- Revaluation: A Sadness Unto the BoneJohn Williams’s Stoner
I read John Williams’s novel Stoner (1965) thirty-three years after it was published, having come to it in a singular way—through the tears of a rigorous literary critic. In 1998 I looked up the man under whom I had studied romantic poetry a quarter-century earlier. I remembered him as an incisive and demanding literary critic. The second time we met over dinner he asked if I had read Williams’s novel Stoner. I hadn’t, so he began laying out the story.
The protagonist, William Stoner, has grown up at the turn of the twentieth century on a hardscrabble Missouri farm. Only by the chance suggestion of a county agent does he find himself in a pinched existence majoring in agricultural science at the university. In his sophomore year, he is required to take a semester survey of English literature. One day, while discussing Shakespeare’s sonnet 73, “That Time of Year Thou Mayest in Me Behold,” the professor asks the class what the sonnet means. Professor Sloan calls on several students, but gets no answer. Finally, he calls on Stoner. “Mr. Shakespeare speaks to you across three hundred years, Mr. Stoner. Do you hear him?” “It means . . .” Stoner says, but he cannot finish. He tries again and then falls into silence. At this point my former professor’s eyes welled up with tears, and he could say nothing more. When he spoke again, this man, whom I had known as a rigorous critic, could only bring himself to say, “I hope you’ll read this novel.”
In nearly fifty years of reading fiction, I have never encountered a more powerful novel—and not a syllable of it sentimental. Williams performs this feat by attending carefully to the soul of William Stoner and the tragic circumstances of his life.
That day in Sloan’s classroom is pivotal. As a boy and young man Stoner had never before considered what something meant, including his own life. He had taken the land, his lessons, his chores, even his life, merely as blunt facts of existence, and stood dumb before them. The bewilderment he feels that day in the classroom leads him to switch his major to English. And so Stoner breaks into consciousness: “He had no friends, and for the first time in his life he became aware of loneliness. Sometimes, in his attic room at night, he would look up from a book he was reading and gaze in the dark corners of his room, where the lamplight flickered against the shadows. If [End Page 417] he stared long and intently, the darkness gathered into a light, which took the insubstantial shape of what he had been reading. And he would feel that he was out of time, as he had felt that day in class when Archer Sloan had spoken to him.”
One day near the end of his undergraduate studies, Sloan stops Stoner in the hall to ask him about his plans. Stoner has no plans—only his decision not to go back to the farm. “But don’t you know, Mr. Stoner?” Sloan asks. “Don’t you understand about yourself yet? You’re going to be a teacher.” “It’s love, Mr. Stoner. . . .You are in love. It’s as simple as that.”
Only on the day of his graduation does Stoner tell his parents of the shift in his major and his decision to go on with his studies in English. They had counted on his returning to the farm and are struck to the core of their being by his decision. The father stoically says, “Your ma and me can manage”; but when Stoner looks at his mother, he sees “her face twisted as if in pain, and her closed fists were pressed against her cheeks. With wonder Stoner realized that she was crying deeply and silently, with the shame and awkwardness of one who seldom weeps. He watched her for a moment more; then he got heavily to his feet and walked out of the parlor. He found his way up the narrow stairs that led to his...