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”