Ah Stoner! Ah Humanity! A Review of Stoner by John Williams.
On December 20, 1973 the The Wall Street Journal quoted Wallace Stanley Sayre, an American professor at Columbia University, as saying, “Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low.” Now before we connect too many non-existent dots, we must recognize that Sayre had used the phrase since the 1950’s. Nonetheless, you’ll see why I set up this review with his quote.
The National Book Awards of the same year split the fiction prize between two writers: John Barth and John Williams. Their works were very different books with very different styles. Barth’s promoted meta-fiction — there’s even a dead horse tossed in to solidify the jokey theme. Williams’ was straight, tell it simple and with unadorned elegance. Now of course, it wasn’t Stoner that shared the winning spot but Augustus, an epistolary novel about Gaius Octavius Thurinus, first emperor of the Roman Empire. Not long ago I looked at that book carefully in the bookstore and it just felt dated, not 40 bce or so but 1970’s dated when family sagas were big. Or I wasn’t quite in the mood for that sort of book. What I do want to read by Williams is Butcher’s Crossing to see how he dealt with “The subject of [how] the West has undergone a process of mindless stereotyping” (1).
I’m getting closer to my review of Stoner but I want to talk a bit more about the 1973 National Book Awards. Included in the finalists: Vladimir Nabokov’s Transparent Things, which I don’t think I’ve ever read, now on my reading list; Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo, sitting on a pile of books to my right, (interestingly Reed was also in the poetry finals with Conjure) and Barry Hannah’s Geronimo Rex.
We’ll put aside the stuff about Williams being married four times, or that it was claimed he drank hard and smoked hard, and instead consider his what is described as an overarching work ethic and dedication to his craft. This craftspersonship comes through most evidently in the unwavering, controlled momentum of Stoner that is extremely tough to find in novels today.
Williams begins by focusing on the eponymous farm boy who will buck tradition. Having recently read The Sport of Kings by C.E. Morgan I certainly wondered if she’d considered this book in her formulation. Stoner leaves the farm and while floundering in university, suddenly demonstrates his ability for literature in two ways: He demands clarity in analysis and he is easily able to memorize Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73. This passion is pointed out to him in no uncertain terms.
Life begins. Stoner switches his major, discovers his love of teaching, engages in a passionless marriage, and lives on past three wars. He experiences the death of a college friend, the birth of his daughter, a meaningful affair, and unending vindictive office politics, all that define his being as he heads toward decline and death. Stoner is a story of a man’s life from start to finish. In this, the novel is reminiscent of the sprawling story of Citizen Kane. While Stoner lacks Charles’ hubris, the are both motivated by a deep compulsion. I’ve never seen anything stating Williams saw the movie, but as a point of reference, the movie was out in 1941, this book first published in 1965.
According to Mel Livatino in an interview with Williams’ fourth wife and widow Nancy, the novel took between 5 and 7 years to write and was loosely based on a noted professor at the University of Missouri (2). In the same interview Nancy said Williams wanted to work out what it meant to be a teacher. In this he succeeds perfectly. I suspect that anyone who cares about teaching will recognize the interior spark and route that Williams presents in Stoner. In my view, we, teachers, are driven by some deep, almost unnameable passion that like Stoner, arose, nearly against our awareness, early on. And similarly, it may have taken someone else to point it out to us. That’s the good side of academia.
On the minus side of the ledger is the recognition that very little has changed, either in academic politics or in the way that academic defenses are conducted. Lomax’s little speech after Walker’s oral candidacy exam is ear-perfect. Sadly I’ve heard variations of this speech too many times, in which a prejudice trumps all facts of the matter, as when the biased Lomax accuses Stoner of being the biased faculty member, win Stoner simply holds to facts and reality. Yes, this is a bit scary, the way academia in the 1960’s so so much like today, with it’s petty arguments, power tripping idiots, and sociopathic administrators (not where I work of course) who spout, that it’s always ‘all about the students,’ is the mantra, when it’s really about them using their position as either a bully pulpit or stepping stone.
The tone of the novel is one I found to be solid and constant. Reading the book was the same sort of head space I find when I’m writing and I say, no music, not today, I just want the stillness accompanied only by the melody of words. Woe to anyone who encroaches upon such a scenario because I’ll simply stare at them stupidly wondering how they dare disturb the universe. In this, the book lacks what novels today are so fond of, in short cheap emotional blackmail. They demand we feel certain ways and later we feel wrung out and duped. Thankfully with Stoner there is no later cause for embarrassment. Maybe we can call it as did Ivan Callus, “quasi-retro classic realism” (3). Nevertheless, when discussion came up about the 1973 National Book Awards, apparently Williams didn’t want his work as being seen as the antithesis of either contemporary or experimental fiction. He was after-all the editor of the Denver Quarterly it may be assumed he had an excellent understanding of experimental literature of the time. Revolutionary art can have any target and certainly the crux of William’s experiments are found in his smooth and sustained voice, and in the clarity and depth of his contextual understanding. I suspect that Williams was entirely aware of the way he played off experimental literature of the time in his own work. Look at the manner in which a long poetic passage is slammed by a final short sentence:
“For an instant he felt himself go out of the body that sat motionless before the window; and as he felt himself slip away, everything — the flat whiteness, the trees, the tall columns, the night, the far starts — seemed incredibly tiny and far away, as if they were dwindling into nothingness. Then, behind him, a radiator clanked.” Bang. Life always intervenes.
