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William Stoner is born at the end of the nineteenth century into a dirt poor Missouri farming family Sent to the state university to study agronomy he instead falls in love with English literature and embraces a scholar’s life so different from the hardscrabble existence he has known And yet as the years pass Stoner encounters a succession of disappointments marriage into a “proper” family estranges him from his parents his career is stymied his wife and daughter turn coldly away from him a transforming experience of new love ends under threat of scandal Driven ever deeper within himself Stoner rediscovers the stoic silence of his forebears and confronts an essential solitudeJohn Williams’s luminous and deeply moving novel is a work of quiet perfection William Stoner emerges from it not only as an archetypal American but as an unlikely existential hero standing like a figure in a painting by Edward Hopper in stark relief against an unforgiving world


10 thoughts on “Stoner

  1. says:

    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 William Stoner grew up on a farm a hardscrabble farm too small to provide than just subsistence living They were an undersized family for that time period just his father and mother and himself It took all of them to keep up with the backbreaking work of a farm in the early 20th century His father in his own way a visionary man could see that farming was on the cusp of great changes He sent Stoner to the University of Missouri to find out what the future was going to be for agriculture Stoner wasn't an inspired student He still had to work on a relative's farm to pay for his tuition and found the work he did the less help he got from his relatives He still had to go back to the family farm and help his father whenever he had spare time He was almost too busy to worry too much about schoolThe first pivotal moment for Stoner is when he is sitting in an English class taught by his future mentor The professor puts him on the spot asking him to explain a Shakespeare Sonnet Stoner was dumbfounded not only with embarrassment but by the language of the English bard He switched majors from the department of agriculture to the department of English literature I grew up on a farm about 80 years after Stoner as anticipated by Stoner's father production agriculture took great leaps forward replacing a lot of backbreaking labor with machines Farmers were able to increase their land holdings as tractors and thrashers allowed them to maximize daylight hours I stacked a lot of hay feed cattle in subzero weather pulled calves you've never been properly slimed until you've spent time up to your elbow in a cow's uterus fixed fence rode tractors listening to Royals baseball games to keep from dozing off drove trucks full of grain and every minute I wasn't doing something for the farm or playing sports I was reading books My parents don't know how it happened It must have been an aberrant gene Nobody I knew read books except for the good book which most of the time I couldn't tell they'd grasped many of the concepts of that book either The 1980s farm crises hit just as I was coming of age Land values had jumped up and many farmers had expanded their operations Then land values plummeted and bankers started realizing that the loans they had made to these farmers were no longer secured with enough equity They started calling their customer's notes due Thousands of farmers were forced to sell out My Dad survived by the skin of his teeth He decided there was no future in farming and told me I was going to college My younger brother was a better fit for farming anyway My Dad knew that I wasn't really cut out to be a farmer my nose in a book all the time might have been the tip off A crises for many created an opportunity for me Like Stoner I majored in English Literature Stoner becomes a teacher He decides not to go to war with his friends and suffers from the stigma of swimming against the tide This is a theme for Stoner going his own way ignoring the odd looks and the snide remarks He meets a demure young woman named Edith and pursues her doggedly believing that his kindness would be recognized and appreciated by someone so fragile The description of the consummation of the marriage is one of the grimmest most agonizing that I have ever read Edith was in bed with the covers pulled to her chin her face turned upward her eyes closed a thin frown creasing her forehead Silently as if she were asleep Stoner undressed and got into bed beside her For several moments he lay with his desire which had become an impersonal thing belonging to himself alone He spoke to Edith as if to find a haven for what he felt she did not answer he put his hand upon her and felt beneath the thin cloth of her nightgown the flesh he had longed for He moved his hand upon her she did not stir her frown deepened Again he spoke saying her name to silence then he moved his body upon her gentle in his clumsiness When he touched the softness of her thighs she turned her head sharply away and lifted her arm to cover her eyes She made no soundFor a man so sensual and in need of romantic love he unfortunately married the wrong woman He hoped for a partner but found himself roped to a woman that embraced invalidism and waged nasty little wars against him that by his nature made him incapable of defending himself He finds solace in books and spends and of his time at the University in Jesse Hall reading Jesse Hall at the University of MissouriStoner makes enemies of some of his coworkers He is so unsuited for office politics that it proves to be a detriment to him Though I was so proud of him towards the end of the book when he cleverly outflanks a department chair intent on driving him from the profession He meets a woman a very special woman as if molded by the gods to be the perfect mate for him Her name is Katherine Driscoll and the gymnastics involved with the misinterpretations missteps and miscues of their burgeoning relationship left me emotionally drained There are movies sometimes or television shows where the audience is on the edge of their seat waiting for the moment when the characters finally realize they are meant to be together and kiss for the first time Well it wasn't a kiss that became that epic moment for William and Katherine He found himself trembling as awkwardly as a boy he went around the coffee table and sat beside her Tentatively clumsily their hands went out to each other they clasped each other in an awkward strained embrace and for a long time they sat together without moving as if any movement might let escape from them the strange and terrible thing that they held between them in a single graspStoner's enemies leap at an opportunity to destroy him Even the liberal community of a university has it's limits Stoner for the first time in his life is becoming the person he always wanted to be but the heady days of joy are under assault and he is trapped by his own sense of honor He suffers for love just as he is starting to understand it In this forty third year William Stoner learned what others much younger had learned before him that the person one loves at first is not the person one loves at last and that love is not an end but a process through which one person attempts to know anotherThis is such a deceptively simple novel The sparse powerful prose give this book so much depth Stoner gets under your skin He is so stoic in the face of continued and unremitting harassment from the people around him that I found myself sharing the pain with him The author John Williams grew up on a small farm in Texas and had a similar escape to the University as Stoner and I He ended up developing the writing program for the University of Denver In the introduction by John McGahern he relates something that Mr Williams said that resonates with me as well Williams complains about the changes in the teaching of literature and the attitude to the text as if a novel or poem is something to be studied and understood rather than experienced John WilliamsI'm a reader that likes to be told a story I don't want to break books down to their mathematical or scientific structures I want the mysticism the emotion of a journey that expands my understanding of humanity William Stoner is as real to me as the mailman that delivers my mail or the publisher that signs my checks If I ever run into him I will shake his large farm hardened hand and ask him if he has a little bit of time to talk to me about a certain sonnet written by a man by the name of Shakespeare