This is a book from 1925! I learned about it in this interesting essay in the NYTimes book review 17 June 07:
June 17, 2007
The Inner Lives of Men
By MORRIS DICKSTEIN
Since academic novels usually focus on the nasty rivalries and inflated egos of their characters, they have served as vehicles for broad satire, not serious themes. One great exception is Willa Cather’s 1925 novel, “The Professor’s House.” Cather used the traditional calling of a scholar and the atrophy of his marriage to convey her own growing alienation from the modern world. Her novel has only one successor, another book that invokes the life of learning as a rebuke to the wasteful wars and cheap compromises of the wider world. John Williams’s “Stoner” is something rarer than a great novel — it is a perfect novel, so well told and beautifully written, so deeply moving, that it takes your breath away. Ignored on publication in 1965, a clamorous year, it has been kept alive by enthusiasts who go into print every decade to rediscover it, including Irving Howe in The New Republic in 1966, C. P. Snow in The Financial Times in 1973, Dan Wakefield in Ploughshares in 1981 and Steve Almond in Tin House in 2003. They invariably wonder why no one has heard of the book. “Why isn’t this book famous?” Snow kept asking. Now, along with Williams’s earlier novel, “Butcher’s Crossing” (1960), “Stoner” is available in a handsome reprint by New York Review Books. Both books deserve to be widely read, but their dark, comfortless vision raises the question of whether this can be expected.
Williams, not to be confused with the prolific African-American novelist John A. Williams (the author of “The Man Who Cried I Am”), was born in East Texas in 1922 and fell in love with literature in high school. His grandparents had been farmers, and his stepfather worked as a janitor in the local post office. Williams worked at odd jobs after flunking out of junior college, then served in India and Burma in the Army Air Corps during World War II, where he wrote an apprentice novel in his spare time. The G.I. Bill enabled him to go to college in Denver and take a Ph.D. at the University of Missouri, where “Stoner” is set a generation earlier. A scholar and a poet as well as a novelist, Williams went on to found the writing program at the University of Denver, where he taught for more than three decades. He retired in 1985 and died in 1994.
Though strikingly different in subject, Williams’s novels share a simple, resonant, sculptured style, eloquent in its restraint. He enjoyed a blip of fame when “Augustus,” a brilliant epistolary novel about Octavius Caesar and ancient Rome, shared the National Book Award in 1973. It makes delicious reading for anyone who loved HBO’s recent series “Rome,” but it demands some effort to relate the book to the frontier world of “Butcher’s Crossing” or the academic setting of “Stoner.” Yet all three novels show a similar narrative arc: a young man’s initiation, vicious male rivalries, subtler tensions between men and women, fathers and daughters, and finally a bleak sense of disappointment, even futility.
In “Butcher’s Crossing” a young man, inspired by Emerson to strike out on his own, drops out of Harvard and uses a small legacy to bankroll the last buffalo hunt in the West. But the expedition, to a pristine valley in the Colorado Rockies, turns into an orgy of pointless slaughter, driven by the obsessions of an Ahab-like leader whose men are stranded in the mountains through a fierce and desperate winter. Though given up for dead, they return in the spring to the aptly named Kansas town of Butcher’s Crossing — think “Deadwood” — to discover that fashions have changed; their dearly purchased buffalo hides are worthless. One of their party died along the way, another has lost his mind. The young man’s only profit is experience, but on his return he’s ready for his first love affair, the other face of his entry into manhood. For everyone else, including the reader, the failed venture exposes the hollow beauty, the vast loneliness of the West and the blood-soaked brutality with which our people subdued it. Harsh and relentless yet muted in tone, “Butcher’s Crossing” paved the way for Cormac McCarthy. It was perhaps the first and best revisionist western.
“Stoner” is a western in a more poignant sense. Its hero, the son of hard-working, dirt-poor farmers, inherits their taciturn stoicism, born of sheer adversity — their hardened accommodation to the whims of fate. William Stoner enters the state university in 1910 to study agriculture, but his life changes irrevocably when he comes upon literature in a sophomore survey course. His future mentor humiliates him by asking him to explain Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73, a poem about love and loss that foreshadows Stoner’s own future. Shakespeare’s aging speaker compares himself to “bare ruin’d choirs where late the sweet birds sang,” and adds: “In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire, / That on the ashes of his youth doth lie.” Following Stoner through two world wars, the novel captures both the fire of his inarticulate passion and the glowing embers it leaves behind.
Only two passions matter in Stoner’s life, love and learning, and in a sense he fails at both. His wife, his first love, turns cold and repellent almost from the moment he meets her. Their honeymoon, in which she submits to him with distaste, must be one of the grimmest ever recorded in fiction. Soon we learn, with a clang of inevitability, that “within a month he knew that his marriage was a failure; within a year he stopped hoping that it would improve. He learned silence and did not insist upon his love.” Stoner’s deeply ingrained reticence is a keystone of the novel. This is the story of an ordinary man, seemingly thwarted at every turn, but also of the knotty integrity he preserves, the deep inner life behind the impassive facade.
The man’s professional career could also be seen as a failure, though it gives him quiet satisfaction. He is neither a great teacher nor a noted scholar but applies himself to both with an intensity born of love. In literature he senses a depth of human understanding beyond his power to express, “an epiphany of knowing something through words that could not be put in words.” Williams writes about this with an almost Roman gravity. “It was a knowledge of which he could not speak, but one which changed him, once he had it, so that no one could mistake its presence.” This separates him painfully from his parents, his former life. A gifted but bitter colleague, touched by the same knowledge, turns against him in one of those toxic departmental feuds that bedevils the rest of his career. The one book Stoner produces is soon forgotten. His distrust of glib brilliance, his concern with ancient theories of grammar and rhetoric, make him look pedantic. Stoner’s cast of mind is monastic, unworldly. He is reduced to teaching menial courses to students who only dimly sense the warmth and conviction he brings to them.
The same quiet depth of feeling redeems his love life. Caught in an empty shell of a marriage, though too stoical to end it, he bonds deeply with his young daughter. But his resentful wife evicts him from his daughter’s life, as she evicts them both from the book-lined study where they often take refuge. Stoner responds with a helpless sense of resignation. But in his 40s he begins an affair with a talented scholar half his age, which leads to a precious interlude of unlooked-for happiness. Like his discovery of literature, this intimacy becomes an awakening to the possibilities of life. Their deep attraction, luminously described, combines love and learning as forms of passionate knowing — the true North Star of Williams’s fiction. “Day by day, the layers of reserve that protected them dropped away. ... They made love, and talked, and made love again, like children who did not think of tiring at their play.” Though their affair is broken up by Stoner’s academic nemesis, who threatens scandal, it offers a hint of paradise that hovers dreamily over the rest of the novel.
Stoner’s physical decline is premature but inexorable, his death almost anonymous. Yet few stories this sad could be so secretly triumphant, or so exhilarating. Williams brings to Stoner’s fate a quality of attention, a rare empathy, that shows us why this unassuming life was worth living.
Morris Dickstein’s most recent book is “A Mirror in the Roadway: Literature and the Real World.” He teaches English at the CUNY Graduate Center and is president of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics.