John Edward Williams led a life that many people would envy. Born in 1922 to a working-class family in northeast Texas, he earned a PhD in English literature from the University of Missouri, and went on to direct the Creative Writing Program at the University of Denver. His historical novel Augustus won the National Book Award in 1973. He died in 1994, presumably feeling some sense of accomplishment in life. Over the past decade, Williams has become famous in the literary world, not for his successful novel about a Roman emperor, but for a long neglected novel about a loser.
Stoner, which was published in 1965 and sold only 2000 copies before going out of print, is not about a Grateful Dead fan who smokes too much pot. It is rather an attempt by John Williams to imagine what his life would have been like had he been born a generation earlier, and had he achieved nothing but a modest teaching position at a Midwestern state university. Like John Williams, William Stoner is born into a working-class family. His parents run a small, hard-scrabble family farm in rural Missouri. Stoner goes onto publish a book and to become a tenured professor at the University of Missouri, but unlike Williams never rises to become chairman of his department, or even a marginally popular teacher, let alone the director of a nationally famous creative writing department and a National Book Award winner. The book, a pedestrian study of the influence of Latin rhetoric on Medieval drama, is largely ignored. His wife hates him. With one or two exceptions, his colleagues in the university English Department either ignore him, or actively conspire to ruin his career. He has a brief love affair with one of his students. He’s much too passive and unimaginative to leave his wife, so it all comes to nothing. His only child, his daughter, gets pregnant, marries young and is widowed young. When we last see her, she’s a miserable 25-year-old alcoholic who has given up the care of her child to his grandparents. She already looks middle-aged. Finally after a lifetime as an obscure state university English teacher, William Stoner discovers he has inoperable cancer, and dies a painful, lonely death at the age of 65. Not even one of his former students pays him a visit, or writes him a letter.
It’s easy to see why Stoner failed so miserably in the 1960s. It is a reactionary, and deeply misogynistic book from the point of view of an entitled white male. William Stoner may consider himself a failure, but in the age of the neoliberal university, where the typical academic lives in poverty and hustles short term adjunct positions, he’s living the American dream. He gets a tenured position at the age of 27. He teaches at the same university for over 40 years. He buys a house in his early 30s. The Great Depression barely touches him. Stoner’s father in law, a corrupt banker, does commit suicide, but he’s such an unimportant character that in the closing chapters of the book Williams forgets he killed him off, and continues to refer to Stoner’s wife’s “parents” in the plural. William Stoner doesn’t so much seek out his modest career as a university professor as it drops into his lap as a gift. His parents send him to the university to study agriculture, but a senior professor pushes him into continuing onto a PhD in English. Stoner’s parents, who realize that the era of the small, Midwestern, family farmer is over, make no objections. William Stoner is in fact living in a golden age, a brief period in American history when a university degree opened the door to a stable, and secure life in the upper-middle-class.
There are two snakes in William Stoner’s academic Garden of Eden. The first is Hollis Lomax, the chairman of the university English department, a crippled hunchback barely five feet tall, who tries to bully Stoner into granting a PhD to a graduate student so incompetent he doesn’t even know that Lord Byron wrote English Bards and Scots Reviewers. Trust me on this one non-English-majors. For a PhD candidate with a focus on the English Romantics, it’s a big deal. The student, Charles Walker, is lazy and unfocused, but he’s a master at playing faculty politics. A deformed cripple like his mentor — yes, Stoner has not only one shriveled, hunchback villain, but two — he manipulates Hollis Lomax’s resentment of the tall, able-bodied Stoner not only into granting him an advanced degree in a subject of he knows nothing about, but into plotting the destruction of the teacher who, rightfully, gave him an “F.”
It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out why Walker’s book never caught on in the 1960s. Williams writes from the point of view of the “Greatest Generation.” He deeply resents any attempt to politicize the already politicized university — the University of Missouri even today isn’t a particularly friendly place for black students — and looks at a critical,self-assertive student as a burden a tenured professor has to carry. Walker is a fool, but he’s also a straw man. If you read between the lines, you can see the shadow of the Beat Generation and the radical counterculture behind his badly articulated argument for individual genius and inspiration against the dry, classical tradition William Stoner holds so dear. In John Williams’ fictional University of Missouri, Stoner is a hero. He flunks Charles Walker even though he knows it will bring him the enmity of the university administration and ruin his career. His real life counterpart, however, the crabbed old man who hates the younger generation and expects them to keep their place, wasn’t an outsider. He was the establishment.
