- Series: New York Review Books Classics
- Paperback: 288 pages
- Publisher: NYRB Classics (June 20, 2006)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1590171993
- ISBN-13: 978-1590171998
- Product Dimensions: 5 x 0.7 x 8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 10.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 1,261 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #15,613 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Stoner (New York Review Books Classics) Paperback – June 20, 2006
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From Publishers Weekly
This reprint of Williams's remarkable 1965 novel offers a window on early 20th century higher education in addition to its rich characterizations and seamless prose. Sent by his hard-scrabble farmer father to the University of Missouri to study agriculture, William Stoner is sidetracked by an obsessive love of literature and stimulated by a curmudgeonly old professor, Archer Sloane. Sloane helps Stoner avoid service in WWI, and Stoner eventually becomes an assistant professor. He then meets and marries a St. Louis beauty, Edith, who quickly subjugates her contemplative, passive husband. As decades pass, Stoner entrenches himself deep into the life of the mind, developing into a master teacher but never finding solace in the outside world. Stoner's single joy is Grace, their daughter, whom Edith appropriates as a weapon in her very personal war against Stoner's quest for inner peace. Williams (1922–1994) won the NBA for Augustus (1973), and NYRB will republish his western, Butch's Crossing next year. Williams's prose flows in a smooth, efficient current that demands contemplation. (July)
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“A beautiful, sad, utterly convincing account of an entire life…I’m amazed a novel this good escaped general attention for so long.” —Ian McEwan
“One of the great unheralded 20th-century American novels …Almost perfect.” —Bret Easton Ellis
“Stoner is a novel of an ordinary life, an examination of a quiet tragedy, the work of a great but little-known writer.” —Ruth Rendell
“A beautiful and moving novel, as sweeping, intimate, and mysterious as life itself.” —Geoff Dyer
“I have read few novels as deep and as clear as Stoner. It deserves to be called a quiet classic of American literature.” —Chad Harbach
“The most beautiful book in the world.” —Emma Straub
"A poignant campus novel from the mid-'60s—an unjustly neglected gem." —Nick Hornby, People
“The book begins boldly with a mention of Stoner’s death, and a nod to his profound averageness: ‘Few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses.’ By the end, though, Williams has made Stoner’s disappointing life into such a deep and honest portrait, so unsoftened and unromanticized, that it’s quietly breathtaking.”—The Boston Globe
“Williams’ descriptions of the experience of reading both elucidate and evince the pleasures of literary language; the ‘minute, strange, and unexpected combinations of letters and words’ in which Stoner finds joy are re-enacted in Williams’ own perfect fusion of words.”—n+1
“Stoner, by John Williams, 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.”—The Globe and Mail
“One of the great forgotten novels of the past century. I have bought at least 50 copies of it in the past few years, using it as a gift for friends...The book is so beautifully paced and cadenced that it deserves the status of classic.”—Colum McCann, Top 10 Novels, The Guardian
“Stoner is undeniably a great book, but I can also understand why it isn’t a sentimental favorite in its native land. You could almost describe it as an anti-Gatsby...Part of Stoner’s greatness is that it sees life whole and as it is, without delusion yet without despair...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 William Stoner, isn’t out to win popularity contests. It endures, illumined from within.”—Tim Kreider, The New Yorker
“It’s simply a novel about a guy who goes to college and becomes a teacher. But it’s one of the most fascinating things that you’ve ever come across.”—Tom Hanks, Time
“Stoner is written in the most plainspoken of styles...Its hero is an obscure academic who endures a series of personal and professional agonies. Yet the novel is utterly riveting, and for one simple reason: because the author, John Williams, treats his characters with such tender and ruthless honesty that we cannot help but love them.”—Steve Almond, Tin House
“The best book I read in 2007 was Stoner by John Williams. It’s perhaps the best book I’ve read in years.”—Stephen Elliott, The Believer
“John Williams’s Stoner is something rarer than a great novel—it is a perfect novel, so well told and beautifully written, so deeply moving, that it takes your breath away.”—The New York Times Book Review
“Williams didn’t write much compared with some novelists, but everything he did was exceedingly fine...it’s a shame that he’s not more often read today...But it’s great that at least two of his novels [Stoner, Butcher’s Crossing] have found their way back into print.”—The Denver Post
“A masterly portrait of a truly virtuous and dedicated man.”—The New Yorker
“Why isn’t this book famous...Very few novels in English, or literary productions of any kind, have come anywhere near its level for human wisdom or as a work of art.”—C. P. Snow
“Serious, beautiful and affecting, what makes Stoner so impressive is the contained intensity the author and character share.”—Irving Howe, The New Republic
“A quiet but resonant achievement.”—The Times Literary Supplement
“Perhaps the greatest example of minimalism I’ve ever read...Stoner is a story of great hope for the writer who cares about her work.”—Stephen Elliott
“Stoner by John Williams, contains what is no doubt my favorite literary romance of all time. William Stoner is well into his 40s, and mired in an unhappy marriage, when he meets Katherine, another shy professor of literature. The affair that ensues is described with a beauty so fierce that it takes my breath away each time I read it. The chapters devoted to this romance are both terribly sexy and profoundly wise.”—The Christian Science Monitor
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Masters' view of the University as a place for the dispossessed runs through Williams' novel. Stoner, the protagonist, is the only child of a struggling farm couple in Missouri who receives the opportunity to attend college in order to study scientific farming. He falls in love with literature instead, in a decision which alienates him from his parents and his past. It is part of the beauty and pain of the United States where people can make themselves. It also makes Stoner one of the world's dispossessed in what proves to be a difficult, if outwardly quiet life, teaching English for 38 years at the sole university he attended beginning with his undergraduate study. So too, the academic characters in this novel of academic life, including Stoner's friend Finch, his enemy and the chair of the English Department, Hollis Lomax, and his lover, Katherine Driscoll, and his mentor, Archer Sloane, share in common the love of study and various forms of dispossession which would make life outside the context of the university difficult for any of them.
