John Williams: Stoner

The cover design of the NYRB Classics edition of John Williams’ novel Stoner might have been expressly chosen to emphasise that, even though the book was published in 1965, this is not a sort of literary Cheech and Chong.  It is a sober study of one man’s slow journey to finding out who he is, and it is quietly magnificent.

John Williams: Stoner

Williams hits the reader straight away with a devastating summation of William Stoner’s career in the University of Missouri:

Stoner’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 with which they can associate themselves or their careers.

This is a tease, because the next 278 pages explain why such a dismissal is unwarranted.  It gives us a chronological account of a life, and of a man, who grew up on a farm, with a father “stooped by labour” and a mother who “regarded her life patiently, as if it were a long moment that she had to endure.” The anticipation of a life with little expectation and fewer rewards is withdrawn from Stoner when, in the year 1910 aged 19, he attends the University to study agriculture at his father’s suggestion.  Standing on the campus for the first time, “he had a sudden sense of security and serenity he had never felt before.”

Stoner switches from agriculture to English, and realises that he will never return to the farm.  This is a ‘talky’ book, with a good deal of the development coming through dialogue – a difficult and welcome achievement.  First is when Stoner’s tutor, Archer Sloane, takes him aside for a conversation.

“But don’t you know, Mr Stoner?  Don’t you understand about yourself yet?  You’re going to be a teacher.”

Stoner felt himself suspended in the wide air, and he heard his voice ask, “Are you sure?”

“I’m sure,” said Sloane softly.

“How can you tell?  How can you be sure?”

“It’s love, Mr Stoner,” Sloane said cheerfully.  “You are in love.  It’s as simple as that.”

Already we see a pattern developing, of Stoner following the direction of another. However he does often branch out from these directions and make his own decision in the end.  He comes to see the future as “a territory ahead that awaited his exploration.”  When the First World War breaks out and the US becomes involved, his colleagues sign up to fight, with one saying, “I suppose I’m doing it because it doesn’t matter whether I do it or not.”  Not for Stoner such a spirit: he remains in Missouri and courts, and then marries, a girl called Edith.

John Williams: Stoner (Vintage Classics, UK)

His marriage starts out as lukewarm and follows the laws of thermodynamics, and so it is through his work that he finds it “possible to live, and even be happy, now and then.”  At home, his refuge is his study.  “It was himself that he was attempting to define as he worked on his study … it was himself that he was slowly shaping, it was himself that he was putting into a kind of order, it was himself that he was making possible.”

Work means the university, and if you thought that ‘electrifying scenes of campus politics’ was an oxymoron, then you need to read Stoner.  It is a book which is structurally unadventurous but emotionally and intellectually engaging.  We see a man struggling to be allowed to do the one thing he has learned to do well, and to find the dignity in labour (“I think he’s a real hero,” said Williams of his creation), and to exercise love in the only way he can.

The love of literature, of language, of the mystery of the mind and the heart showing themselves in the minute, strange and unexpected combinations of letters and words, in the blackest and coldest print – the love which had to be hidden as if it were illicit and dangerous, he began to display, at first tentatively, and then boldly, and then proudly.


  1. You’ve made me think now of a book called Amos Berry by Allan Seager, a writer whose out of print back catalogue was highlighted by McSweeney’s publishing one of his short stories. In Amos Berry the focus is actually on the rural father, the story told by his son who has gone on to become a poet. It is a fascinating read, as is this by the tone of another excellent review. Thanks

  2. I finished this book not long ago and my review of it is waiting in line. Such a wonderful book! And you’ve written a fabulous review of it. If I hadn’t already read it, I would now!

  3. How lovely. A good warning on the Cheech and Chong front there, too, when I saw the title I did rather assume it would be a piece of stoner literature, a 1960s equivalent of Jack Black’s 1926 You Can’t Win.

    Impressive that Williams could write with such care about a figure so quotidian, that too seems to me a real achievement.

