Bleak campus novel revival

John Williams’ novel about the careworn life of an obscure US academic sank swiftly from view upon publication in 1965, Christopher Bigsby writes. But half a century later, Stoner’s moving paean to the redemptive power of literature has made it a worldwide critical and popular success

September 12, 2013

John Williams’ novel Stoner was barely reviewed when it was published in 1965. A year later it was out of print, having sold just 2,000 copies. It appeared in the UK in 1973 but had to wait until 2006 to be reissued in the US and until 2010 for an e-book edition to become available. Today, not only is it back in print, but Williams’ fellow writers (among them Colum McCann, Ian McEwan and the late John McGahern, who wrote an introduction to a new edition shortly before his death) have lined up to claim it as one of the great American novels of the second half of the 20th century. It is selling fast in France, Spain and Israel. There are now over 100,000 copies in print in the Netherlands and more than 50,000 have been sold in Italy, according to Publishers Weekly. It is available in Catalan. How, then, did it ever slip down the back of the literary sofa?

Williams himself was scarcely unknown. Butcher’s Crossing, set on the 19th-century Kansas frontier, appeared in 1960, while his 1972 book Augustus shared the National Book Award with John Barth’s Chimera. Stoner, however, drifted from view. It was not the only book, of course, to suffer that fate. Moby-Dick and The Great Gatsby were widely dismissed on their first appearance, while four years before his Nobel prize, all of William Faulkner’s novels were out of print. Nathanael West was almost unknown at his death in 1940. It took a later generation to reclaim him.

Meanwhile, in 1965 there was some stiff competition. Saul Bellow’s Herzog, published the previous year, squatted on The New York Times’ best-seller list for many months. Norman Mailer’s An American Dream was attracting readers, as were James Baldwin’s short story collection Going to Meet the Man and The Autobiography of Malcolm X, written in collaboration with Alex Haley. The New Yorker was serialising Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, which appeared in book form the following year. There was also a novel from John Updike, Of the Farm.

Lift your eyes from the page for a moment, though, and the US was in turmoil. Malcolm X was assassinated. Martin Luther King Jr led a civil rights march from Selma, Alabama. Riots broke out in the Los Angeles neighbourhood of Watts, and the first American combat troops arrived in Vietnam, igniting protests across the US. Perhaps the story of an undistinguished college professor at a Midwestern university seemed beside the point, except that seemingly inconsequential lives have generated the finest literature, from Thomas Hardy to John Steinbeck, and wars make something more than an offstage appearance in Williams’ novel.

The value that Stoner ascribes to literature, to a precision of language, is that to be found in this novel, which is remarkable precisely to the degree to which it is unflinching in its observation and stunning in its humanity

Stoner introduces the reader to a man who never rises above the rank of assistant professor and who, we are told, will be remembered on his death by few of his students or colleagues. Even as the novel’s protagonist is introduced, he seems to recede before our eyes. If, like all of us, he had wanted people to register his existence and recall his name on his passing by inscribing his name, he has seemingly, as Arthur Miller once said of Willy Loman, carved it on a block of ice on a summer’s day.

William Stoner is born on a small farm near a village 40 miles from the town where he will go on to teach: Columbia, Missouri. His father is a man who lives without hope, each day succeeding another to no purpose. His mother endures rather than lives. Their lives, we are told, “have been expended in cheerless labor, their wills broken, their intelligences numbed”. When they die and are buried they become “a meaningless part of that stubborn earth to which they had long ago given themselves”. Stoner himself is a lonely child in a lonely house in which there is no sound beyond the creaking of timbers. The only colours are brown and grey. The words that recur are broken, cracking, sagging, weary, sparsely. Seldom has human dereliction been spelled out quite like this.

The Scottish novelist and critic Andrew Lang, in a discussion of Émile Zola, once remarked that the writer should be as cold as a vivisectionist at a lecture, and it often seems, in this novel, that Williams has taken that entirely to heart in a work that can seem like a spiritual autopsy. But hope, of sorts, is born when Stoner, who has never travelled further than 15 miles from home, sets out to walk the 40 miles to a university where, sent to study agriculture, he suddenly discovers literature, the study of literature, to his mind, stretching out time until he can locate himself against something more than a dull and demeaning present. He turns his back on the farm and his parents, his mother’s sudden tears the first sign that somewhere within her love flickers fitfully.

As a student he responds not just to literature but to grammar, whose logic suddenly seems to Stoner to structure not only language but human thought. There is, then, he thinks, some order and purpose. He tentatively makes friends, although he still observes himself from the outside as though he were an organism. When one of his friends is killed he becomes a kind of talisman to be invoked at times of need, if never really understood.