“The unexamined life is not worth living” said Plato, (Apology 38a5–6). But there is another way to go about living which is the way of a Sisyphean absurd hero and here we’re into Kafka’s The Trial, for example. Stoner may be read in various ways, as a man enduring the system, the imposition upon oneself by the vagaries of life, or as a hero who does pretty well given the situations he ends up in. I imagine the director Thomas Vinterberg filming it as a farce in the manner of Festin — wow would that be odd and fascinating to see. But readers often like to focus on Stoner as an underpaid, overworked professor, drained by freshman courses, in a loveless marriage and persecuted by Lomax. Yes it can look bleak as in this passage: “He did not sleep; he lay on the bed and looked out the single window until the dawn came, until there were no shadows upon the land, until it stretched gray and barren and infinite before him.” Nothing lives nor is anything sharply illuminated.
But, if it were all this simple we wouldn’t find Stoner’s continued passion against all odds attitude. His view is less Bartleby’s “I would prefer not” than “It doesn’t matter.” Why doesn’t it matter? Because his body is a vessel that holds his undying passion for the teaching and examination of literature that cannot be touched by the world around him.
As for Edith, she is somehow mentally ill. When she decides she wants a child, she lies on her back naked for the entire day, when her father dies she separates all her childhood things into two piles, then she systematically destroys all the things her father gave her, she burns documents and she pulverizes the china faces of dolls. As the marriage matures, Edith’s pettiness, it was there all along, turns to downright meanness. Here is an interaction that shows how Williams conveys her attitude without today’s form of melodrama.
“Edith’s smile widened; there was a pale smear of lipstick on one of her teeth. She turned to William and asked, ‘Do I look different?’
‘Yes,’ William said. ‘Very charming. Very pretty.’
She laughed at him and shook her head. ‘Poor Willy,’ she said. Then she turned again to her daughter. ‘I am different, I believe,’ she said to her. ‘I really believe I am.’
But William Stoner knew that she was speaking to him. And at that moment, somehow, he also knew that beyond her intention or understanding, unknown to herself, Edith was trying to announce to him a new declaration of war.”
Apparently when Williams sent a draft to his agent in the summer of 1963, he was told to that Edith’s motivations needed amplification (4). What arrogance. How perverse. Thankfully it appears any changes Williams made were minimal and early-novel at most.
Interestingly, except for his passion for learning and teaching which is an exemplar, there is always someone more extreme than Stoner. Lomax is more administratively minded, more powerful, more successful, and more sociopathic; Finch is more even-keeled within academe, Katherine is more consistently passionate about living and breathing her research; Edith is more pensive, more aloof, and more unforgiving.
So we’re happy when finally a bit of sweet revenge by Stoner finally appears. Lomax has relegated him to a hideous schedule teaching only freshman and sophomore courses, and purposefully denying him the opportunity to teach his select areas of interest. Finally, in response Stoner brings his fourth year material to a first year course. His students rush to complain en masse, Stoner is called into Lomax’s office, and he holds firm, evidently a brand of academic freedom existed then in the university as it does now. Stoner thus wrests back his old schedule. It is a rare moment of agency in an otherwise life of acceptance, some might say resignation, but that view probably comes from a warped sense of novelistic heroes that does not align with the real world. There does not always have to be radish in the salad, and again giving this up is part of Williams’ experiment in the mid sixties.
Stoner’s life as an academic was if anything fairly normal. He lived without massive setbacks nor massive advances. In his later years he reconciles with his daughter Grace, who is now an alcoholic as a result of being brainwashed by Edith’s sick brand of crazy. He finds there is more than learning and lust, there is a smaller sphere called being true to one’s self and one’s passion. Literature, Stoner’s quest, is an engine that like a heartbeat, it is a force stronger and with an unceasing history than any of life’s peccadillos. He has learned, literature can beat all odds, all desires, even against one’s intents.
Literature is bigger than all of us, it outlasts everything.
Knowledge passes from it’s great library through us, from us and onto others. Stoner was a conduit. There was a cartoon in the New Yorker once. It showed a young woman sitting on a window ledge writing, “Dear Mom and Dad: Thanks for the happy childhood. You’ve destroyed any chance I had of becoming a writer.” Maybe without the indignities launched at Stoner he wouldn’t have been what he was, or he would have succumbed to worse, the acceptance of an administrative position or the penning of worthless tomes. Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 comes full circle, the fire that burned within him will expire, and yet there is no remorse, he loved well and unwaveringly that which nourished him throughout.
Not long before his death, “He heard the small laughter echo in the distance.” He remembers the joy of Grace as a child. Then near death, “He was himself and he knew what he had been.” In this we assume he found peace.
(1) (Westword. Sixteen years after his death, not-so-famous novelist John Williams is finding his audience ALAN PRENDERGAST | NOVEMBER 3, 2010 | 4:00AM
(2) Mel Livatino (A Sadness Unto the Bone: John Williams’s Stoner, 2010, Sewanee Review, June 1. pp. 417–422.
(3) by Ivan Callus (Exhausted Replenishment: Experimental Fiction and the Decomposition of Literature. Word and Text: A Journal of Literary Studies and Linguistics. Vol. 4 (1). 2014)
(4) Showalter, E. (2015). Classic ‘Stoner’? Not so fast. Books. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/classic-stoner-not-so-fast/2015/11/02/9f0ed5aa-7db3-11e5-b575-d8dcfedb4ea1_story.html?utm_term=.f66692068a00