  4. John Williams is my choice as the most under-recognized U.S. author — this review is an excellent look at why he is so good. I hadn’t realized until I saw the cover in the review that John McGahern (an author you and kimbofo introduced me to earlier this year) had written the introduction to this edition of Stoner — can’t say I am surprised. Williams only wrote three novels and I am equally fond of the other two, although they are very different (from this one and each other). Butcher’s Crossing is an excellent “frontier” book and Augustus, A Novel is an epistlatory novel of the first Roman emperor and the people around him. I can’t think of another author anywhere who, in only three books, did as excellent work on three vastly different themes.

  5. I hadn’t made the connection, I have Butcher’s Crossing at home (bought on your recommendation actually Kevin), I’m taking it most likely on my next skiing trip (frontier books go so well with outdoor holidays).

    Hm, well, my new rule is I never buy a book of an author when I have other books of his at home unread, so I won’t be getting this for a while yet, but it does make me look forward to Butcher’s Crossing all the more.

  6. The three central characters in Butcher’s Crossing do get stranded in a Colorado Rocky Mountain valley for a winter. I am not sure that ranks as a positive or a negative when it comes to reading the book on a skiing trip.

  7. Whichever it is, it’s at least atmospheric.

    I do like to try to pair books to conditions a bit, it’s nice if the background can help inspire a little. Plus, one can see what’s being described, which with some authors helps show quite how good they are at description.

  8. Great review John. I have Stoner ( a different edition but the same cover painting) which I ordered last year having discovered Butcher’s Crossing by sheer chance in a bookshop in Dublin. Butcher’s Crossing is a vivid frontier tale of a buffalo hunt and slaughter – I recommend it highly. Actually I’m surprised it hasn’t been made into a film – maybe there aren’t any more buffaloes to act as extras! Stoner sounds completely different but just as interesting – must get round to reading it …

  9. I didn’t know about this book, and I lived for 8 years in Missouri!!! Now that Antonia has recommended it I have no choice!

  10. Thanks for the kind comments everyone. As I have a similar new-books rule to Max, and as I don’t have anything else by Williams, I believe that means that the way is now open for me to buy and read Butcher’s Crossing.

    Incidentally, the NYRB blurb agrees with KevinfromCanada that Williams is the author of three novels; but McGahern’s introduction mentions four, though I think the fourth (or rather first) is an apprentice work.

  11. Appropriate clarification, John. I’d read somewhere that Williams had disavowed Nothing but the Night but can no longer remember where and it does seem to have been reprinted.

  12. Williams’ first novel is still available, in the US at least, from the University of Arkansas Press. Amazon’s telling me I purchased it Dec. 30th 2007 (a day after I finished Stoner). It’s slim, just over 100 pages. I’ve still not gotten to it.

  13. I see that I’m a little late reading this review. Being a former English major with unfulfilled aspirations of one day being a professor, I’ve always enjoyed “talky” books about literature. The last quote in your review sold me on this book. Great review.

  14. STONER is my vote for the most beautifully written, emotionally affecting novel written by an American author in the past fifty or sixty years. The last couple pages which record the protagonist’s death are a tour-de-force in the conveyance in microcosm of a human beings entire life, so terrifyingly, heartbreakingly moving not because it is traditionally pathetic but because it does such stirring justice to the heroism of a life of intergrity lived out to the very last dying of the light. For those who love it as I do, I’d like to recommend another equally moving book, Wright Morris’s THE WORKS OF LOVE – a perfect counterpoint to the Stoner character in that Will Brady, the protagonist of THE WORKS OF LOVE is as unassuming, as anonymous a figure to himself, in his own mind, as Stoner is deceptively proud and willful in his heart of hearts. THE WORKS OF LOVE I think was written in 1953, STONER in 1962, Walker Percy’s THE MOVIEGOER a year after that, Evan S. Connell’s MRS.BRIDGE at the tail end of the 50s. This period was the last golden age of truly great fiction writing in this country. THE WORKS OF LOVE and STONER get my votes as the two finest however.

  15. It would be interesting to understand the true roots of this return to the realism, of course crisis-related, but still focused onto a big depression model intrinsically rejecting the present. On the same line, the end of the postmodernism has been marked by the suicide of David Forster Wallace, whose last novel, The Pale King, is about the non-exciting life of some U.S. tax agency employees, a modern return to Stoner model. Congratulation for the nice and sincere review.

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