In the moments after I finished this book, I found myself musing on two books from the story: the book that Stoner wrote in his youth; and the book dedicated to him. They seemed so real that I could imagine myself coming upon them in an OpShop or second-hand store, finding them a bit battered and faded and holding them briefly in my hands before putting them back on the shelf. Not knowing their worth or their meaning beyond the words on the page.
What a loss that would be, not to know the story of Stoner and these two books. One written for the sheer joy of scholarship, by a young man who had grown up expecting to be an impoverished farmer but by chance and his own hard work became instead a teacher at a university – and the other written by one who loved him and taught him that it was possible to reconcile the life of the mind and the life of the senses and that he did not have to choose between them.
But that brief joy was an illusion. Stoner was married to someone else, and there could be no resolution that would preserve what he and Katherine Driscoll meant to each other.
He leaned back on the couch and looked at the low, dim ceiling that had been the sky of their world. He said calmly, ‘If I threw it all away – if I gave it up, just walked out – you would go with me, wouldn’t you?’
‘Yes,’ she said.
‘But you know I wouldn’t do that, don’t you?’
‘Yes, I know.’
‘Because then,’ Stoner explained to himself, ‘none of it would mean anything – nothing we have done, nothing we have been. I most certainly wouldn’t be able to teach, and you – you would become something else. We would both become something else, something other than ourselves. We would be – nothing’. (p. 231)
Some readers, I suppose, may wish Stoner to grasp a chance at Hollywood happiness, to ditch his poisonous marriage, and to run away with Katherine and write books in romantic poverty somewhere. But John Williams (1922-1994) has firm control of his character. Stoner cannot be who he is, and have Katherine too. It would damage them both, and he pays Katherine the respect her academic potential deserves. (She is the only female academic in the book).
Towards the end of the book, the author reminds the reader that Stoner’s stoicism derives from his bleak childhood. He does not expect to be happy, not even content:
But William 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. (p.266)
This inheritance forms the man. Stoner’s father sees beyond that inheritance only dimly when he makes his son the astonishing offer of a place at agricultural college.
‘I never had no schooling to speak of,’ he said, looking at his hands. ‘I started working a farm when I finished sixth grade. Never held with schooling when I was a young ‘un. But now I don’t know. Seems like the land gets drier and harder to work every year; it ain’t rich like it was when I was a boy. County agent says they got new ideas, ways of doing things they teach you at the University. Maybe he’s right. Sometimes when I’m working the field I get to thinking.’ He paused. His fingers tightened upon themselves, and his clasped hands dropped to the table. ‘I get to thinking -‘ He scowled at his hands and shook his head. ‘You go on to the University come fall. Your ma and I will manage.’ (p.4)
None of them at that moment could imagine that Stoner might stumble into an English class and fall in love with words. This beautiful book traces the transformation of farm boy into scholar, and the course of what might otherwise seem an unremarkable life. The opening lines of the novel tell us that Stoner entered the University of Missouri in 1910, and completed his Doctor of Philosophy degree eight years later. He accepted an instructorship, wrote a book, taught at Missouri till he died in 1956, and then faded into obscurity. In the course of his life, he was married, had a child, and had a brief affair. But the unremarkable trajectory of this life is transformed into a novel of astonishing power. Melancholy in tone, Stoner is a celebration of victory over the self and the dignity of a quiet, honourable life.
Although Stoner is not a ‘campus novel’, the machinations of university administration impact on the life under examination. Like many a man Stoner faces pitfalls in his career, and there comes a moment when his integrity forces a choice that halts its progress. Few readers will not then pause for reflection to ask that eternal question: what would I have done? The pitiless vanity and malevolence of power is exquisitely rendered with not a trace of irony. Stoner suffers that in his disastrous marriage to Edith too. The novel is firmly anchored in place and time so there is no question of freedom through divorce, but it is Stoner’s stoicism that guides his decision, not any fear of scandal.
There is a wealth of reviews out there, but I particularly enjoyed Rohan Maitzen’s at Open Letters Monthly. An academic herself, she examines the book through that lens, and though I don’t agree with her in her summation of Stoner’s relationship with Edith as a flaw in the novel, it’s a thoughtful review with insights that clarified my ideas about the book.
Stoner was first published in 1965 and reissued in this edition as a Vintage Classic.
Author: John Williams
Introduction by John McGahern
Publisher: Vintage (Random House), 2014
Source: review copy courtesy of Random House
Fishpond: Stoner: A Novel