Friday, March 5, 2010


No, it's not what you were thinking. It's actually a novel, written in 1965 by John Willliams, about the life of a young man who was born in 1891, grew up on a farm, went to the university, fell under the influence of literature, became an English teacher, lived a relentlessly ordinary life, and died in 1956. It is the most ordinary and the most revelatory of stories, told in a straightforwardly realistic (and deceptively artful) manner by its author, John Williams.

I first read about Stoner from on Scott Esposito's Conversational Reading blog in December of last year. It soon became one of those titles that keeps popping up in your mental landscape until you say to yourself, well, I guess I'm going to have to give it a shot. The straw that pushed me to it was when my friend Tim asked me if I had read it. I said no, but I bought a copy the same day and started in. I'd say that this is a book you'd want to read if you have an interest in literature, or in teaching, or in the notion of a life's trajectory and what one might reasonably hope to have accomplished or experienced at its termination. If you have an interest in all three, I'd say, well, you're going to have to give it a shot.

The main character, William Stoner, is not larger than life. If anything, he's just a smidgeon smaller than life. He's a pleasant man with a good heart, a man of limited abilities who is able to adapt to the circumstances of his life, but ultimately unable to transcend them. In other words, in the words of the Beatles, for example, he's "a bit like you and me." I'm tempted to say he's like Dilbert without the humor, but that's actually doing Stoner an injustice: whatever he is, he's no cartoon. He's a fully realized, sympathetic character, and if his life never turns out to be what he might have wished for or what we might have wished for him, it is not without its dignity or its compensations. John McGahern, in his introduction to the book, quotes the author commenting on his creation:

I think he's a real hero. A lot of people who have read the novel think that Stoner had such a sad and bad life. I think he had a really good life. He had a better life than most people do, certainly. He was doing what he wanted to do, he had some feeling for what he was doing, he had some sense of the importance of the job he was doing. He was a witness to values that were important. (xii)
There's a passage right in the middle of the book that I'd like to cite at length because it describes a critical moment in Stoner's career as a teacher, after he has been at it for a while, when due to personal circumstances in his life he begins to open up in ways that do begin to change his sense of himself: who he is and what he is capable of:

He was ready to admit to himself that he had not been a good teacher. Always, from the time he had fumbled through his first classes of freshman English, he had been aware of the gulf that lay between what he felt for his subject and what he delivered in the classroom. He had hope that time and experience would repair the gulf; but they had not done so. Those things that he held most deeply were most profoundly betrayed when he spoke of them to his classes; what was most alive withered in his words; and what moved him most became cold in its utterance. And the consciousness of his inadequacy distressed him so greatly that the sense of it grew habitual, as much a part of him as the stoop of his shoulders.

But during the weeks that Edith was in St. Louis, when he lectured, he now and then found himself so lost in his subject that he became forgetful of his inadequacy, of himself, and even of the students before him. Now and then he became so caught by his enthusiasm that he stuttered, gesticulated, and ignored the lecture notes that usually guided his talks. At first he was disturbed by his outbursts, as he he presumed too familiarly upon his subject, and he apologized to his students; but when they began coming up to him after class, and when in their papers they began to show hints of imagination and the revelation of a tentative love, he was encouraged to do what he had never been taught to do. The love of literature, of language, of the mystery of the mind and hear showing themselves in the minute, strange, and unexpected combinations of letters and words, in the blackest and coldest print — the love which he had hidden as if it were illicit and dangerous he began to display, tentatively at first, and then boldly, and then proudly.

He was both saddened and heartened by his discovery of what he might do; beyond his intention, he felt he had cheated both his students and himself. The students who had been able theretofore to plod through his courses by the repetition of mechanical steps began to look at him with puzzlement and resentment; those who who not taken courses from him began to sit in on his lectures and nod to him in the halls. He spoke more confidently and felt a warm hard severity gather within him. He suspected that he was beginning, ten years 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 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 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. (112-113)
This passage interests me for several reasons. First of all, it is a fairly elegant and eloquent illustration of something that every teacher at some point must learn if s/he is to be successful and happy: that students respond to and respect what is genuine and what is true, however weird or geeky or odd it may appear to them at first. You have to be who you are, unapologetically and unfearfully. If you try to be what the school wants you to be, or what your parents want you to be, or, worst of all, what you think the students want you to be, you're doomed. You have to have the courage of your confusions as well as your convictions, and be willing to own up to both. Of course, any statement that general might be dismissed as a cliché. What I like about the novel is the way in which it particularizes the realization in a way that is itself true and convincing in the context of this one man's life.

Second of all, the passage is freighted with a great deal of emotional tension, not just because of the sadness that this new realization engenders in Stoner, but because any alert reader will understand immediately that with the new realization will come new complications. Stoner was himself, despite his limitations, not unaware that the love that he has hidden is in fact, if not exactly illicit, certainly dangerous, as love always is, and as it eventually, in this story, turns out to be.

Third, and this is perhaps less obvious but central to my own orientation to reading and writing, I think the passage is beautifully rendered. The beauty in this case is not a function of elegance or ornament or stylistic excess of any sort whatsoever, but rather from its simplicity, its lack of affectation or pretentiousness or self-conscious artfulness. The whole novel reads like this, effortlessly, smoothly, compatibly. It's a very good book. You should give it a shot.

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