What is remarkable about the first part of the novel is that Stoner seems to stand apart from himself. Rather than act, he is acted upon. When he marries, it is to a young woman who has been raised to believe in her inconsequence. Her parents have been wrapped up in their own sense of baffled dissatisfaction. Their daughter’s life, Williams explains, was “invariable, like a low hum”. They marry, almost as an act of inadvertence. She knows nothing of sex and when confronted with it begins a slow withdrawal from her husband that will be the keynote of their relationship. They have a truce rather than a marriage. When a child is born, she becomes a weapon to use as his wife tries to exclude him as much as possible. The love he feels for the girl is strangled by a woman whose bitterness is as unfocused as her life. When the daughter grows up, his wife becomes an alcoholic who is unable to offer love to her own child as if an unending process were at work. She is, it seems, as passive and indifferent as her parents.

Stoner retreats to his work and to literature, which seems to him to be a way of “knowing something through words”. His love of literature is, it seems, the only love he has, exploring, as it does, the mysteries of the human mind and heart. He begins to discover himself. His teaching, though, is desultory, until for a period he becomes fully committed, which is not something that otherwise characterises him or any of those around him. He writes a book. It is reviewed as “pedestrian” if “competent”.

Beyond the campus, the world intrudes from time to time. The 1929 Wall Street crash precipitates his father-in-law’s suicide, just as two conflicts, the Spanish Civil War and then the Second World War, will later snatch his students away. But Stoner has little commerce with the world, recognising, though, the bleakness in men’s faces and “a general despair he had known since he was a boy”. He acknowledges the brutalities involved in the Spanish Civil War and the rise of Hitler but feels secure at the university as if it were indeed a safe haven immune to assault, except that cruelty, it seems, has a place even there.

Conflict with a wilful graduate student threatens his career as, more profoundly, does an affair with a young instructor who, to his amazement, makes the world suddenly bright with possibility. Here, at the age of 43, is the love for which he had so long yearned. Love, he comes to feel, is “a human act of becoming” in a novel in which becoming is the elusive goal, except that when their relationship is discovered it is destroyed by a vengeful colleague who has apparently committed himself to expelling Stoner from an institution that has seemed a kind of protection from the world.

The novel ends with his death, and although Williams tells the story in the third person, we enter Stoner’s mind and a minor miracle occurs. Having been held at arm’s length by Williams’ prose, which places us in the position of dispassionate observers invited to witness the spiritual entropy not only of the protagonist and virtually all the characters in the book, but beyond them of a culture, we are pulled into the text and engage directly with a life even as it is slowly slipping away. And I defy anyone to read the final pages without feeling for this man, which is surely what Williams intended, since feeling is what has been missing from his life and those of others. The value that Stoner ascribes to literature, to a precision of language, each word in its place, is that to be found in this novel, which is remarkable precisely to the degree to which it is unflinching in its observation and stunning in its humanity.

To Williams, “reading without joy is stupid”. What kind of joy, we might justifiably ask ourselves, can be derived from witnessing unconsidered lives, those with no sense of who they are or the necessity for connection? Precisely what Stoner himself derives from his reading and what, on occasion, he has communicated to others through his teaching. Dying, he acknowledges his many failures, moments when he relinquished his hold on what was vital, being distracted by trivialities. It has taken him a life, and possibly a death, to let go, to understand, to be himself: “He was himself and knew what he had been.” He had at least asked questions that his parents had never asked, felt a love denied to his embittered wife whose life had been drained from her by convention.

Overgrown weeds on grave

If he accuses himself of dereliction it is because he has learned the price to be paid for that, yet he also realises in retrospect that “beneath the numbness, the indifference, the removal” that had characterised so much of his life, he had learned something from his teacher and from the literature he studied, something that he had passed on to others even as he was unaware of it. “It was a passion neither of the mind nor of the flesh; rather, it was a force that comprehended them both, as if they were but the matter of love, its specific substance. To a woman or to a poem, it said simply: Look! I am alive.” Stoner dies, his fingers riffling through the pages of a book, his book.

Is the university a place of retreat, protected from public events, possibly even the events that distracted many in the year that Stoner was published? Not really, nor do I think that Williams suggests as much. Many of the characters in his novel come from beyond the close-cut lawns and Gothic revival buildings of the campus. That other world was not only the colourless farmland of Stoner’s parents, or the spiritual vacuity of his wife and her parents. It was the 1929 crash, the Spanish Civil War, the rise of Fascism in which human values were systematically eroded, and the very year that Stoner was published was also the year of the first Vietnam sit-ins on US campuses.

John Williams was a PhD student at the University of Missouri. He later edited a book on English Renaissance poetry, an interest, too, of Stoner as it happens. Doubtless he also experienced something of the triviality and counterbalancing viciousness of some academic arguments, something observed by the Columbia University political scientist Wallace Sayre before Henry Kissinger repeated it.

Williams subsequently became director of the creative writing programme at the University of Denver, in which position he passed on Stoner’s love of language, the power of grammar, the ability of literature to play its role in forging our own response to the world and hence our identities, the necessity through writing and daily life to cry out, “Look! I am alive.” He was also a poet, and it is the sometimes disturbing precision of the language of Stoner that is the source of its power. Given the unrelenting bleakness of the world Williams conjures, the very word “love” has the power to send tremors through the text as it does through Stoner himself. It is not sentimental. It is like a glimpse of water in the desert.

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