Thursday, 3 July 2014

JOHN WILLIAMS Stoner (1965)

New York Review Books, 2006

He spoke more confidently and felt a warm hard severity gather within him.  He suspected that he was beginning, ten years too late, to discover who he was; and the figure he saw was both more and less than he had once imagined it to be.  He felt himself at last beginning to be a teacher, which was simply a man to whom his book is true, to whom is given a dignity of art that has little to do with his foolishness or weakness or inadequacy as a man.  It was a knowledge of which he could not speak, but one which changed him, once he had it, so that no one could mistake its presence.

The Novel The plot of John Williams' 1965 novel Stoner appears, on the surface at least, to be simplicity itself.  William Stoner is born in 1891 and grows up poor on his father's farm in rural Missouri.  At the age of eighteen, despite his lack of anything more than the most basic education, he's given the opportunity to attend the State University for two years to study agriculture – a degree, his father believes, that will help him to run the farm in a more 'scientific' fashion when he eventually inherits it and will also, in time, make it a more successful and generally profitable enterprise.  Stoner leaves for Columbia, the city where the campus is located, and moves in with his mother's penny-pinching relatives for whom he's expected to chop wood and do other menial chores in exchange for his room and board.

All goes well until the boy enters the second year of his degree and finds himself enrolled in a mandatory one semester English literature course taught by a curmudgeonly instructor named Archer Sloane.  The course introduces the bashful agriculture student to the previously unknown world of Greek, Roman and Renaissance literature and, through it, to a new side of himself and what, under Sloane's occasionally obtuse guidance, proves to be his true vocation –– teaching.  Stoner soon switches his major from agriculture to literature, informing his parents he won't be returning to the farm because he intends to remain in school, where he eventually hopes to gain his PhD.  'If you think you ought to stay here and study your books,' his father understandingly tells him after being informed of his decision, 'then that's what you ought to do.'

Stoner is still working towards earning his doctorate when America enters World War One.  Unlike his sharp-tongued, world-weary friend David Masters and his more genial, less ambitious friend Gordon Finch, he prefers not to enlist in the army, remaining at Columbia to study and teach while Masters leaves for France where he's soon killed in action at Château-Thierry.  Life, however, goes on.  Stoner gains his PhD in 1918 and becomes an instructor while Finch, who never got to Europe because he was still in Officers' Training School when the Armistice was signed, returns to school where they renew the friendship which, unbeknownst to both of them, will become the most enduring and important of their lives.  In time, Finch becomes head of the English Department and then Dean of the University itself, while Stoner, who despises academic politics and everything connected with it, devotes himself to teaching and writing the books he must publish on a semi-regular basis in order to gain tenure and the job security it provides.

In 1919, at a faculty party, he meets the girl –– Edith Elaine Bostwick –– who will shortly become his wife.  Edith is a shy, strange creature tall, pale and extremely spoiled by her rich banker father who is not, at first, eager to welcome a farmer's son into his family.  But Edith is determined to have her way and the marriage soon takes place in accordance with her wishes, followed by a honeymoon in Saint Louis which proves to be as traumatic for her as it proves to be disappointing for her besotted but sexually inexperienced bridegroom.  They return to Columbia and move into a rundown apartment which Edith spends all her time 'improving,' becoming angry, morose and withdrawn if Stoner dares to interfere or offers an unrequested opinion on her latest decorating project.  'Within a month he knew that his marriage was a failure; within a year he stopped hoping that it would improveIf he spoke to her or touched her in tenderness, she turned away from him within herself and became wordless, enduring, and for days afterward drove herself to new limits of exhaustion.'  This becomes their habit and remains so for the remainder of their mutually unsatisfying marriage, a habit broken only when Edith decides she needs to have a child and briefly becomes the lustful young bride her baffled but nevertheless cooperative husband had originally hoped to encounter on their honeymoon.  Their sexual relationship ends –– as does their marriage in everything but name –– when Edith becomes pregnant with their only child, a daughter named Grace who becomes her father's pride and joy and his one consolation for having married a neurotic, self-obsessed woman who lurches from one new 'artistic interest' to another in an effort to provide her life with the meaning and focus it otherwise lacks.

Nor do things progress smoothly for Stoner on the career front.  Just as he's beginning to find his feet as a teacher, ten years after teaching his first undergraduate literature class, he runs afoul of a fellow instructor named Hollis Lomax –– an embittered cripple who clashes with him over his refusal to give Lomax's favorite student, a fellow smooth-talking cripple named Walker, a passing grade in the graduate seminar Walker has wheedled his way into joining.  Lomax insists that Stoner pass the boy but Stoner's rigid sense of integrity won't allow him to comply.  'It's not the principle,' he tells his friend Finch after Finch breaks the news to him that he's being promoted and Lomax is likely to be appointed the new department head in his place 'It's Walker.  It would be a disaster to let him loose in a classroom.'  Lomax proves to be an unforgiving boss, punishing Stoner for his refusal to cooperate by giving him the dullest, most uninspiring classes to teach at the widest spaced intervals, making it impossible for him to spend as much time with his daughter as he needs to in order to prevent her being torn away from him by Edith.

