A quiet hero: The simple life of an honest man

Published 12:00 am Sunday, July 21, 2013

Editor’s note: From time to time, we like to tell you about books from the past that still resonate today. Discovering a forgotten gem can be quite rewarding.

“Stoner,” by John Williams. New York Review of Books. 288 pp. $14.95. Also in ebook form.

Can one call a man a hero if, from outside of himself, he appears to live a very ordinary life? If he grows up doing his chores, goes to school, gets up every morning and goes to work, has a wife, a child, maybe an affair, until finally, at the end, just like everyone else, he dies — can such a man be a hero? Would you call such a man a hero? I wouldn’t call him a hero; or, at least I wouldn’t have until I met William Stoner.
I met Stoner in the book by that exact name written by John Williams and published in 1965. The book sold 2,000 copies before quickly going out of print; it remained so until 41 years later when the New York Review of Books republished it with only tepid sales. I remember thinking in 2006 that I wanted to read “Stoner” but I never did. Then, on May 21, author Gregory Spatz posted an article on Facebook about the book that had appeared on NPR two days earlier which stated that Stoner was selling like crazy in Europe, more than a million copies recently, and had even been the bestselling novel in The Netherlands for the previous two months. Back on my reading list went “Stoner.”
William Stoner grows up on the family farm near Boonville, Mo. “It was a lonely household, of which he was an only child, and it was bound together by the necessity of its toil.” Stoner goes to school and helps his father around the farm, help that becomes ever more necessary as his father ages and the land becomes less productive.
When Stoner graduates high school, he goes to the University of Missouri studying in their new agricultural program, for although the money and his help will be difficult to spare, the benefits once he returns could be immeasurable to the survival of the farm.
Two things happen to Stoner while in college. When he can’t get into a class he had planned on, he takes a survey class in literature which “troubled and disquieted him in a way nothing had ever done before.” The experience causes him to change his major, something he does not tell his parents. As he nears graduation, one of his professors and advisers persuades him to go to graduate school at the institution, and after the graduation ceremony Stoner must finally break the news. “I’m trying to tell you I won’t be coming back to the farm atall.” To which his father, after much consideration, replies, “If you think you ought to stay here and study your books, then that’s what you ought to do. Your ma and me can manage.” Stoner will never leave, receiving his Ph.D. in English and then staying on as a professor for the rest of his life.
When World War I breaks out and his two best friends, along with many other students, join the war effort. Stoner’s trusted adviser, the professor who taught him that first survey class, tells him: “The scholar should not be asked to destroy what he has aimed his life to build.” Stoner stays home.
When he awkwardly meets Edith, he rather hastily decides she is the one for him. But within a month of their marriage, Stoner already knows it is a failure, and later, when Edith has a child, Stoner takes on much of the care of their daughter. Though the marriage will stay intact, the couple will have separate lives; Stoner, the stoic that he is, only devotes more effort to his classes and students, his separate life.
The college becomes Stoner’s fort, but like all forts, there are weaknesses — petty jealousies, power struggles, conflicts among personalities and pedagogy. When Stoner gives a failing grade to a student up for graduation, a student who happens to have as an adviser the relatively new department chair, Stoner makes a bed he will find himself sleeping in for years. But Stoner will find a comfortable position to sleep in. Henceforth, from his lowly position as an assistant professor, Stoner will do what he has always done — teach, lead, guide and advise his students. And he will do it well.
OK, reader, don’t feel like I have told you too much, because all I’ve really done is give you the briefest outline of a man who perseveres against all odds when not a soul around him realizes it; Stoner himself doesn’t realize it. To get the full story, you have to read “Stoner” by Williams. Williams carefully crafts and builds his man Stoner, growing him as the novel grows. Peripheral characters are equally well sketched. Williams can move from the syntax and the brevity of speech one finds in the rural enclaves of the Midwestern states, where rarely is an unneeded word spoken, to the refined diction of university professors without a hitch. You get a sense of time progressing, moving from the late 19th to the mid-20th century. But mostly, you get a carefully crafted sense of Stoner moving through his life, looking at him from the inside. Williams does it with every sentence letter perfect.
Author Williams himself grew up on a farm in Texas, received his Ph.D. from University of Missouri and taught the remainder of his working life, but never at Missouri. Williams wrote six books, two books of poetry and four novels. Among the novels, “Augustus,” his last, won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1972, and it, along with “Butcher’s Crossing” and, of course, “Stoner,” are all currently in print and available.
So what happened with “Stoner,” the book that sold only 2,000 copies and then disappeared for more than 40 years? Despite having two published novels under his belt, Williams that year faced competition from virtually all of the major authors of the time, including Michener, Bellow, le Carre, Stone, Hailey, Wouk and Fleming. Mass readers at the time were not interested in a literary novel set in academia, reading for much more action and thrills.
The book was published by Viking, now part of Penguin Random House, and would have had a lot of competition for publicity just from Viking’s own stable of big name authors in 1965. Finally, it appears reviews of “Stoner” were few, and often too brief to notice. The European ascension of “Stoner” was the stimulus I needed to finally read this excellent novel; I hope what I have said here will inspire you to do the same.