The Persistent Appeal Of The 1965 John Williams Novel 'Stoner'

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"William Stoner and the Battle for the Inner Life," by Steve Almond. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
"William Stoner and the Battle for the Inner Life," by Steve Almond. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

When the John Williams novel "Stoner" was published in 1965, it sold only a few thousand copies and seemed destined for obscurity. But the book sold over a million copies in Europe and is beloved by a number of literary critics, including Steve Almond, who's published a new appreciation, "William Stoner and the Battle for the Inner Life." Here & Now's Robin Young talks with Almond (@stevealmondjoy) about the books.

Book Excerpt: 'William Stoner And The Battle For The Inner Life'

by Steve Almond

In the autumn of 1995, at the age of 28, I abandoned a career in journalism to pursue the dubious goal of writing short stories. My selection of a graduate program was eased considerably by the paucity of my talent. I applied to 20 schools, was admitted to three, and offered financial aid by one, a state university nestled in the polite and muggy suburbs of the south.

I rented a carriage house whose central allure was a gleaming antique bathtub that seemed to portend my future. I yearned to become the sort of writer who spent hours bleeding truth onto the page before collapsing into a scalding soak. Everyone in the program dreamed the same dream. If we worked hard enough, if we read the right books, if we charmed the prevailing mentors, our work would be plucked from the slush pile, gussied up for publication and bound into handsome volumes by the Bad Parents of New York City. At precisely this point, everyone who had ever rejected us would be forced to admit the terrible mistake they had made.

I was particularly inept at disguising my aims, and would eventually become so reviled that the fiction faculty barred me from attending workshops and refused to read my thesis. All that comes later. I mention these circumstances only to suggest my frame of mind when I first encountered Stoner.

This happened a few months into the program, at a party hosted by my friend Dan Belkin. We were getting to know one another with the help of some affable drugs when he asked if I’d ever read Stoner. I eventually discerned that he was referring to a novel, which I assumed would be a tale of hydroponic hi-jinx. It is not. The author, John Williams, begins:

William Stoner entered the University of Missouri as a freshman in the year 1910, at the age of nineteen. Eight years later, during the height of World War I, he received his Doctor of Philosophy degree and accepted an instructorship at the same university, where he taught until his death in 1956. He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his course…. Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers.

To understand how audacious I found this opening, you would have to know how loyal I was, back then, to the dogma of the MFA program, the smothering exhortations to show, don’t tell. Because I lacked confidence in the stories I was trying to write, because those stories were at best half-formed, I reliably plunged my readers into the consciousness of some poor schlub in the midst of an unspecified crisis. I assumed this chaos would beguile readers, that they would hunger for all the facts I withheld from them. I was writing almost entirely out of my insecurity, which explained the inflamed prose, the preposterous plot twists, and glib dialogue.

It wasn’t just the flat expository style of Stoner that flummoxed me. Williams had opened his novel by drily announcing the insignificance of his protagonist. I assumed the point of literature was to document the lives of the driven and depraved, the lawless and lust-riven, in short: the memorable.

It hadn’t occurred to me that the story of every life is, from a cosmic perspective, one of obscurity. You are alive for some brief span, then you die. The great mirage of human consciousness is that our striving deeds will render us immortal. It might be said that I had confused literature with history, which serves as the de facto press office of the infamous. This confusion redounded to my own corrupt ambitions. I wanted from literature to be known by the world. I had missed the point: Literature exists to help people know themselves.

None of this occurred to me on that first night. I remember only that I read Stoner in a spell, and that I wept a good deal, inexplicably though not unhappily.

The novel’s central events can be summarized in a single sentence: Stoner, the only son of subsistence farmers, attends college, unexpectedly falls in love with literature, and becomes a teacher; he endures a disastrous marriage, a prolonged academic feud, and a doomed love affair, then falls ill and dies.

The book refuses to hurtle Stoner toward a traditional conception of heroism. He does not fight in a war or launch a doomed expedition. He does not ascend the ranks or vanquish his foes or risk all for love. He is often excruciatingly passive, constrained by the conventions of his age and the inhibitions of his character. Stoner enthralls precisely because it captures with unbearable fidelity the moments of internal tumult that mark every human life.

Sometimes these are moments of regret or guilt or disappointment. Just as often they are moments of ecstatic revelation. The first of these occurs his sophomore year in college, during a required survey of English literature. To this point, the course has bedeviled Stoner. He reads and rereads the assignments but can find no meaning in the words. Toward the end of one class, his professor, an imperious figure named Archer Sloane, reads Shakespeare’s 73rd Sonnet and demands to know what Stoner makes of it.

The poem is genuinely bewildering. The basic idea, barely visible beneath a tangle of naturalistic metaphor and vexing pronouns, is that our apprehension of mortality should inspire us to cherish the world of our youth. Stoner sits, awkwardly wedged into his wooden desk. The professor reads the poem again, this time tenderly, “as if the words and sounds and rhythms had for a moment become himself.”

Stoner can summon no words, but the world around him suddenly takes on a phantasmagoric intensity. Light slants from the windows and settles upon the faces of his fellow students. He watches one blink and notices as a thin shadow falls upon a cheek “whose down has caught the sunlight.” Stoner marvels at the intricacy of his hands. He feels the blood flowing invisibly through his arteries. For several minutes after the others have left he sits dazed. He wanders the campus, taking in “the bare gnarled branches of the trees curled and twisted against the pale sky.” He regards his fellow students curiously, “as if he had not seen them before, and felt very distant from them and very close to them.”

The compression of sensual detail makes this passage read like a reverie, but something quite simple is happening: William Stoner is suddenly paying attention to his life.

It took me several years to absorb the essential lesson of Stoner, which is a precise repudiation of the idea I clung to back then. What matters is not the quality of a particular life, but the quality of attention paid to that life.

Excerpted from the book WILLIAM STONER AND THE BATTLE FOR THE INNER LIFE by Steve Almond. Copyright © 2019 by Steve Almond. Republished with permission of Ig Publishing.

This segment aired on June 25, 2019.



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