By the time he reaches middle-age, Stoner's life seems absolutely bereft of any sort of joy.  His marriage is a failure, his beloved daughter has become a stranger to him and his work, while time-consuming, is something he no longer finds satisfying on either a personal or an intellectual level.  He thinks of killing himself, ending a life which seems to be defined by what it lacks rather than what it encompasses, but is rescued by a graduate student named Katherine Driscoll who asks him to serve as her doctoral adviser.  Katherine is young, intense and as devoted to the study of classical literature as Stoner himself was when he was first introduced to it back in the dim, half-forgotten world of 1910.  Katherine is also in love with him and has been since she, along with the troublesome Mr Walker, became a member of his graduate literature seminar.

Stoner and Katherine begin a relationship which proves to be as intellectually rewarding as it does emotionally and sexually gratifying, a refuge from disappointment and university politics which allows both participants to enjoy the kind of happiness neither has thus far experienced with any other person.  The period of Stoner's affair with Katherine is the happiest time of his life but he knows it can't last and, sadly, he's right.  What has previously been an open secret in Columbia, even to the not wholly ignorant Edith, soon becomes common knowledge and reaches the ear of Lomax, who threatens to dismiss him unless he gives the girl up.  'He didn't see Katherine Driscoll again.  After he left her, during the night, she got up, packed all her belongings, cartoned her books, and left word with the manager of the apartment house where to send themShe must have been planning her departure for some time, Stoner realized; and he was grateful that he had not known and that she had left him no final note to say what could not be said.'  He reacts to this loss by becoming ill for the first time in his life –– an illness which, by the time he recovers from it, transforms him from a middle-aged man into a prematurely aged one, the kind of crusty old professor Sloane used to be and he once vowed he would never become.

The rest of his life, from roughly the end of World War Two until his death from cancer in 1956, sees Stoner become an authentic university 'character,' a kind of walking institution who's respected by his students but never really appreciated by them just as he's never been appreciated (or even remotely understood) by his wife, his friend Gordon Finch or his academic enemy Hollis Lomax.  Yet he can still look back on his life, as he lays dying in the bedroom/study in which so much of it has been spent, and recognize the value in everything he's done or ever tried to be.  'He dimly recalled that he had been thinking of failure –– as if it mattered.  It seemed to him now that such thoughts were mean, unworthy of what his life had beenA sense of his own identity came upon him with a sudden force, and he felt the power of it.  He was himself, and he knew what he had been.'

Italian edition, date unspecified
The back cover blurb of the New York Review Books edition of Stoner describes the title character as 'an unlikely existential hero, standing, like a figure in a painting by Edward Hopper, in stark relief against an unforgiving world.'  While Stoner's world is an unforgiving one in many respects the point is that he remains undefeated by the setbacks it inflicts on him, remaining stubbornly himself even as life disappoints, mistreats, overlooks and marginalizes him.  Unlike the crippled Lomax and the depressed and genuinely isolated Archer Sloane, he never becomes vengeful, remorseful or even noticeably embittered by his experiences, most of which fall far short of what he'd imagined his life becoming as an idealistic undergraduate fresh off his father's farm.  What makes him so memorable –– and the story of what appears to be his completely unremarkable life so moving is his ordinariness, a quality which reveals itself most often in his quiet yet iron-willed refusal to pretend to be anyone other than who he is, a man able to find joy even in what flees from him (Katherine) and in what he despairs of ever gaining the power to successfully convey to others (his passionate love for literature).  Stoner is allegedly Tom Hanks' favorite novel and it's not hard to see why the material and the subject matter might appeal to him.  Like so many of the characters Hanks has chosen to portray on screen, Stoner seems to stand for everything that's decent, honest and noble in American life, questionable though that ideal has now become to many of us living in a perpetually spin-doctored post-9/11 world.  What cannot be questioned, however, is John Williams' extraordinary talent and his ability to capture the heart, soul, mind and, above all, the innate integrity of a man most of us wouldn't pause to notice for five seconds if we passed him on the street.

The Writer Like every other fashion, literary fashions have their seasons and their favorites, making some writers rich and famous overnight while others –– often their lesser known but more talented colleagues –– find themselves unjustly consigned to the novelistic scrapheap for no better reason than their failure to top bestseller lists.  The experience of John Williams serves as a case in point.  Revered by his fellow novelists for the beauty, economy and staggering emotional power of his prose, Williams' work was largely ignored by the public during his own lifetime despite earning the praise of several generations of literary critics and a small but loyal band of devoted, proselytizing fans.  Even winning the 1973 National Book Award for his fourth novel Augustus (and even this he had to share with the more academically fashionable John Barth) didn't help matters much.  Williams, it seemed, was doomed to be a critical rather than a financial success, a writer widely respected and admired by his peers who would remain an unread obscurity in the eyes of the masses.

