Stoner, by John Williams
John Williams’ 1965 novel went out of print after selling only 2,000 copies, but since its re-release 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, perfectly-crafted and highly interior portrayal of a University of Missouri professor’s life and death. And yet, the story of William Stoner is really many stories in one. For one, it’s a story about a boy who starts out working on his parents’ farm rural Missouri until his father, announcing he wants something better for his son, sends him to university in Columbia to study agriculture. It’s there though that Stoner encounters his first works of literature, and soon after, to his parents’ dismay, changes his major to literature. Stoner earns his bachelor, then his master’s degree, then his doctorate in literature. Soon, he’s offered a tenured position:
“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 listening to the words that had led him to where he had come.”
We follow William Stoner over a career that goes unrecognized and at one point challenged by a bitter higher-up. We see Stoner meet a girl, fall in love, marry and have a child, a daughter, Grace. We see the disappointment that is charted through his marriage, and as a father, finding in Grace an increasing stranger as she grows up (in part due to his wife’s machinations). Over time, the divide becomes too wide to close.
The story is also one about learning, showing us how knowledge can at times be elusive, and how 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.”
For Stoner, critical clarity and the understanding that comes with study are essential principals, a view that leads him, at mid-career, to question the thesis interview of a favorite doctoral student of the powerful department chair. Stoner may not be the flashiest in the department, but his respect for the facts means far more than any conceptual flourishes in a thesis that is all style and little substance—a stance that leads to Stoner’s professional standstill.
There is a mythic quality to Stoner, the under-recognized and inward man, that filters into his private observations—as here, in one of the book’s most lyric passages. Working late one night in his office, he puts aside the endless stack of papers to be graded and sees the snow outside:
“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 open 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.”
Reading John William’s deliberate, vivid sentences, I heard the sound of John Updike, Richard Yates and Richard Ford, writers who, like Williams, excel at portraying men who quietly persevere, and even fail as they confront unfairness, bitterness and cruelty. Stoner may not seem like an uplifting story, but the prose, as much as the penetrating story, provides a reader with more than enough satisfaction on the page.