Stoner by John Williams

I received this book as a gift from a very good friend and decided to start it immediately. I had never heard of it but knew my friend had very good taste. I was not disappointed but I was very sorry the book ended so soon. At 278 pages it is a relatively short read: one doesn’t need more of Will Stoner but one wants more.

StonerHere is the first passage I marked:

“Well, in the world you’d learn soon enough. You, too, are cut out for failure; not that you’d fight the world.  You’d let it hew you up and spit you out, and you’d lie there wondering what was wrong. Because you’d always expect the world to be something it wasn’t, something it had no wish to be. The weevil in the cotton, the worm in the beanstalk, the borer in the corn. You couldn’t face them, and you couldn’t fight them; because you’re too weak, and you’re too strong. And you have no place to go in the world.”

The above was spoken by Dave Masters, a friend on the same staff as Stoner who, along with Gordon Finch, formed Stoner’s social circle.   The three young men met every Friday at a small saloon in downtown Columbia and discussed their teaching and study.

Masters maintains that the university was actually created by providence or society or fate “so that we can go in out of the storm. It’s for us that the University exists, for the dispossessed of the world”. Stoner remembered Masters’ words later in life: “it gave him a glimpse of the corrosive and unspoiled bitterness of youth.”

William Stoner “was born in 1891 on a small farm in central Missourie near the village of Boonville, some forty miles from Columbia, the home of the University. ” He had duties on the farm from the earliest time he could remember: At age six, he milked the bony cows, slopped the pugs and gathered eggs. When he went to school, he walked the wight miles there and back and still did his chores. “At seventeen his shoulders were already beginning to stoop beneath the weight of his occupation.”

William believes that when he finishes high school in the spring of 1910 he will take over more of the farm work and he was aware that his father was getting slower and more weary but his father surprised him with news that there was a new school at the university in Columbia called a College of Agriculture and the county agent had come by and suggested that perhaps William ought to go there. There is a relative he can stay with and his dad says that he “could send you [him]  two or three dollars a month.” When William asks his parents if they are sure his father makes the longest speech William had ever heard him make and which h sums up by saying: “You go on to the University come fall. Your ma and me will manage.”

In the first semester of his second year, Stoner had to take a survey of English Literature. This course “troubled and disquieted him in a way nothing had ever done before.” His instructor was Archer Sloane who “was feared and disliked by most of his students. Stoner found “that he could not handle the survey as he did his other courses. He fares no better than the other students who cannot relate well to Sloane and who are less than comfortable with the subject matter. But, in spite of all this, Stoner has would would most likely be identified as a life altering experience in class one day when Sloane speaks aloud a Shakespearian sonnet and in his second semester he dropped his basic science courses and interrupted his Ag School sequence, taking an introductory course in philosophy and one in ancient history as well as two courses in English literature.

He returned to work on the farm in the summer but he did not explain the changes he had made in his courses. When he finishes his degree he decides to stay on for further study. In a meeting with Professor Sloane he learns something that he has not yet voiced to himself: “Don’t you understand about yourself yet? You’re going to be a teacher.”

When his parents come to see him graduate, he must tell them that he is not returning to the farm. “He grieved for his own loss and for that of his parents, and even in his grief felt himself drawing away from them.”

John Williams writes pain, particularly emotional pain, almost as if he is painting it with a fine brush. He succeeds in making a reader sympathetic even towards characters which the reader may find hard to like or forgive. He somehow creates a safe place for both his characters and his reader to seek shelter from an inhospitable world: I think this is actually integral to his writing style.

It is difficult to convey the power of the experience of reading Stoner. I will borrow from the words of others:

In a Wikipedia article, Morris Dickstein is quoted: “a perfect novel, so well told and beautifully written, so deeply moving that it takes your breath away.”

From an article in The Globe and Mail: “Stoner …is a slim novel, and not a particularly joyous one. But it is so quietly beautiful and moving, so precisely constructed, that you want to read it in one sitting and enjoy being in it, altered somehow, as if you have been allowed to wear an exquisitely tailored garment that you don’t want to take off.”

From Tim Krieder in The New Yorker: “The novel embodies the very virtues it exalts, the same virtues that probably relegate it, like its titular hero, to its perpetual place in the shade. But the book, like Professor Stoner, isn’t out to win popularity contests. It endures, illumined from within.”

Oh yes, just one more thing: I forgot to mention that there is a very well written love story that occurs in the last third of the novel!