Williams writes a beautifully restrained but full prose which gives insight into Stoner and his life. Stoner is a quiet, frequently passive individual who makes an unhappy marriage, loses the affection of his daughter, has an affair, and becomes stalled in his career at the rank of assistant professor. Due to the animus of the Department chair, Stoner is relegated to the teaching of Freshman English with an unfair and inconvenient schedule. With all his own shortcomings and inability to redress his situation, Stoner perseveres in the love of his life, literature, and ultimately learns about tying in his love with the sensual love of a woman. Stoner began his career as a so-so teacher unable to communicate his passion to his young and largely indifferent students but he learns over the course of his career how to make students feel something of the life of the mind. Study and the love of learning are contrasted in the book with learning "for the sake of" --- career, learning a skill, solving problems or attaining financial security. These competing views of education are in even sharper tension today than was the case during the setting of Stoner.
The novel is largely set in a state university in Columbia, Missouri. The events of Stoner's seemingly quiet life are juxtaposed with the momentous events of his 38-year teaching career which concludes in 1956 -- WW I, the Depression, WW II, and the Korean and Cold Wars. The influence of these events is palpable but somehow muted in the novel by the focus on the life of the mind and heart in the person of Stoner.
"Stoner" received little attention when it was first published, but the book gradually found its readers. I think the book will have most appeal to those readers with a serious interest in study or a serious love for their job of whatever type. It is a sad, beautifully written reflective book that I am glad to have found at last.
The first page of the book opens with a brief description of the medieval manuscript that was dedicated to the university library by Stoner’s faculty colleagues upon his death. The prologue notes they “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.” That glum note sets the tone for the rest of the book. Stoner, the son of poor dirt farmers, originally enrolls in the university as an agricultural student focused on soil renewal. Upon hearing a professor named Archer Sloane lecture in his sophomore year, however, Stoner sets upon a different path and embraces literature as his calling.
Eventually, Sloane comes to admire the young man and encourages him to pursue his doctorate, hiring him as a teacher for the university at the same time. Stoner earns his master’s degree and later his Ph.D., and befriends two fellow students, Dave Masters and Gordon Finch. Finch will become the dean of the college and his only consistent ally, while Masters cannily predicts that the university is a sanctuary for each of them from the broader world and how their futures are entwined with it, but then Masters is sadly killed in the First World War. Sloane eventually dies in his office alone and is not discovered for two days, a foreshadowing of the protagonist’s own isolated end. At the same time, Stoner pursues and eventually marries a woman named Edith, who proceeds to make the next forty years of his life miserable. The daughter of a repressed childhood, her inability to reach out and connect with another person causes the couple prolonged unhappiness, and within a month of the wedding their marriage descends into petty retribution by her whenever Stoner seems to become too happy. The only benefit of their marriage, their daughter Grace, whom Stoner loves dearly, is slowly taken from him as Edith crafts her into a frigid and isolated child. Grace in turn enters a brief, loveless marriage and descends into alcoholism.
The only other person Stoner loves is a graduate student named Katherine Driscoll whom he meets in his forties. For a year, Stoner has happiness, but eventually the outside world intrudes upon their romance and it is forced to end with Katherine leaving town without a goodbye. Years later, Stoner discovers she surreptitiously dedicated her book to him. It is the only moment in literature I have ever come close to crying. After his romance with Katherine ends, Stoner spends the next twenty years in a silent war with his department head, Hollis Lomax, a hunchback (physical deformity being a hint at moral cripples in the book) whose animosity Stoner earned when he tried to fail an incompetent pupil of Lomax. It is only when Stoner finally grows indifferent to Lomax’s reprisals that his situation improves.
By the end of the novel, Stoner is alone, trapped in a loveless marriage, with an alienated daughter, mostly ignored by his colleagues and students, separated from his one true romantic partner, with a hostile boss, and on the precipice of mandatory retirement. Then he develops intestinal cancer and it metastasizes. The surgery to remove the tumor proves a failure and Stoner slowly dies at home. In the final pages of the novel, Stoner lies on his deathbed and flips through the pages of his only book. The words themselves are already forgotten, even by him, but he feels a sense of excitement pass through his fingertips at the feel of the paper. It was only through his love of literature that he could define himself. Although the world may intrude upon his life and shatter all else that he loves, it could not destroy the thing by which he derived meaning. In a final moment of clarity, his soul cleans itself of all else but that love and he dies pure.
The afterword of the modern edition includes an interesting series of letters between the author and his agent. Williams was little noted in his own lifetime, and haunted in many ways by the abuse of alcohol and wartime experiences which echo in the pages of the book. This is a novel that becomes instantly relatable to anyone who has ever felt like a failure or endured the insults of others, particularly those we love, in silence. Although this book is rarely heard of today, it is one of the few pieces of American prose that pierces the shiny veneer of our country’s life and shows the melancholy of isolation that haunts so many.