Those of you who have purchased your texts for this course may return them to the bookstore and get a refund. We shall not be using the text described in the syllabus–which, I take it, you all received when you signed up for the course. Neither will we be using the syllabus. I intend in this course to take a different approach to the subject, an approach which will necessitate your buying two new texts.
Stoner by John Williams
John Williams sums up William Stoner’s public life in the first paragraph of “Stoner”: enrolled in the University of Missouri at Columbia in 1910, earned his doctorate in literature in 1918, taught at the same university until his death in 1956, memorialized with a donated medieval manuscript and now largely forgotten by his colleagues. It seems an inauspicious life out of which to make a novel, but there is a richness to Stoner’s private life that makes for a compelling, and haunting, story.
Stoner was born into a poor farm family, and his father sends him to the university to study agriculture; “they got new ideas,” his father explains, “ways of doing things they teach you at the University.” But instead of learning modern agriculture, Stoner is “troubled and disquieted” by a survey of English literature, and he abandons science for medieval and Renaissance poetry. Under the tutelage of Archer Sloane, Stoner finds his unlikely calling to teach literature:
“It’s love, Mr. Stoner,” Sloane said cheerfully. “You are in love. It’s as simple as that.”
Love stalks through “Stoner” like a grim ghost: his love for Edith, a young woman from St. Louis whom he courts and marries, much to his regret; his love for his daughter Grace, stifled by Edith; a glorious love affair that comes too late; and beneath it all, Stoner’s love for language and learning. Stoner is slow to recognize love, and seems always surprised by its implications and effects; love is not an entirely redemptive force in his life.
Love is in fact cruel to Stoner, putting him into situations where he cannot possibly win: maintaining his marriage means losing his daughter; continuing his doomed love affair risks the loss of his teaching vocation; and his love of teaching and his love of scholarship are in continuous conflict. Only once does he enjoy a significant, but quiet, victory: because of his dedication to scholarship, Stoner comes into conflict with Hollis Lomax, the fashionable department head, over a graduate student who is more flash than substance, and finds himself exiled to the sort of teaching schedule “that even the newest instructor would have accepted with bad grace.” In an act of rebellion that puts Stoner on par with Bartleby, he finally turns the tables on Lomax in a quiet but very satisfying way.
Stoner is very much like Bartleby in many ways. He is more acted upon than acting, carried along by events with a sort of bemused acceptance. He isn’t a fatalist, exactly, which implies a vision of orverarching necessity; rather, Stoner is apathetic toward many of the things that exercise his peers–politics, both on the world stage (two world wars and the Great Depression have minimal effect on him) and in academia, is of no interest to him–and excited only by the life of the mind. “What did you expect?” is a continuous refrain in the beautiful last pages of the novel, where Stoner on his death bed is coming to terms with his life; the question can really only be answered by, “Not very much,” though it is within the strictures of limited expectations that Stoner’s life can finally be seen as a success.
“Stoner” is a wonderfully written novel, told in a spare and almost minimalist style. Williams rarely steps outside of Stoner’s perspective (and when he does, giving us glimpses into Edith’s private actions and his lover’s departure, the effect is evocative rather than jarring). The life of the university is sketched very faintly, suggested more than described; the richest descriptions are of Stoner’s inner life, and of how he grapples with his emotions. “Stoner” is an internal novel without being solipsistic or narcissistic; its protagonist’s humility and occasional bewilderment anchors it firmly in a real world that Stoner shares intimately with the reader.