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John Williams: Stoner

This book took a new lease of life when it was praised by Ian McEwan. However, despite the comments that it was a little-known book, it had been continuously in print since its publication and was certainly known in the United States, if not in Europe. I bought my copy in 1988 and had no difficulty getting a copy. However, I do agree with McEwan, that it is a very fine story. It is in the campus novel genre, a relatively frequent genre in US and UK twentieth century novels. There are several examples on this site. It is also part of a sub-genre of that genre, whereby our hero/protagonist somehow gets embroiled with a student and ends up ruining his (it is normally a man) career. This may be a sexual entanglement or, as in this case, something more fundamental, such as philosophical disagreement, a dispute over teaching methods or just a general mutual dislike.

Our hero is William Stoner. His wife calls him Willy, most other people call him Bill. He has grown up on a poor Missouri farm, the only child of his parents. He has to help on the farm and works hard, without complaining. One day his father tells him that they have opened a new college of agriculture at the University of Missouri and it would be a good idea if he studied there. He agrees, though not with any great enthusiasm. He stays with his mother’s cousin and has to work on the farm to pay for his board and lodging. One of the mandatory courses is English literature. Initially, he is troubled and disquieted by what he has to read and nearly fails the courses. However, by dint of committed reading – he is a hard worker both on the farm and in his studies – he gradually comes to love English literature, so much so that he switches courses from agriculture to English literature.

Under the guidance of Archer Sloane, his professor, he realises that farm work is not for him. Sloane suggests that he study for a Master’s, though Stoner is surprised at the suggestion. Indeed, it is Sloane that tells him, to his surprise, that he should become a teacher. When Stoner asks him why, Sloane says “It’s love, Mr. Stoner,” Sloane said cheerfully. “You are in love. It’s as simple as that.” He has to tell his parents who accept their son’s choice and he goes on to study for a Master’s and then a Ph. D. At this point he takes up teaching. Initially he cannot transmit his excitement with English literature to his students but this will come later and it is this ability that brings him greatest joy. He even manages to break out of his shell somewhat and becomes friendly with two colleagues.

The first problem that occurs is World War I. The two friends, David Masters and Gordon Finch, join up. Masters will be killed while Finch will have an easy war and return with a doctorate and become acting department head. Stoner declines to join up. Some eyebrows are raised, as he gets a deferment but he carries on teaching and gets a permanent position. The second problem is his marriage. At a party, he meets a tall, elegant woman, Edith, visiting her aunt from St Louis. She is also an only child. He falls for her, woos her and soon they are married. It is not a happy marriage. (Within a month he knew that his marriage was a failure; within a year he stopped hoping that it would improve.) They have a daughter, Grace, whom he loves dearly but Edith tries to use Grace against her husband. Eventually, they lead almost entirely separate lives. However, when her father commits suicide following the failure of his bank in the 1929 Crash, she spends some time with her mother and then returns home. When she returns, Edith was trying to announce to him a new declaration of war.

In the meantime, he has been made assistant professor with tenure and there is a new head of department, Hollis Lomax. They get on well, till the arrival of Charles Walker. Walker is a Ph. D. student who manages to get into Stoner’s class and is somewhat disruptive, so much so that the other students laugh at him. When he produces the paper he has been preparing for a dissertation, instead of it being on the subject he had declared and was meant to be writing about, it appears to be an open attack on another student and irrelevant to the declared subject. Stoner fails him. The matter gets out of hand, particularly when Lomax supports Walker, and this has a profound effect on Stoner, his life and career.

In an interview later in life, Williams commented on Stoner I think he’s a real hero. A lot of people who have read the novel think that Stoner had such a sad and bad life. I think he had a very good life. He had a better life than most people do, certainly. He was doing what he wanted to do, he had some feeling for what he was doing, he had some sense of the importance of the job he was doing. He was a witness to values that are important… The important thing in the novel to me is Stoner’s sense of a job. We can argue whether an author is the best person to comment on his own novel. However, I must somewhat disagree with Williams. Yes, he is committed to his job and loves teaching, loves imparting his love of literature to others. This is, of course, key, as a job one loves goes a long way to making one happy.

However, there are two things in his life which go very much against him. The first is his marriage, a total disaster. On the sexual side, they have sex for a couple of months with the sole intent of Edith getting pregnant. Apart from that, before and after, there appears to be no sexual relationship whatsoever. Obviously, sex is not essential to a happy life but, particularly if you are married, it helps a lot. Almost as important, he loves his daughter very much but Edith manages to take her away from him. As we have seen, Edith openly declares war on him and, often in very subtle ways, tries to make his life miserable and, indeed, succeeds. As his daughter later says, both his wife and daughter have been a disappointment to him. Yes, he has the consolation of an affair but even that goes wrong. I would argue that, in such circumstances, you cannot be said to have a good life. In addition, he gets involved in the politics of the university. His stand against Walker is, to all appearances, not in any way vindictive or malicious, but purely a matter of principle. He strongly feels that Walker will not be a good teacher, that he is ignorant of whole swathes of English literature and is incapable of following a proper course of study. However, in politics, be it academic, office or government, you have to play the game, and Stoner, unlike Lomax and Finch does not know how to play the game and does not want to. He is not prepared to compromise. The result will be to make his life miserable. Yes, we have to admire him for his principled stand but also ask whether it was worth the price, a price which turns out to be very heavy.

The book starts with his birth and death and points out that he is barely remembered and, if he is remembered at all, it is only as a reminder of the fate that awaits us all. In short, this is the story of a fairly ordinary man, who has, as Williams points out, just one important thing going for him, a committed love of literature and an overwhelming desire to transmit his love of literature to others through teaching. However, as Ian McEwan states in the article linked above, the book is about a small life out of which John Williams makes a very, very beautiful novel, an assessment with which I can only concur.

Publishing history

First published 1965 by Viking Press