I’m a sucker for any book described as John Williams’ Stoner was, “Great but unacknowledged.” The label appeals to my faith in a vast underground sea of talented and missed artists, a secret pool hinting other “Great unknown writers of America” might someday still be discovered.
Williams taught at the University of Denver from 1954 to 1985. Stoner was one of his four books, all of which were well reviewed in their time, one of which, Augustus, won the National Book Award in 1973. Yet John Williams never made it big, except among other writers. Stoner garnered particular praise from Irving Howe, the New York intellectual, literary critic, and socialist, and he described the book as having “contained intensity.” For me, the novel strikes sustained plaintive notes that somehow set emotions vibrating.
William Stoner is an English professor at the University of Missouri, the son of a dirt farmer who came to the school to study agriculture and experienced a revelation in his first English class when his professor asked him what Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 meant. The rest of the novel follows Stoner’s career and personal life, through a disastrous marriage, a battle over his daughter, and a love affair. At every stage, Stoner is smaller than life, a hero who distinguishes himself through extraordinary, unnoticed fortitude and the grace with which he weathers the petty insults and accidents of his life. His nobility rests in its invisibility. The book’s impact arises from a reader’s intimate knowledge of the central character’s quiet and gentle decency.
At first, the novel seemed a terrible choice for me. Why would I read a book about academia and departmental politics? My own professional vicissitudes make it more likely I’d write a book like this than read one. However, like any worthy novel, Stoner transcends its parochial setting. The university is a vehicle for domestic truths we rub against day to day.
A section midway through the book especially moved me. Stoner becomes embroiled in a dispute with a colleague who was soon to be named department chair. Stoner refuses to pass one of the future chair’s pet students. The student in question is a classic academic type—someone who plays a scholar perfectly but who rarely opens actual books, preferring instead to skate over grandiloquent glosses of his subject, which in his case is the totality of all the glories of all of western literature. Though Stoner responds to the student’s elusiveness with characteristic calm, though he remains, from first to last, beyond reproach in his objective and professional assessments, the new department chair paints Stoner as prejudicial and relegates him to freshman composition and sophomore survey courses. Stoner does nothing wrong yet handles being wronged with forbearance and resignation.
Here’s a passage from that section:
Former students of his, even students he had known rather well, began nodding and speaking to him self-consciously, even furtively. A few were ostentatiously friendly, going out of their way to speak to him or to be seen walking with him in the halls. But he no longer had the rapport with them that he once had; he was a special figure, and one was seen with, or not seen with him, for special reasons.
Stoner’s peculiar status, derived from events his personal code won’t allow him to address, places him in a world of half-light. Every contact with students is tainted by a subject no one can name, and even momentary associations are political. Thus no communication is genuine. No one sees Stoner as he really is, and he feels powerless to correct them because no one dares utter (at least to him) what gossip they believe.
What’s beautiful in this section—and in this book—is Williams’ appreciation for the tectonic shifts in the substrata of our lives, the way we walk on faults and pretend to perfect poise and balance. No ordinary life is truly ordinary, and while we might not experience the secret shunning Stoner receives, we all know our private pains, more real to us than they can ever be for any other. Those secret concerns can sometimes change our world entirely. Our preoccupations sometimes thrash just below the surface and threaten to disrupt everything. Yet for most of the people who know us, today appears another day.
The world, I suspect, is full of people trying to make their way, find what pleasures they can, and keep their discontent hidden. This book elicited a desperate hope in me—that the quietly unhappy may somehow find their way to expression, relief, and love.