Sunday Morning! “Stoner” by John Williams
I remember something I was told when I was in graduate school, or more specifically that my ex-wife was told. I struggled in grad school; not with the work, which I loved; or with teaching, which was an expression of that love. But I had a tendency to get lost in the archives and books and miss departmental meetings, talks, parties, date nights, and anything that blocked the way to the world I had created from books and art and esoterica. In fact, I had the singular experience of being nearly pulled from instructing a course due to complaints that I “cared too much” about teaching. And so, an academic friend of my wife said to her:
There are people who go into academia because they love being in that world of a department and feel they belong there; and then there are people just love learning and they often hate things like departmental meetings.
I’m a little skeptical that anyone loves department meetings, but this week’s book, Stoner, is a lovely portrait of a lifelong scholar. There is a passage that takes my breath away early in the novel. William Stoner is the son of hardscrabble small farmers; his mother “regarded her life as if it were a long moment she had to endure.” They have sent him to the University of Missouri to study agricultural science, but something happens when he takes the required survey of English literature: it unsettles him. He has to work harder than any of the other student and his professor is aloof and disdainful, yet he chases the subject as if it is something that might get away from him and whose passing from his life would be insufferable.
And so, in his final year, the aloof professor calls Stoner into a meeting and suggests he might consider entering the Master’s program and then begin teaching while he completes the doctorate. Stoner is dumbfounded and a bit bewildered and so the professor asks:
“But don’t you know, Mr. Stoner?… Don’t you understand about yourself yet? You’re going to be a teacher.”
How does he know, Stoner stammers. The professor replies: “It’s love… You are in love. It’s as simple as that.” And this simple truth determines the course of William Stoner’s life.
And it is as simple as that. You know, in many ways, “academic” has been made into a garbage profession: highly educated people are exploited and then expelled in the main; most PhD.s won’t teach after grad school, and most of them that do will be schlepping from one temp position to another for years on end, asked to bring their passion to serve dispassionate, bottom line obsessed institutions. And yet, they come. Because they are in love and that requires you to shuffle around your life and priorities around the thing you love. If academia is often an abusive partner, well, that’s not the object of their love as much as an encumbrance: it is something that blocks the path.
Stoner is one of those novels that took its time to find its way in the world. Released in 1965 to some recognition and little fanfare- not unlike its title character, one might note- the novel survived because all of its admirers were enthusiastic ones. As the famous line about the Velvet Underground holds, they didn’t sell many records, but everyone who bought one went out and started a band. As a result, Stoner is now a “rediscovered” masterpiece, called by some “the perfect novel.” This weekly(ish) column has long been fascinated with the reception of works of art: how it is that some mediocre works are hailed as masterpieces only to sink into obscurity, while others languish for years, or are rejected and reassessed when their time comes. And I do think one can also damn by strong praise; calling a novel “perfect” is a challenge to readers to find something wrong with that novel.
It is a great novel and a sad one. Stoner is never a “success” in the eyes of the world: he marries badly to a woman who seemingly hates him; he finds his true love late in life, and it is thwarted by those people around him; he makes a powerful enemy who tries to ruin his career, and succeeds in limiting it; and in the end, he is little remembered by his students and colleagues- something the book tells us on the first page. Driven away from the world and into himself, he discovers a stoic solitude that sustains him.
And yet, there is something deeply heroic in his sense of a calling and his love for that calling. The novel does a superb job of describing what it is to love a subject or a person in passages such as this one:
In his extreme youth, Stoner had thought of love as an absolute state of being, to which if one were lucky, one might find access; in his maturity he had decided it was the heaven of a false religion, toward which one ought to gaze with an amused disbelief. a gently familiar contempt, and an embarrassed nostalgia. Now in his middle age he began to know that it was neither a state of grace nor an illusion; he saw it as a human act of becoming, a condition that was invented and modified moment by moment and day by day, by the will and the intelligence and the heart.
The novel finally does what great works do: it immerses us fully in the inner life of an individual without romanticizing him, but in doing so, it brings out his nobility. It is an absolutely beautiful work of art about the values that are the most important.
So, what are YOU reading, pondering, playing, creating, or learning about this week?