FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

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.

More articles by:

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

September 25, 2018
Kenneth Surin
Fact-Finding Labour’s “Anti-Semitism” Crisis
Charles Pierson
Destroying Yemen as Humanely as Possible
James Rothenberg
Why Not Socialism?
Patrick Cockburn
How Putin Came Out on Top in Syria
John Grant
“Awesome Uncontrollable Male Passion” Meets Its Match
Guy Horton
Burma: Complicity With Evil?
Steve Stallone
Jujitsu Comms
William Blum
Bombing Libya: the Origins of Europe’s Immigration Crisis
John Feffer
There’s a New Crash Coming
Martha Pskowski
“The Emergency Isn’t Over”: the Homeless Commemorate a Year Since the Mexico City Earthquake
Fred Baumgarten
Ten Ways of Looking at Civility
Dean Baker
The Great Financial Crisis: Bernanke and the Bubble
Binoy Kampmark
Parasitic and Irrelevant: The University Vice Chancellor
September 24, 2018
Jonathan Cook
Hiding in Plain Sight: Why We Cannot See the System Destroying Us
Gary Leupp
All the Good News (Ignored by the Trump-Obsessed Media)
Robert Fisk
I Don’t See How a Palestinian State Can Ever Happen
Barry Brown
Pot as Political Speech
Lara Merling
Puerto Rico’s Colonial Legacy and Its Continuing Economic Troubles
Patrick Cockburn
Iraq’s Prime Ministers Come and Go, But the Stalemate Remains
William Blum
The New Iraq WMD: Russian Interference in US Elections
Julian Vigo
The UK’s Snoopers’ Charter Has Been Dealt a Serious Blow
Joseph Matten
Why Did Global Economic Performance Deteriorate in the 1970s?
Zhivko Illeieff
The Millennial Label: Distinguishing Facts from Fiction
Thomas Hon Wing Polin – Gerry Brown
Xinjiang : The New Great Game
Binoy Kampmark
Casting Kavanaugh: The Trump Supreme Court Drama
Max Wilbert
Blue Angels: the Naked Face of Empire
Weekend Edition
September 21, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Alexandra Isfahani-Hammond
Hurricane Florence and 9.7 Million Pigs
Andrew Levine
Israel’s Anti-Semitism Smear Campaign
Paul Street
Laquan McDonald is Being Tried for His Own Racist Murder
Brad Evans
What Does It Mean to Celebrate International Peace Day?
Nick Pemberton
With or Without Kavanaugh, The United States Is Anti-Choice
Jim Kavanagh
“Taxpayer Money” Threatens Medicare-for-All (And Every Other Social Program)
Jonathan Cook
Palestine: The Testbed for Trump’s Plan to Tear up the Rules-Based International Order
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: the Chickenhawks Have Finally Come Back Home to Roost!
David Rosen
As the Capitalist World Turns: From Empire to Imperialism to Globalization?
Jonah Raskin
Green Capitalism Rears Its Head at Global Climate Action Summit
James Munson
On Climate, the Centrists are the Deplorables
Robert Hunziker
Is Paris 2015 Already Underwater?
Arshad Khan
Will There Ever be Justice for Rohingya Muslims?
Jill Richardson
Why Women Don’t Report Sexual Assault
Dave Clennon
A Victory for Historical Accuracy and the Peace Movement: Not One Emmy for Ken Burns and “The Vietnam War”
W. T. Whitney
US Harasses Cuba Amid Mysterious Circumstances
Nathan Kalman-Lamb
Things That Make Sports Fans Uncomfortable
George Capaccio
Iran: “Snapping Back” Sanctions and the Threat of War
Kenneth Surin
Brexit is Coming, But Which Will It Be?
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail