Every once in a while, a worthy but largely unknown novel registers on the literary radar screen and receives deserved attention. Dow Mossman's verbally hyperactive but extraordinary THE STONES OF SUMMER is one such example, rediscovered a few years ago by Mark Moskowitz's STONE READER documentary. John Williams's STONER is another, revitalized by Morris Dickstein's June 2007 paean in the New York Sunday Times Book Review. A thousand thanks, Mr. Dickstein - STONER is indeed a marvelous tale of American life and academia in the first half of the 20th Century.
Published in 1965, STONER was the second of Williams's three novels. Despite the date and serendipitous title, this is far from a beat or hippie generation story. To the contrary, hero William Stoner is a salt of the earth middle American, born and raised on a modest family farm in Missouri at the beginning of the 20th Century. Through intelligence, hard work, and good fortune, Stoner enters the University of Missouri to study modern agriculture. Williams presents his hero as a classically naïve farm boy, utterly awed by the buildings, the books, the other students, and the general aura of academe. All goes well until Stoner the freshman literature class of Archer Sloane. Despite being publicly embarrassed by Sloane for his inability to explain a Shakespearean sonnet about lost love (which also foreshadows his own later life), Stoner nevertheless discovers his true calling in literature. He changes majors, obtains his degree, and ultimately accepts a teaching position at his alma mater. One of his few good friends from the university, Dave Masters, subsequently describes the young Stoner with dead-on precision as "our own midwestern Don Quixote without his Sancho" - prophetic words, indeed. Most of Stoner's subsequent troubles in his professorial life arise from his quixotic insistence on intellectual purity and refusal to play academic politics. Although it takes him far too many years to learn how to fight back, he eventually proves to have some modest skills at windmill-tilting.
STONER the book traces the surprisingly tempestuous arc of Stoner the man's outwardly mundane life: friendships made and lost to wartime death, the ups and downs in a marriage of sexually naïve co-equals, the birth of a daughter, the triumphs and despairs of professional life, and the petty jealousies and irrational retaliatory behaviors engendered by academic politics. Williams presents the story of an intellectual idealist, but ultimately it is a story of failure. Failure in the real world to prevent young men from wasteful deaths in two world wars and Korea, failure of a marriage, failure in holding on to a true love, failure to establish a stable family life (Stoner's is classically dysfunctional), and failure as an intellectual in his chosen field. Williams offers Stoner a sole mitigating success as a teacher where, despite difficult departmental odds, he finds a moderate degree of satisfaction and life purpose.
Williams writes in a noticeably direct, matter-of-fact, third-person style. He minces no words in describing his characters, creating an environment that is at once realistic yet inescapably sad. The reader can only feel empathy bordering on pity for Stoner, his wife Edith, and their unfortunate daughter Grace (about whom one can only remark the misfortune that we cannot choose our parents). At age 42, Stoner "...could see nothing before him that he wished to enjoy and little behind him that he cared to remember." What a despairing statement about one's own life. Yet, in the end, Stoner achieves a modicum of satisfaction and self-realization even as he surveys the unrealized expectations and potentialities of a life not so badly lived. He is a tragic hero, but a hero still and all. And a surprisingly likable one at that.