All that changed in 2012 with the routine, completely unpublicized reissuing of his third novel Stoner by Random House's UK subsidiary Vintage Classics.  Suddenly, everyone was reading this remarkable 1965 novel and urging their friends and loved ones to do the same.  A low-key literary novel about a so-called 'ordinary' man –– who happens to be a stuffy old Classics professor to boot –– was suddenly riding high on the world's bestseller lists, ranked #2 behind splashier, trashier works like Dan Brown's Inferno and EL James's ubiquitous Fifty Shades of Grey.  'It has,' to quote a recent review in The New York Times, 'been reprinted 12 times, with sales rising from 300 copies a month to 6000, with 110,000 sold in the Netherlands alone so far.'

The pity, of course, is that its author didn't live to see the book become the worldwide bestseller it's so deservedly if unpredictably become.  John Edward Williams –– grandson of Texas farmers, stepson of a janitor and a college graduate only because the US Government's GI Bill allowed ex-American military personnel to study for university degrees at its expense after serving in World War Two –– died on 3 March 1994 in Fayetteville, Arkansas from emphysema.  He was seventy-one years old and had been retired from the job he loved – teaching literature to college students at the universities of Denver and Missouri –– for nine years.  He had not published a novel since 1972.  

Williams was not a prolific author, producing only four novels Nothing But The Night (1948), Butcher's Crossing (1960), Stoner (1965) and his epistolary exploration of Ancient Rome Augustus (1972) –– and two poetry collections prior to his death.  He also left behind an unfinished fifth novel which thus far remains unpublished.  His success, belated though it is, is heartening for the ever-dwindling minority who believe that the true test of literary merit should be the ability of the work in question to engage and stir the imagination and the emotions of the reader, that the quality of the work is ultimately more important –– and always should be more important – than the marketing potential of whoever The New York Times or The Times Literary Supplement has chosen to anoint as this week's over-exposed literary superstar.  Stoner strikes a strong emotional chord in readers because –– in a world where human success is measured more and more in terms of earning power, ego and media exposure – it tells a touchingly believable tale of a so-called 'failure' and in doing so speaks directly to every ordinary, non-famous person who's ever had cause to doubt their own value or question the ultimate meaning of their life.  An impressive feat for a novel which first appeared nearly half a century ago and sold only a modest 2000 copies during its initial print run.

Williams himself was, by all accounts, the most ordinary and charming of men.  Although he showed an early talent for writing, he originally set out to become an actor, flunking out of the small community college he'd been attending for less than a year to take a job writing promo copy for radio stations in various small towns and cities throughout the American southwest.  He was doing this when America entered World War Two and spent three years serving in the US Army Air Force, first in India and later in Burma.  It was during this period that he wrote the first draft of what would become his first novel, published in 1948 as Nothing But The Night.  Following his war service, he moved to Colorado and enrolled as an English student at the University of Denver, earning his BA there in 1949 and his Masters Degree one year later.  After receiving his PhD from the University of Missouri he returned to the University of Denver where he taught for the remainder of his academic career.

Vintage Classics UK, 2012
Dapper and slightly built, Williams was a teacher unafraid to ignore and contradict his own teaching methods if he believed that doing so might improve a student's chances of finding their own way as a writer.  'Ignore all of what you just heard and sat through,' he told graduate student and future novelist Michelle Latiolais in 1981 after she'd taken her first creative writing class with him.  'Read these authors.'  He laid a pile of books on her desk which included novels by Ford Madox Ford, Edith Wharton and Janet Lewis.  'They will be your teachers.  You're a writer who can't be taught, who has to figure it out on her own.'  He also passed on to Latiolais his love of and lifelong reverence for the work of Henry James.  Under his tutelage, Latiolais wrote in her 2007 introduction to his groundbreaking 1960 Western novel Butcher's Crossing, 'I would learn to write the consciousness of character by reading Daisy Miller, The Portrait of a Lady, The Golden Bowl and The Ambassadors.

Unlike Stoner, Williams was genuinely admired and even loved by his students.  He'd earned that love, and his reputation as one of America's finest unsung novelists, by constant hard work and an unwavering belief in the idea that the first duty of literature, all literature, should be to engage and entertain the reader.  He was firmly against the idea that 'a novel or poem is something to be studied and understood rather than experienced.'  'My God,' he once told an interviewer, 'to read without joy is stupid.'  He was and remains a true American original, a forgotten master whose work is finally receiving the attention it deserves after more than forty years of unmerited obscurity. 

Click HERE to read a June 2013 article by ARIFA AKBAR about the unexpected 'resurgence' of Stoner in The Independent.  You can also click HERE to read a similar article by ex-academic JOHN SUTHERLAND which originally appeared in the July 2013 edition of The Telegraph.

You might also enjoy: 
RICHARD YATES A Special Providence (1969)
DAWN POWELL Come Back to Sorrento (1932) 
WRITERS ON WRITING #46: Richard Bausch

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