After reading several articles about “the best novel you’ve never heard of,” I finally surrendered and determined for myself the cause of this unadulterated acclaim. The title of this novel is peculiar: Although John Williams’ Stoner was published in 1965, the title refers not to a hippie drug addict but to the staid and stern William Stoner, who for four decades teaches English at the University of Missouri.
John Williams tells us in the first paragraph of Stoner that its hero entered the University of Missouri as an undergraduate in 1910 at the age of 19, and that he died in 1956, and that his career was undistinguished and unmemorable.
This is not the type of opening that today’s aspiring novelists are taught to write. There seems to be no reason to continue reading. It lacks an “inciting incident.” Yet, this paragraph is captivating precisely because we trust that the author is not wasting our time. There must be other reasons why we want to read about a forgotten English teacher, and indeed there are.
William Stoner intends to study agriculture at the University so that he can go back to his parents’ farm and introduce modern farming methods. But Stoner must also take other required courses, and something else seems to intrigue him. In an embarassing incident as a sophomore in a class on English literature, an instructor named Archer Sloane needles Stoner about his failure to describe the meaning of a sonnet by Shakespeare. Without quite understanding why, or what is happening to him, Stoner begins focusing more on literature.
Stoner's true role in life becomes a little clearer in an extraordinary scene with Sloane:
“You have an excellent undergraduate record. Except for your” — he lifted his eyebrows and smiled — “except for your sophomore survey of English literature, you have all A’s in your English courses; nothing below a B elsewhere. If you could maintain yourself for a year or so beyond graduation, you could, I’m sure, successfully complete the work for your Master of Arts; after which you would probably be able to teach while you worked toward your doctorate. If that sort of thing would interest you at all.”
Stoner drew back. “What do you mean?” he asked and heard something like fear in his voice.
Sloane leaned forward until his face was close; Stoner saw the lines on the long thin face soften, and he heard the dry mocking voice become gentle and unprotected.
“But don’t you know, Mr. Stoner?” Sloane asked. “Do you understand about yourself yet? You’re going to be a teacher.”
Suddenly Sloane seemed very distant, and the walls of the office receded. Stoner felt himself suspended in the wide air, and he heard his voice ask, “Are you sure?”
“I’m sure,” Sloane said softly.
“How can you tell? How can you be sure?”
“It’s love, Mr. Stoner,” Sloane said cheerfully. “You are in love. It’s as simple as that.”
It is also love that John Williams has for his characters, and they come through the pages vividly and compassionately. Nothing earthshattering happens in Stoner. There are births and deaths, a marriage and an affair, friends and colleagues, and campus politics. Stoner's trouble with a Shakespeare sonnet might be the inciting incident that caused him to switch his major, but another inciting incident occurs about halfway through the novel, and involves a conflict between Professor Stoner and a young PhD candidate. Stoner does not believe that this candidate is upholding the proper academic standards of the university, and the repercussions go deep into Stoner’s personal life.
This particular PhD candidate is certainly unorthodox, decidedly lazy, and also has the potential to be nasty and vindictive. What the reader perceives, however (or at least I did), is that he might also be a genius, and we wouldn’t be surprised if he later wrote a brilliant and modern novel. But Stoner’s standards are much more traditional.
As are the author’s standards. John Williams writes in an old-fashioned style. It is simple, unostentatious, and matter-of-fact. The only indication that Stoner was published in the middle of the 1960s is the sex, but even that is without graphic or obscene descriptions.
I only realized after I had started reading Stoner that I have a more personal connection with the setting than most readers. Both my parents attended the University of Missouri in the late 1940s, and that’s where they met. My father had served in the South Pacific during World War II so he was able to go to college on the G.I. Bill. That was the law signed by President Roosevelt that gave veterans access to home and business loans as well as a college education, laying the foundations for the post-war economic boom.
The veterans who attended college on the G.I. Bill were older than the other students. Having direct experience of the horrors of war, they tended to be more serious and dedicated to their studies. Here’s how Williams describes the reaction of Stoner (who is now in his mid-fifties) to the influx of these veterans:
The years immediately following the end of the Second World War were the best years of his teaching; and they were in some ways the happiest years of his life. Veterans of that war descended upon the campus and transformed it, bringing to it a quality of life it had not had before, an intensity and turbulence that amounted to a transformation. He worked harder than he had ever worked; the students, strange in their maturity, were intensely serious and contemptuous of triviality. Innocent of fashion or custom, they came to their studies as Stoner had dreamed that a student might — as if those studies were life itself and not specific means to specific ends.
Although my father majored in mechanical engineering rather than English literature, I felt in a sense that I was reading about him at the very college that he had attended!
If Professor Stoner is inspiring to his students, we aren't told about them. He is not Mr. Chips or the “History Boys” guy or the “Dead Poets Society” guy. But he's inspiring in a different way: In the New York Review Books Classics reprint of Stoner that I read, a brief introduction quotes from an interview with John Williams in which he discusses Stoner as a character. Despite his undistinguished career, Stoner is serious about his work and his role in life, and that role is to carry forward the tradition of literature. Williams says, “The important thing is to keep the tradition going, because the tradition is civilization.” And in Stoner, Williams himself has kept the tradition going of the creation of living and breathing characters who deserve our attention and respect.