That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou seest the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consumed with that which it was nourish'd by.
This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.
- (Shakespeare, Sonnet 73)
For anyone wanting to avoid spoilers regarding John Williams' Stoner the short review is “Yes, the book lives up to the hype. Read it.” For those willing to continue reading, my discussion touches on only a few of the many themes within the book and leaves out several areas all together. I realize my comments will make more sense to those who have read the book but there are some topics I would like to explore which I haven’t seen mentioned in other reviews. (Update: see the end of this post for some links to online reviews)
Stoner starts with a spoiler of its own, a summary of William Stoner’s life:
William Stoner entered the University of Missouri as a freshmen in the year 1910, at the age of nineteen. Eight years later, during the height of World War I, he received his Doctor of Philosophy degree and accepted an instructorship at the same University, where he taught until his death in 1956. He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses. When he died his colleagues made a memorial contribution of a medieval manuscript to the University library. This manuscript may still be found in the Rare Books Collection, bearing the inscription: “Presented to the Library of the University of Missouri, in memory of William Stoner, Department of English. By his colleagues.”
An occasional student who comes upon the name may wonder idly who William Stoner was, but he seldom pursues his curiosity beyond a casual question. Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem, when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers.
As the book will show, such a summary of facts leaves out what truly constitutes a life. Growing up on a farm in central Missouri, his father “stooped by labor” appears twenty years older than his age. His mother “regarded her life patiently, as if it were a long moment that she had to endure.” His own life involved hard work before, during and after school. Taking advantage of the recently opened College of Agriculture at the University of Missouri, William works his way through school with the intent to return to the family farm. His plans change during a sophomore English class while listening to Shakespeare’s 73rd sonnet. Although he is unable to articulate the effect the poem has on him, the passion kindled by the poem ignites a glowing fire, a love of literature, within him.
Several major decisions mark dramatic turning points in William Stoner’s life. The first choice happens when he changes majors to English. This choice sets in motion many outcomes that Stoner seems to passively allow, such as returning to school for a postgraduate degree in order to teach. The next choice occurs when Stoner opts not to enlist for World War I and accept a deferment. While allowing him to finish his degree, it also gives him the opportunity to begin his teaching career due to the shortage of instructors. The third choice to marry Edith appears to be one he stumbles into although his pursuit demonstrated his characteristic persistence. While he had many reasons to regret this decision, he never seemed to do so. The fourth choice, as a member on Charles Walker’s review committee for oral comps, becomes a defining moment. Stoner’s choice not to go along with the fraud, to exert integrity instead of scoring political points, may win him the admiration of the reader but dooms him to unrelenting retaliation from his department head. His integrity about his profession and what it represents will not allow him to take the easy way out.
And yet…Stoner upholds the integrity of his profession but engages in an affair. Furthermore, because of his wife’s emotional instability (I’m being nice), I think most readers are happy to see that he finds love, even if it falls outside his marriage. Is that because Stoner upholds what is required of him in work and marriage? He reveals Walker’s fraud and refuses to compromise the integrity of his profession. The sacrifices he makes in his marriage could be described as above and beyond the call of duty, also. So why do we forgive one failing while holding Stoner up for his virtue and integrity for his professional decision? There is an overlap between what is required to be successful in professional and personal lives (both as spouse and as parent in the latter) and while Stoner demonstrates these qualities as a professor and as a family man, do the events outside his control mitigate his decision? I realize these are mostly rhetorical questions, but since I had not seen anyone else raise this point (although I haven’t read every review) I wanted to note it.
There are many parts in the book that provide enjoyment. Some sections trumpet their importance, providing insight at the moment as well as providing a foundation to be built on or referred back to in later parts in the book. The discussion, over beer and boiled and eggs, about differing views of what constitutes a university, is such a section. Other parts appear as throw-away lines but reveal much about the characters and the atmosphere Williams painstakingly develops. Here is part of one paragraph that is almost lost during Stoner’s reflection on the loss of a friend and other students in World War I. These lovely lines help set the tone for the remainder of the book:
His dissertation topic had been “The Influence of the Classical Tradition upon the Medieval Lyric.” He spent much of the summer rereading the classical and medieval Latin poets, and especially their poems upon death. He wondered again at the easy, graceful manner in which the Roman lyricists accepted the fact of death, as if the nothingness they faced were a tribute to the richness of the years they had enjoyed; and he marveled at the bitterness, the terror, the barely concealed hatred he found in some of the later Christian poets of the Latin tradition when they looked to that death which promised, however vaguely, a rich and ecstatic eternity of life, as if that death and promise were a mockery that soured the days of their living.
