stoner knew of the world in a way that few of his younger colleagues could understand. Deep in him, beneath his memory, was the knowledge of hardship and hunger and endurance and pain. Though he seldom thought of his early years on the Booneville farm, 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.” I’ll leave it at that.