Stoner, by John Williams
When it was first published, John Williams’ 1965 novel went out of print after selling only 2,000 copies, but since its re-rerelease by Vintage in 1995, this novel of a Midwestern academic’s insular life has appeared on bestseller lists in Europe and Israel and sold over 100,000 copies. Stoner seems at first an unlikely candidate for a sleeper hit, given it’s a quiet, finely crafted and highly interior portrayal of a University of Missouri professor’s life and death. And yet, the story of William Stoner is many stories. It’s about a boy who starts out working on his parents’ farm rural Missouri—until his father announces he wants something better for him and sends him to university in Columbia to study agriculture. It’s there that Stoner is exposed to his experience of literature, and to his parents’ dismay, changes his major and works toward his bachelor’s, and master’s, then doctorate in literature. Soon, Stoner is offered a tenured position:
“So Stoner began where he had started, a tall, thin, stooped man n the same room in which he had sat as a tall, thin, stooped boy listening to the words that had led him to where he had come.”
A portrait of a life
We follow William Stoner from birth to death, over a career that goes unrecognized and challenged by a bitter higher up. We see Stoner meet a girl, fall in love, marry and have a child, a daughter, Grace, and the book charts the disappointment, not only of marriage, but of coming to know his child less as she matures, until the divide becomes too wide to close.
But the story is also about learning, that knowledge can at times be at elusive, and that the process of accrued knowledge, coupled with its investigation, brings satisfaction despite the solitude of the inquiry:
“Almost from the first, the implications of the subject caught the students, and they all had that sense of discovery that comes when one feels that the subject at hand lies at the center of a much larger subject, and when one fells intensely that a pursuit of the subject is likely to lead—where, one does not know.”
Tensions between the private self and academia
For Stoner, critical clarity and the understanding that comes with study is all-important, even when questioning the answers provided by the favorite doctoral student of the powerful chair of the department. Stoner may not be the flashiest in the department, but respect for the facts means far more than any stylistic flourishes in a thesis that misses the mark.
The task of academia takes on for Stoner a private, mythic quality that filters into his private observations, as here, in one the book’s most lyric passages:
“On an impulse he switched out the light on his desk and sat in the hot darkness of his office; the cold air filled his lungs and he leaned toward the ope window He heard the silence of the winter night, and it seemed to him that he somehow felt the sounds that were absorbed by the delicate and intricately cellular being of the snow.’
In John William’s beautiful, deliberate sentences, I heard the sound of Updike, Yates, and Richard Ford, writers who like Williams excel at portraying men who quietly persevere as they confront unfairness, bitterness. and cruelty. Stoner may not seem like an uplifting story, but the prose, as much as the portrayal, is what gives you reason to believe in the character, and in the writer himself.
Lauren Alwan’s fiction and essays appear in numerous journals in print and online. She is currently a columnist for Catapult, where her column, “Invisible History,” chronicles family stories of heritage and belonging and the complexities of her bicultural experience. Learn more at www.laurenalwan.com