Sunday, August 24, 2008

Stoner by John Williams

Stoner by John Williams
New York: New York Review Books
$14.95 – 278 pages – 1965 (reissued, 2003)

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And so, providence, or society, or fate, or whatever name you want to give it has created this hovel for us (teachers) so that we can go in out of the storm. It's for us that the University exists, for the dispossessed of the world, not for the students, not for the selfless pursuit of knowledge.
- Stoner, p. 31

During the last sixty years, the “academic novel” has become an enduring genre in American literature. Even after half a century, a number of exceptional works still reflect the academic world with admirable authenticity: Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1962); Mary McCarthy’s The Groves of Academe (1964) and Bernard Malamud’s hilarious A New Life (1964). Invariably, American writers have found colleges and universities to be powerful microcosms – a kind of distillation of the best and worst of our culture and values.

Recently, the New York Review of Books named John Williams’ Stoner a “neglected classic.” Essentially, NYRB found the author’s depiction of the “outwardly undistinguished career of an assistant professor of English within the walls of a university” to be a kind of meditation on the rueful consequences of devoting one’s life to teaching. Stoner is, in many ways, a bleak and lonely sojourn; yet when Professor William Stoner comes to the end of his life, he judges himself to have been both fortunate and blessed.

Born to a poor farming family, young Stoner seems destined to follow his father’s example; however the advice of a county farm agent prompts the boy’s parents to send him to the University of Columbia “to study Agriculture.” William pays his tuition by working on a nearby farm and he plods numbly through his first year. However, a chance remark by his English teacher, Archer Sloan, sparks an interest in literature that, in turn, fills this ignorant young man with vague yearning for things he had not previously known existed. Eventually, William Stoner changes his major (a decision that leaves him guilt-ridden), and he begins the long and arduous pursuit of a doctorate degree in medieval literature. Eventually, under the guidance of Archer Sloan, he will acquire a full-time teaching position at Columbia University.

As the years pass, Stoner finds his dreams elusive. A close friend dies on a battlefield in France during WWI; another friend, Gordon Finch, becomes an academic dean and Stoner’s life-long friend. His marriage to Edith, a banker’s daughter turns into a loveless, bitter travesty and the grand ideals contained in the literature that he loves remain elusive specters. Stoner is rarely able to communicate the beauty that he perceives in poetry and drama, but he lives for those brief moments when he speaks clearly and his students hear him.

The birth of his daughter, Grace, fills Stoner with a momentary joy, but within a few years, he finds himself locked in a fierce struggle with his wife for Grace’s attention. His mentor, Archer Sloan dies and the University’s indifference to his passing shocks Stoner. A brilliant and arrogant department head becomes a bitter enemy and Stoner spends much of his time in his office immersed in his lecture notes and research.

Life passes, WW II comes and goes, taking another group of Stoner’s best students. Stoner is relegated to teaching freshman composition and students begin to comment on his eccentric behavior. However, it is at this point, when this middle-aged scholar is at his lowest ebb, he finds himself abruptly swept from his bleak, prosaic life into a world in which his “vague yearnings” are fully realized.

The agent of change is a woman, of course РKatherine Driscoll, a student that is twenty years his junior - a woman who shares his nearly incoherent love for literature. So all that has been denied to this lonely man is suddenly (briefly), realized. Stoner is swept into an affair that borders on being a clich̩ Рan aging lover and a vital young woman who is the fulfillment of his secret dreams. However, the scenes between Stoner and Katherine are among the most vivid and vital episodes in this novel.

This is by no means the conclusion of Stoner. There are other indignities to be borne and other battles to lose. However, this brief episode changes Stoner in fundamental ways. Belatedly, he develops a survival strategy and adheres to it. He learns to accept “things as they are,” and begins to emulate the stoic fortitude of his parents.

On the first page of this novel, the author makes the following statement regarding the death of his protagonist: “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 that evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers.”

When I finished this novel, I found myself remembering the numerous competent (dependable) instructors who passed through the corridors of my own alma mater – the ones who survive because of their low-key existence and “protective camouflage.” We remember the “campus characters,” but we soon forget the patient, dedicated yeoman who toil quietly and then make their exit silently. Were there, perhaps, Stoner’s among them?