There are a few over-the-top portrayals in the book, especially with Stoner’s wife Edith and his nemesis Hollis Lomax. These characters, impenetrable most of the time, become part of the “wars and defeats and victories of the human race that nor military and that are not recorded in the annals of history” of which Stoner’s mentor, Archer Sloane, counsels him. Many details within the book cannot be accidental, such as Lomax and his protégé’s area of expertise involving Romantic poets in opposition to Stoner’s grounding in classical and medieval literature. The differences between their areas of study mirror the differences between the individuals. Another touch which didn’t seem accidental includes physical changes or conditions reflecting the inner state of characters: Lomax’s and Walker’s crippled nature, daughter Grace’s adolescent weight gain, and Stoner’s hearing loss to name a few. The willingness of most characters to use other characters for retaliation or pleasure, sad to say, did not feel over the top, such as Edith using Grace to hurt Stoner or Stoner using his students to have Lomax reinstate his seminars.
The novel has been categorized as an academic novel and early in the book I thought it didn’t matter what the professional setting was since there are similar politics in any profession. Later, though, I realized that William Stoner not only had to be cast as a teacher but his subject had to be English—Williams uses the book to make a statement on literature’s potential. While studying literature in college, Stoner
would feel that he was out of time, as he had felt that day in class when Archer Sloane had spoken to him [about the 73rd sonnet]. The past gathered out of the darkness where it stayed, and the dead raised themselves to live before him; and the past and the dead flowed into the present among the alive, so that he had for an intense instant a vision of denseness into which he was compacted and from which he could not escape, and had no wish to escape.
Those moments of otherness, standing outside of time, happen a few times in the book and, in addition to communing with those no longer living, provide a balm to Stoner. Those moments of otherness occur in additional ways:
Once, late, after his evening class, he returned to his office and sat at his desk, trying to read. It was winter, and a snow had fallen during the day, so that the out-of-doors was covered with a white softness. The office was overheated; he opened a window beside the desk so that the cool air might come into the close room. He breathed deeply, and let his eyes wander over the white floor of the campus. On an impulse he switched out the light on his desk and sat in the hot darkness of his office; the cold air filled his lungs, and he leaned toward the open window. He heard the silence of the winter night, and it seemed to him that he somehow felt the sounds that were absorbed by the delicate and intricately cellular being of the snow. Nothing moved upon the whiteness; it was a dead scene, which seemed to pull at him, to suck at his consciousness just as it pulled the sound from the air and buried it within a cold white softness. He felt himself pulled outward toward the whiteness, which spread as far as he could see, and which was a part of the darkness from which it glowed, of the clear and cloudless sky without height or depth. For an instant he felt himself go out of the body that sat motionless before the window; and as he felt himself slip away, everything—the flat whiteness, the trees, the tall columns, the night, the far stars—seemed incredibly tiny and far away, as if they were dwindling to a nothingness.
Those moments of otherness, of standing outside himself, provide Stoner a Woolf-like moment when delight can race over the floor of the mind and announce “It is enough!” In addition to literature and nature, Stoner’s experience of love causes another “gentle flux of sensation” similar to the previous moments of otherness.
Just as Stoner explains to his students that there is poetry in grammar and other places we don’t expect, Williams shows there is poetry within moments of our life we don’t anticipate. These moments keep Stoner’s life from being tragic, even when the moment is something as simple as his daughter’s face absorbing the light in his study while he worked. With Stoner, John Williams makes good on equating the study of literature and language with investigating the mystery of the mind and heart.
Update: I mentioned other online reviews but failed to link to any of them. I'll correct that now, picking up a few additional reviews I just found. Feel free to let me know of other links to comments on Stoner and I'll be happy to include them in the list:
Matthew Cheney at The Mumpsimus
Donald Brown at blogocentrism
David Auerbach at waggish
John Self's Asylum
Stephen Elliott's comments at Maud Newton
Ryan Williams reviews Stoner and Butcher's Crossing
Review at The Mookse and the Gripes