Notes on “Stoner,” a Novel by John Williams

StonerIn his disclaimer notes at the front of “Stoner,” John Williams assures his reader that the character of William Stoner is fiction, and should not be mistaken for any coincidental likenesses, the standard “any resemblance to” lingo. And maybe there was no Stoner, but at the same time, surely there are many Stoners. Stoner is a kind of every-humanist. When asked why Ulysses, Joyce responded that the character was well rounded. Ulysses had been, of course, a son, but also a father, a husband, and a soldier, and while he was out soldiering, a cuckold. But Joyce’s Ulysses is an ironic depiction; the many resemblances to the original Ulysses amount to colossal irony. So too, Stoner is an ironic humanist, and readers are disabused of any notion that the liberal arts specialist or humanities generalist by definition reaches nirvana or achieves happiness or indeed is even able to articulate their experience for someone else to appreciate. Reading does not necessarily make us either whole or rent. Reading does not make us better people (particularly reading does not make us better people than non-readers). Stoner is a book.

Early in the book, Stoner may come across as an existential and humanist monster; it’s hard to understand how a so-called humanist, a man educated in the liberal arts tradition, was unable to find a way to talk to his parents, however alienated he might be from their generation, their values, their experience, particularly if they have little or no education. And there were no disagreements, no political arguments, no generation gap problems, no counter cultural issues. (Indeed, as it turns out, Stoner is as conservative as Louis Menand claims is true for the majority of today’s professors.) Stoner simply seems to have felt his parents incapable on any level of understanding want he wanted. Still, how had he missed developing the skills necessary to articulate for them his need? In any case, Stoner winds up no more or less a monster than most men.

Indeed, a suitable epigraph for Williams’s novel “Stoner” might have been this quote from Thoreau’s “Walden”:

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation…A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.”

In other words, while there may have been no actual Professor Stoner that Williams based his character on, the character of Stoner contains the characteristics of the average college professor in the 20th Century US (Stoner teaches through two world wars, the Great Depression, and the Korean War, and though he is never a soldier, a war of a different kind engages him). “Stoner” is a hard book to talk about without creating a spoiler. Readers interested in a regular review might check out Tim Krider’s New Yorker review, posted on-line on October 21. But it’s a bit of a spoiler. So too is a spoiler the introduction to the New York Review Books Classics edition of “Stoner.” Read the introduction after finishing the book. The introduction is particularly useful for the passage of an interview with John Williams, in which he calls Stoner “a hero.”

If Stoner is a hero, he is a kind of anti-hero. For great sections of his life, he is a loner, not alone, exactly, but alienated. He is independent, courageous, generous, disciplined. He is exploited. He is, primarily, a reader, a scholar. As a teacher, he is a kind of anti-Mr. Chips, though like Mr. Chipping, he is conservative. But Stoner is not conservative politically or socially or in any kind of religious sense. He’s conservative in that he wants to preserve the University for people like himself. This may have something to do with his being a classicist. One of the best scenes in the book (spoiler alert) is when, forced as a veteran to go back to a grueling schedule of Freshman Composition classes as a punishment backhanded down by his department chair, he decides to chuck the syllabus and teach Freshman composition through the portal of Medieval Language and Literature. Stoner is a tenured professor, so there’s nothing his chair can do about it. There are breaks in the text. Why, for example, when it’s mentioned that he writes his MA thesis on one of the tales in Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” are we not told which tale? One wonders how a character so supposedly steeped in Chaucer and Shakespeare could be so naïve and awkward in his own time. But the Stoner we come to know at the end of the book is not the same Stoner we knew at the beginning of the book.

The figurative language is sparse throughout “Stoner.” The prose is like a field of wheat. Nothing seems hurried. The sentences are long (Williams was a fan of the semicolon), and often turn into something unexpected. There is a plot. The plot is a man’s life. And this man’s life, some have argued, doesn’t amount to much. Indeed, Stoner himself, a self-disciplined specialist, feels he’s achieved little, but he’s patiently endured so much. Stoner has slowly, incrementally, experienced his life, and the reader shares, step by step, in that experience.

Related: “How Do Professors Think? More Crisis in the Humanities”

10 Comments Add yours

  1. Dan Hennessy says:

    But , should we read the book and share in his quiet desperation in order to reflect on our own ? Who said : Two-thirds of men I see walking around are suicides ? Well written review , though , Joe .

