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Empty Life

A few years ago I read John Williams’ masterpiece, Stoner, recognizing it as the finest academic novel I have ever encountered, but I didn’t think it would appeal to readers outside of the academy.  How wrong I’ve been proven to be.  A couple of months back, Publishers Weekly ran an article about the novel (first published in 1965).  In translations, it’s been a run away best-seller in several countries in Europe: the Netherlands, France, Spain and in Italy, selling far better than it ever did in the United States.  This success is great for the novel but, sadly, Williams died in 1994, and if much of Stoner is close to Williams’ own academic career (as a Professor of English), he must have experienced some rough spots in his professional life.  Thus, I re-read the book to see if I could determine its appeal to European audiences.

Virtually the entire story takes place in Columbia, Missouri, at the University, mostly between World War I and II, but extending a bit before and after the wars.  It is noteworthy that Williams took his Ph.D. at Columbia and taught briefly at the university after he completed the degree.  Williams has William Stoner enter the University of Missouri in 1910 as a freshman.  Before that, he’s been a farm boy and his father encourages him to attend the university and major in agriculture.  Life on the farm is not easy.  His parents are mostly non-verbal, stoical, his mother described as someone who “regarded her life patiently, as if it were a long moment that she had to endure.”

Dutifully, Stoner enrolls in the School of Agriculture, living in Columbia with an aunt and uncle and earning his keep by doing most of the work on their small farm. In the first semester of his second year, he enrolls in a required humanities course.  Williams writes of him, “The required survey of English literature troubled and disquieted him in a way nothing had ever done before.”  He doesn’t even do well in the course, but the next semester he takes all English classes.  Nor does he tell his parents about the change.  Two years later when they attend his graduation, they expect that he will return to the farm with them and use the agricultural training he has learned at the university.  His father’s response: “If you think you ought to stay here and study your books, then that’s what you ought to do.  Your ma and me can manage.”

Stoner’s been mentored by the man who taught the first course in English he took at the university.  That professor encourages him to get an MA and then a Ph.D. and afterward he stays in the department, teaching.  Here’s a typical observation from this elegant novel: “So Stoner began where he had started, a tall, thin, stooped man in the same room in which he had sat as a tall, thin, stooped boy listening to the words that had led him to where he had come.  He never went into that room that he did not glance at the seat he had once occupied, and he was always slightly surprised to discover that he was not there.”

Of course, he is there—as the professor.  The university is still growing, the department is small, Stoner publishes a book and gets tenure, and all goes well until a new chair of the English department is brought in from another university.  Stoner gets married too quickly, with little understanding of the woman, Edith, the daughter of a banker.  “She was educated upon the premise that she would be protected from the gross events that life might thrust her way, and upon the premise that she had no other duty than to be a graceful and accomplished accessory to that production, since she belonged to a social and economic class to which protection was an almost sacred obligation.”   For Edith, the gross events of life are sex and—once she has a child—child rearing.  Williams notes of Stoner’s marriage: “Within a month he knew that his marriage was a failure.”  Since Edith can’t stand the smell of diapers, it is Stoner who takes care of their daughter for the first few years.

Worse, when his parents both die close together, Williams projects us into Stoner’s thoughts.  He understands that with their deaths “Nothing had changed.  Their lives had been expended in cheerless labor, their wills broken, their intelligences numbed.  Now they were in the earth to which they had given their lives; and slowly, year by year, the earth would take them.” Stoner and his wife live separate lives, rarely entertaining, rarely speaking to one another; yet when Grace, their daughter, begins to favor her father, Edith turns that around by keeping Stoner away from her—sealing his isolation permanently.  It’s a bitter story too familiar for comfort for the reader.

The new chairman of the English department is physically deformed and emotionally crippled.  He takes an immediate dislike to Stoner, quickly making his life in the department miserable: all freshman classes, taught six days a week at the worst times.  It’s here that Williams shows us the worst of academe, the petty way that faculty members lord it over one another, often crippling entire departments.  I can say, however, that the days when autocratic chairs of departments made all decisions, totally without consultation with others, have mostly ended, so Stoner is very much about academic life at a specific time in American history.  Fortunately, there is one brief period when Stoner is able to step out of the rut of his wretched life, though that, too, ends sadly, forcing him to retreat even more into himself, the complete isolato.

It’s easy to understand Stoner’s vast appeal to Europeans, though I suspect that its readers in Europe are older people with memories still intact of World War II and its bleak aftermath. In temperament, the novel is more nineteenth century than twentieth, more Henry James than Ernest Hemingway.  Several of the characters share a Victorian squeamishness about sexuality. The plot moves by nuance instead of action.  More importantly, it’s the ethical context of the issues and the stoical response of the characters (especially Stoner’s) to the troubling situations they find themselves in that draw in the reader: quiet lives, even quieter events—above all, suffering and endurance.  You may have chosen your career and picked your spouse, but that doesn’t mean you have any control over your life or any chance of happiness. But if you are hard as a rock, like William Stoner, you will endure.

John Williams: Stoner

New York Review of Books, 278 pp., $14.95

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.  Email: clarson@american.edu.

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Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

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