A Love Letter To Literature:
The 50th Anniversary of John Williams’ Stoner
John Williams’s Stoner — which this month is celebrating its 50th anniversary with a tastefully geometric hardback edition from New York Review Books — is a quiet novel; a portrait painted in sober tones of the life of a somber, unremarkable man, a story that unfolds softly and with grace. The book treads along with William Stoner, from his birth and childhood on a small family farm in rural Missouri, to university where he is awakened to his inner life, on through World War I and the Great Depression, his years as an instructor, his marriage, the birth of his family, the destruction of it, and finally, inevitably, his death. It’s the stuff of Russian literature, and a novel that has become more necessary today than ever before.
But unlike the Russians, there are no great battles and very few untimely deaths. Stoner is no ostensible hero. He does not partake in the Great War. He does not crusade for his love or rage for justice. He is a scholar. He writes a meddling book of lit theory, lectures piously, marvels at his daughter, stands for the sanctity of literature. He is passive and, quite possibly, dull. At least from the outside. In other words, he is the exact opposite of what much of modern literature asks of its protagonists. Today, no story is sufficiently alive without a quirky, irksome narrator, an acerbic and stifled genius, an anti-hero.
This is the wonder of Stoner. Williams tapped into the tranquil vein of humanity like few before and few since. Stoner is a love letter to literature, to the inner life, to shucking the superficial standards of society and the unwillingness to define yourself by its laws. Not long after arriving at the University of Missouri, Stoner is shaken awake by a passage from Shakespeare. The moment, like the rest of the book, feels unremarkable to an extent—save for the always supple honey of Williams’ prose. Stoner, for the first time, feels something borne from the depths of language. A spark is lit inside of him that will never go out.
This moment, for so many writers I know, is a familiar one. Maybe not so obvious or exact, but the effect undeniable. We remember when language first moved us, that time when we gave ourselves to literature. It’s a rusted sentiment, easily and frequently mocked in our irony-hungry culture. But Williams treats it with an unparalleled earnestness: after hearing Sonnet 73 read aloud, Stoner sees that the evening sun has made it look as though his fellow students have a glow inside themselves: “Light slanted from the windows and settled upon the faces of his fellow students, so that the illumination seemed to come from within them and go out against a dimness.” The world has come to life around him, the world that has been there all along but that he saw only darkly, as through a glass. Something like scales drop from his eyes.
From that day forward Stoner fails to live up to the expectations of the world. He has found the compass of his heart and he follows it diligently, unsparingly, his resolve and tepidness often mistaken by characters and readers alike as emptiness. But Stoner is quite likely more alive, more in touch with himself, than many of us, and Stoner, the novel, is a book that argues for the value of the inner life that literature unequivocally endows us with. It is a book that has only grown more prescient, more important in the five decades since its release, as our measurement for value and self worth has been reassembled as a form of social media currency.
On his deathbed — and there is no question that he will die: from the opening paragraph we are told that the fated day will come, but we are still asked to turn the page, to experience his life — Stoner writhes, alone with his books, questioning the merits of his life endlessly, asking, “What did you expect?” over and over. And what do we expect today? With the world offering us everything, instantly, always. What can we have? What can we want? How do we cope? We are inundated by instantness, pressed from all sides to achieve and conform, to live up to… something, to everyone else. Stoner refused. He is not a character who ever intended to change the world, but rather, he fought to live. The key to his redemption, he knew, was within. And today, what more could we learn? In his last moments Stoner, his consciousness a wreck of hallucination, frets that he has let it, this thing, his life, pass unappreciated and ignored, but Williams refused: Stoner’s life was only his to judge. Finally, “He dimly recalled that he had been thinking of failure—as if it mattered. It seemed to him now that such thoughts were mean, unworthy of what his life had been.”