by John Williams
(June 2006, $14.95, 288 pages)
How could a book about a reserved, quiet assistant professor of Classic English, Latin translation and grammar, set in a small southern college early in the twentieth century, be so incredibly riveting?
I know your eyes glazed over after the first half of the first sentence! Mine did too – as I wrote it! None of the pieces that make up this beautiful novel, originally published in 1965, had the ability to draw my slightest interest: dry academia, small college politics, poor farming to middle class life, unhappy marriage. It presents as so run-of-the-mill when in this day and age, only the epic will do.
Fear not! Don’t even despair for wading through several chapters to get the rhythm of the book because novelist John Williams (not the composer) writes with simple, direct and heart-achingly beautiful prose that will set you on a straight path.
The first paragraph is a clear outline of the novel beginning when our protagonist, William Stoner, enters the University of Missouri as a freshman in the year 1910 at the age of nineteen and ending with, “Presented to the Library of the University of Missouri, in memory of William Stoner, Department of English. By his colleagues.” The rest that follows may well fall into the category of the perfectly written novel.
The novel’s humble beginning is much like the beginning of its subject. William Stoner was born to two uncomplicated, hard-working parents who’s goal in life was to raise a son who would take over the farm. The only snag in their plan was gifting their only son with enough brains to attend Missouri’s new university.
Initially this was not so much a tragedy as it is a delay his assumption of the family yoke. Stoner was to study “agronomy.” Then, in his sophomore year, his world was transformed by the power and pull of literature. There was no way to reconcile the two; it was either agriculture or English and for Stoner, there was no choice. He elected a life of literature with only one regret: breaking the news to his parents.
Living his life with the kind of certainty and purpose was not as easy as he hoped. Even in small circles of academia, petty arguments and misunderstandings grow and fester into lifelong, bitter resentments. Stoner’s inflexibility delivers him unto a path that, while others may find humiliating and limited, fills his time with purpose and a desire to be a better teacher.
Meanwhile, the rest of his life remains unfulfilled. Stoner’s unhappy marriage to the mentally unbalanced Edith, a sheltered and shallow woman, is one of the saddest relationships that have ever lived in prose. His two friendships, while strong and lasting, do not provide him enough support or sustenance to let him leave his lonesome path or travel a wider road of male companionship. His daughter Grace, his delightful kindred spirit and true joy in his life until Edith interferes, is the embodiment of a product of two truly incompatible people. Stoner’s one true love, Katherine Driscoll, is half his age but equal in his brilliant passion and becomes his mistress. She provides him with a brief respite and the good fortune of a compatible woman that ends sadly and far too soon. They part before they become a University scandal that may jeopardized all they worked to achieve.
It is Stoner’s ability to carry on, to rise above evil but never preach or proselytize that I admire so much. He is not a martyr, but a strong man who is above all, human. Stoner is strong and true to the end, where he remains the same quiet, calm and never-regretful man of purpose.
While this might sound like a tragedy – which in all aspects I believe it is the Great American Tragedy – it is neither maudlin, sappy nor wallowing in self-pity. I could not get Stoner off my mind when I finished it (which I have to confess was in a puddle of tears while flying from San Fransisco to Boston – not my ideal spot for ending such a brilliant novel). I re-read passages and was able to gain more insight from a second look. I found it hard to start something new because I couldn’t even think of another novel that could top it. I was able to find a rare interview with John Williams about Stoner. In the interview, he regarded his protagonist as a hero who lead a good life doing the things he wanted to do. Well, honestly, what’s so sad about that?