If it were published today John Williams’s novel Stoner would be labeled “literary fiction.” Because it was published 46 years ago, it’s called a classic — at least by NYRB Books, which keeps it in print under the classic designation — and for many readers, that may be even worse.
Williams’s book suggests how much is lost by dismissing any novel that does not fit into a ready-made marketing niche as “fiction where not very much happens to people who aren’t very interesting.” It’s true that Stoner probably won’t appeal to readers who are looking mainly for feats of physical derring-do, intricate plot twists leading to a panting climax, or paranoid obsessions that scare them silly. It’s also true that Williams’s persons are not very important, nor do they suddenly find themselves in extremis.
Williams’s achievement is of a different order, and far more impressive. Stoner takes an outwardly nondescript life, the sort of life that many of us want to escape into fiction, and demonstrates that the real drama of human experience is in the daily refusal to escape, the uninterrupted renunciation of extreme situations, the muted decision to stay and do some good. It’s hard to make such a book sound very exciting. That Stoner is exciting — unexpectedly so, and incredibly moving — is the true measure of Williams’s achievement.
The novel is the story of William Stoner, who left his parents’ farm in central Missouri a few years before the First World War to study agriculture at the state university forty miles away, and then spent the rest of his life there after switching majors to English and becoming a literary scholar. Or, as he would prefer to say, a teacher. He himself does not discover his vocation until his undergraduate adviser, having learned that Stoner has no intention of returning to the farm, suggests that he might stay on to earn an M.A. while teaching freshman composition. The young man is dumbfounded:
“[D]on’t you know, Mr. Stoner?” [the adviser] asked. “Don’t you understand about yourself yet? You’re going to be a teacher.”
Suddenly [the adviser] seemed very distant, and the walls of the office receded. Stoner felt himself suspended in the wide air, and he heard his voice ask, “Are you sure?”
“I’m sure,” [the adviser] said softly.
“How can you tell? How can you be sure?”
“It’s love, Mr. Stoner,” [the adviser] said cheerfully. “You are in love. It’s as simple as that.”
Stoner has fallen in love with learning. He has already taught himself enough Latin and Greek, eyes burning from lack of sleep, to read simple texts. He remains faithful to his first love, even when the United States enters the war against the Germans in 1915. His two best friends enlist, but Stoner remains at the University of Missouri to finish his PhD dissertation on “The Influence of the Classical Tradition on the Medieval Lyric.” His old undergraduate adviser, now the department chairman, supplies Stoner’s reasoning: “There are wars and defeats and victories of the human race that are not military and that are not recorded in the annals of history.”
There in one sentence is Stoner’s theme. The remainder of the novel resembles nothing so much as a military campaign, conducted behind closed doors and without benefit of publicity. To defend his love of learning (and the institution that was established to represent it), Stoner must face two determined adversaries: his wife Edith, who battles him for the affections of their daughter Grace, and a new department chairman, who does everything in his bureaucratic power to rout Stoner’s career.
The war over his daughter is heartbreaking. Because her mother suffers a nervous breakdown shortly after her birth and then takes up a frantic and nearly hysterical social existence to avoid domesticity, Grace spends most of her first eight years of life with her father, knowing only his voice and his touch and his love. In the evenings they sit together in Stoner’s study. He had “found a small desk and chair for her, so that she had a place to read and do her homework” while Stoner sits at a larger desk beside her, grading papers and writing scholarship. The portrait of a father, perfectly content in the company of his child, has never been done any better.
Stoner’s wife Edith decides abruptly that Grace is not sufficiently feminine and not sufficiently social, and she takes Grace away from her father. Eventually she is able even to take away Stoner’s study.
On campus, Stoner is thwarted too. After trying to get a student dismissed from the department’s graduate program for dishonesty and incompetence, Stoner becomes the chosen enemy of the new chairman, whose prize pupil the incompetent is. His graduate seminar is taken away from him; he is assigned four sections of freshman composition at widely spaced hours on six days of the week; he is never promoted beyond assistant professor.
Even when he finds a young woman who shares his “illicit and dangerous” love for the “mystery of the mind and heart showing themselves in the minute, strange, and unexpected combinations of letters and words, in the blackest and coldest print,” Stoner must give her up. His life, his career, is a series of soul-grinding defeats. Somehow, though, Stoner maintains his commitment to teaching, his allegiance to the university, his fidelity to learning. His devotion becomes his triumph, and Williams’s account of his triumph — Stoner’s hard-fought survival of the defeats — is wholly persuasive and oddly gripping. Even the most undramatic of lives are full of urgent drama when you realize what is at stake.
Stoner has a special significance to me, because it is based upon the life of my beloved teacher J. V. Cunningham and especially his disastrous marriage to the poet Barbara Gibbs. I also revere it, because no other novel — no other book, except perhaps for Cunningham’s own Poems — makes a better case for the life of scholarship. But even readers who care little for Cunningham and less for scholarship will love John Williams’s Stoner. It will remind you why you first started reading novels: to get inside the mystery of other people’s lives. And perhaps that is the final cause of all good fiction. Perhaps it is written to preserve the defeats and victories not recorded in the annals of history.