If pointing out that dramatizing an ideological opponent in the form of not one, but two twisted, crippled straw men is a heavy-handed rhetorical maneuver, however, it’s also necessary to admit that Williams pulls it off. Charles Walker is such a vivid depiction of a bad student that he reminded me exactly why I never managed to get through graduate school. I was exactly the kind of bad student he was. I would bluff my way through classes where I hadn’t done the reading. When I lost focus, I could often derail the whole class. When a professor called me on my bullshit, I imagined that the professor had a personal agenda against my genius. Thankfully I had no talent for playing university politics, or I could have done some real damage. Walker’s character was painful for me to experience. Given the right political influence, a bad student can be a genuinely destructive force for evil. Teaching is a delicate art that requires the instructor to slowly, and over time build up the trust and interest of his students. It’s easier to destroy a class, a course, and a college instructor, than it is to cultivate one. John Williams may be a reactionary, but he’s a reactionary with a deep love of learning and a bitter resentment against the social climbers and political hucksters who would cheapen it.
Indeed, while I find much of Stoner’s rhetorical agenda suspect, I think the novel transcends the writer’s intention. Stoner does in fact live up to the hype that followed in the wake of the 2003 and 2006 re-issues and the 2011 French translation. Like all great works of literature, it’s more than an argument. It’s a massive fact of life that the reader must confront even if, no, especially if he agrees with the author’s politics. To quote William Blake on John Milton, John Williams is a true poet and of the devil’s party without knowing it. The devil of the novel is William Stoner’s wife Edith on whom most of the hero’s misery can probably be blamed. It’s not that Edith is an especially original character. She’s the vindictive, mentally ill 1950s housewife we’ve seen in the work of Betty Friedan, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath. But watching her depicted by a writer who’s using every once of his literary genius to silence her, and watching that writer largely succeed is fascinating. William Stoner the poor farm boy meets Edith Elaine Bostwick the banker’s daughter, when he’s a 27-year-old virgin and she’s a 20-year-old virgin. On the surface, pretty, educated, refined, she’s the “prize” that an upwardly mobile young man aspiring to the academic elite wants to win. He wins her almost overnight. They get married a few weeks after they meet. But within a year after their wedding, Stoner realizes that his prize is no prize at all. She’s a deeply unhappy woman without a career or a purpose. Her education was designed to put her in a bubble of “privilege.” That she marries a poor academic with no inherited money is initially a form of rebellion. She doesn’t want a fancy church wedding or a big reception, just a quick civil ceremony and a honeymoon in nearby St. Louis. As soon as she tires of that initial act of rebellion, she looks around for something new.
First she tries to play the part of the good faculty wife. She fails. She tries too hard, so hard she almost has a nervous breakdown. Just about the only thing she really succeeds is earning the initial resentment of Hollis Lomax for her husband. If you’re paying close attention you become more and more creeped out by the “chaste” kiss the shriveled hunchback plants on the lips of the pretty Edith Stoner as the novel goes on. William Stoner may not have sex until the age of 27, and he may wind up sleeping with only two women in his entire life – even less than me, for what that’s worth – but Hollis Lomax either dies a virgin or pays for it. After she fails as a hostess, she tries sex, announcing that she wants a child, and pushing her husband into sleeping with her as compulsively as she once avoided him. After she notices that her husband is starting to enjoy the house she pushed him into buying, and, even worse, is starting to bond with Grace, their daughter, she decides that what she really wants to do is be a sculptor. That gives her the excuse to kick him out of the study he’s carefully and lovingly built up over the years, the “room of his own” where he’s beginning to flourish as a writer and as a father, and convert it into her studio. That accomplished, her husband banished to a miserable sun porch, she tries the piano. Then the theater. Finally she realizes that the only thing she has any real gift for is to make her husband miserable, and applies herself to destroying his soul with the same relentless discipline that John Williams applies to writing his novel.
If William Stoner is classical form, the disciplined pursuit of language and scholarship, then Edith Stoner is the demonic, the malevolent engine that gives the novel its purpose in life. Stoner’s idealized love affair with Katherine Driscoll, a graduate student with a love of Latin poetry who seems just a little too much like a female version of Stoner himself, is as cringe worthy as any middle-aged man’s mid-life crisis. That Katherine is mainly used as a rhetorical device against Charles Walker – who attacks her in class – and Edith Stoner – Williams tries hard and fails to suggest that Stoner would have had a great life if only he hadn’t gotten married so soon – is more than evident not only by how easily Stoner gives her up, but how quickly we forget about her once she’s written out of the plot. Edith Stoner, however, remains in our imagination, so vividly in fact that after her husband dies of cancer we wonder exactly what she’s going to do with the rest of her life.