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.
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 The anticipation of a life with little expectation and fewer rewards is withdrawn from Stoner when, in the year 1910 aged 19, he attends the University to study agriculture at his father’s suggestion.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.
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.