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    1. Joe Linker says:

      Dan, I think you’d like this book for its clear and objective prose, its setting and theme, and its historical context. Stoner, later in the book, is a trouble maker in faculty meetings. I had thought about saying something about the general casualness of failure in jobs in our society, failures for being average – or the Steinbeck theme in “The Winter of Our Discontent.” Instead of the Thoreau quote, maybe this Beckett quote might be better: “To be an artist is to fail as no other dare fail”; except teachers, I might addd. Stoner is happy in as much as he is doing what he wanted to do. But there are other issues that come up in his life. But Stoner remains true to his ideals throughout, at least within the context or the boundaries set for him. He’s not a perfect man, but there’s not necessarily a resignation to imperfection, but an acknowledgment that to embrace failure might also be to cast off the romantic underpinnings of success, which can so often be fluffed up to appear something it wasn’t at all. In fact, Stoner was never desperate. Not any more desperate than his father, who scratched away on his meagre farm for a lifetime, but who labored under no pretensions, and saw things for what they were, not looking at one thing and seeing something else (one reason for the novel’s lack of figurative language). If Stoner was desperate, maybe it was in insisting on an identity married to a job; and that most conservative of sentiments still persists today. People are judged for what they do for a living, even though most come to their occupations randomly, without much forethought or deliberate decision making. Stoner decides to be a teacher, and remain a teacher, one of his friends argues, because he won’t be able to do anything else. But that doesn’t make him a bad teacher. I don’t know who said that about suicides. It’s always risky quoting Thoreau, since he always has so much more to say. But here’s Thoreau’s next passage:

      Yet they honestly think there is no choice left. But alert and healthy natures remember that the sun rose clear. It is never too late to give up our prejudices. No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof. What everybody echoes or in silence passes by as true
      to-day may turn out to be falsehood to-morrow, mere smoke of opinion, which some had trusted for a cloud that would sprinkle fertilizing rain on their fields. What old people say you cannot do, you try and find that you can. Old deeds for old people, and new deeds for new. Old people did not know enough once, perchance, to fetch fresh fuel to keep the fire a-going; new people put a little dry wood under a pot, and are whirled round the globe with the speed of birds, in a way to kill old people, as the phrase is. Age is no better, hardly so well, qualified for an instructor as youth, for it has not profited so much as it has lost. One may almost doubt if the wisest man has learned anything of absolute value by living. Practically, the old have no very important advice to give the young, their own experience has been so partial, and their lives have been such miserable failures, for private reasons, as they must believe; and it may be that they have some faith left which belies that experience, and they are only less young than they were. I have lived some thirty years on this planet, and I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors. They have told me nothing, and probably cannot tell me anything to the purpose. Here is life, an experiment to a great extent untried by me; but it does not avail me that they have tried it. If I have any experience which I think valuable, I am sure to reflect that this my Mentors said nothing about.

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  2. Dan Hennessy says:

    Thanks for the follow-up comment , Joe . The book sounds very interesting and worth the read .

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  3. That he is a trouble maker makes him interesting.

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    1. Joe Linker says:

      Yet he’s also a stoic, and his choices, if they can be called that, acknowledge fate and randomness but also acceptance and resignation to one’s time and place, but the book does not call any of this out. It’s a book to read for the experience of reading. The New Yorker review I linked to – Tim Krider says he had to put the book down for “a year or two,” so bothered was he of the domestic situation. I had a different reaction: stayed up most of a night to finish it. Much of the book is exaggerated, as a sunrise on a desert or a sunset over the ocean exaggerate everything in the picture, but there is this constant movement. There’s also the strain of literary naturalism throughout the text, in the tradition of Dreiser and Frank Norris, and Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening” would make an interesting comparison to “Stoner.” In some sense, Stoner never awakens; he remains a stone, a stoner, one who weighs things for a living, or one addicted, in his case to some vague sense of the value of literature, which can never be accessible to everyone, except possibly through the naturalistic rendition, or through film. Robert Bly has much to say on being a stone, on turning into a stone: here and here and here and here but Bly has always recommended staying away from drugs and alcohol, both of which turn users into stone.

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      1. You’re obviously taken by Stoner. I like Robert Bly, have some of his work. And I like his reading tastes. Thanks for the links. There’s a speller in that Paris Review Interview – it’s Marion Woodman, not Marian.
        My reading is patchy, and slow. Never found the time to catch up with all the lit I love.

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  4. Am looking forward to reading this book. Its been on my reading list for some time.

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    1. Joe Linker says:

      Hey, Simon…Thx for reading and comment. If you do end up reading “Stoner,” come on back and let us know what you thought. Greatly enjoying yr photos. Feel free to post any amount of Irish surfing photos you come up with! Though there may also be some paying markets for the obscure surf spot.

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  5. One of the most beautiful pieces of fiction I’ve ever read. Thanks for reminding me, Joe. What he did in three sentences was astounding.

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    1. Joe Linker says:

      Hey, Claudia. Thanks for stopping by. Yeah, somehow the hard crafted style of the sentence structure.

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