Stoner, John Williams, NYRB, 2006 (1965)
John Williams’ Stoner is the story of the academic’s worst nightmare. One should suspect as much, though, for on the very first page the author sketches the life of one William Stoner, a professor of literature at the University of Missouri in the first half of the twentieth century. Despite 38 years of teaching, Stoner never rose above the rank of assistant professor. He was, apparently, an unremarkable man—few students could recall him, even after they had just taken his class.
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 which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their career.
Not exactly the way an academic wants to be remembered. While I am no professor, I do fancy myself a bit of a thinker, and occasionally fantasize about the life of a college instructor. Stoner had all the trappings of a wet dream: a poor, Missouri farmer finds his true calling and a love of literature at the university, is offered a professorship and tenure shortly after graduation, and marries a smart, beautiful woman with whom he has a smart, precocious daughter. A life of research, teaching, mentoring, and publishing lived alternatively in an ivory tower or behind a white picket fence stretches before him. Ah, the life! Add to the mix the allure of a young, sexy, sharp-as-a-tack student—naturally—and you have the makings of every thinking man’s fantasy.
Yet life was not so rosy for Stoner. One can argue that, all things considered, Stoner did alright for himself. In fact, as far as the destinies of destitute, Dust Bowl-era farmers are concerned, he did exceedingly well. Nevertheless, Stoner ends up living a life of intellectual stagnation, marital ineptitude, bitter loneliness, and professorial obscurity, never to rise above the level of mediocrity in all realms of life. Oh, the horror!
Stoner may be a melancholic read, but it is not dull. This elegant novel is a fine, intimate portrait of a man with terrific—but never realized—potential. His life at the university begins with much promise, but that time, unfortunately, is nearly the peak of the intellect’s career. His marriage to a woman who never truly loved him quickly dissolves into an emotional prison-state, and nearly almost spirals into a War of the Roses-type battle for psychological supremacy. More disheartening are the machinations of the Chair of the literary department in which Stoner resides who conspires to keep Stoner at the level of a lowly, associate professor, even while younger professors slowly climb the ranks. Stoner takes all of his lumps with a resigned dignity, but he closes in on himself until he becomes the sole constituent of his world:
Stoner had to admit that he had become, in the regard of the young instructors and the older students, who seemed to come and go before he could firmly attach names to their faces, an almost mythic figure, however shifting and various the function of that figure was.
And as the years pass by, his classroom behavior becomes more eccentric, more erratic, more absent, and, in front of his students, more intense,
He began his lectures and discussions fumblingly and awkwardly, yet very quickly became so immersed in his subject that he seemed unaware of anything or anyone around him.
We know from the very beginning that the end of the novel brings death to the protagonist—a somber pall drapes every page. It is Williams’ ability to paint such precise, brutally honest portraits of the characters, however, that keeps one reading. The characters are so real they seem to come alive on the page. We know that things cannot end well, but the appeal remains in finding out how the individuals, namely Stoner, cope with the sad circumstances of their lives. Every character is a sad sack, incapable of overcoming their stifling mediocrity. Stoner’s life and death is emblematic of the academic’s worst nightmare: great potential never realized.
Shaun Randol is the founder and editor in chief of The Mantle , an Associate Fellow at World Policy Institute, and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.