Squirming, reading Stoner

John WilliamsIt snowed enough to cancel school today. In lieu of teaching, I spent the day reading Stoner, a novel about a lifer teacher, from cover to cover. John Williams’s 1965 book is scary close.

So close that I think I learned something about myself. I’ve often wondered why I had came so close to pursuing English through grad school before deciding instead to become a lawyer. Certainly, close to half of my college credit hours were in English. Looking back on it, though, I had been fairly inarticulate in class discussions, and sometimes I had loved books that I later realized I had hardly understood.

So why have I been rereading my college books for the past few years? Why have I thought I might have pursued graduate studies in English?

“But don’t you know, Mr. Stoner?” Sloane asked. “Don’t you understand about yourself yet? You’re going to be a teacher. . . .”

“How can you tell? How can you be sure?”

“It’s love, Mr. Stoner,” Sloane said cheerfully. “You are in love. It’s as simple as that.” (Page 20)

I didn’t have a Professor Sloane who understood that my inarticulateness was a matter of love, not did I have a Bill Knight, at least back then, who understood that my never wanting to leave college may have had some bearing on my eventual profession. (Bill also introduced me to this wonderful novel, quoting one of the above lines.) No one had described to me the possibility of having, as the narrator puts it, “an epiphany of knowing something through words that could not be put in words” (page 98).

(I can’t really blame my college’s English department. I did have one of my professors pick me out of his giant English lit survey to take to lunch one day freshman year. I remember his pleasant patter at the University Cafeteria, but I never remembered anything he said. Like Stoner with his professor and, later, Stoner’s students with theirs, I must have been staring at my hands for most of the meal.)

But the novel’s scary closeness isn’t just from Stoner’s profession. Stoner has my view of learning, my view of the ideal college – indeed, my view of the ideal:

“Stoner, here, I imagine, sees [the university] as a great repository, like a library or a whorehouse, where men come of their free will and select that which will complete them, where all work together like little bees in a common hive. The True, the Good, the Beautiful. They’re just around the corner, in the next corridor; they’re in the next book, the one you haven’t read, or in the next stack, the one you haven’t got to. But you’ll get to it someday. And when you do— when you do—” (page 29)

Stoner’s buddy Dave Masters then settles in on William Stoner himself:

“ . . . you are the dreamer, the madman in a madder world, our own midwestern Don Quixote without his Sancho, gamboling under the blue sky. . . . You think there’s something here, something to find. Well, in the world you’d learn soon enough. You, too, are cut out for failure; not that you’d fight the world. You’d let it chew you up and spit you out, and you’d lie there wondering what was wrong. Because you’d always expect the world to be something it wasn’t, something it had no wish to be. The weevil in the cotton, the worm in the beanstalk, the borer in the corn. You couldn’t face them, and you couldn’t fight them; because you’re too weak, and you’re too strong” (page 31).

Is it necessary that I have my faults thrown in my face like this? My lack of ambition, followed by my frustration over my lack of influence in an organization? My willingness to concede in battles I think are rooted in people’s insecurities, but my stubborn refusal to back down when one of my core principles is threatened? My desire (witness my political science writings) to change the world?

Stoner spends the novel, which serves as Stoner’s cradle-to-grave biography, reconciling his quixotic tendencies with Masters’s message: it doesn’t matter in the long run. The reconciliation is sad and satisfying. The novel also has something to do with hard work, as Williams is quoted as saying in the current edition’s introduction. Whether he’s 24, 34, 44, 54, or 64, Stoner always seems to be grading papers and preparing lectures.

The reconciliation and hard work are not enough for me to live by, however. Even as a confirmed idealist, I wouldn’t mention this except that Williams gets more strident about his take on life the older Stoner gets. Sometimes, for instance, Stoner, Stoner’s lover, and the third-person narrator all hammer home the same viewpoints in much the same way. In fact, Stoner’s lover always sounds like Stoner. The two of them spend much of their relationship repeating each other’s reactions and realizations, thereby affirming each other’s feelings they seem to experience and life lessons they seem to learn at the same moments.

Though, except for the stridency of the themes’ treatment in the second half of the novel, the book’s right real. It feels like a cross between Thomas Wolfe’s earnest and autobiographical Look Homeward, Angel and James Salter’s realistic and conjugal Light Years. All three novels take in great swaths of the life of a misfit idealist (well, Light Years’s Viri Berland is at least an innocent of sorts), more content to show the outcome of certain personalities over time than to hew to a tight narrative. Not that Williams spares a single word. In that regard, he’s a lot more like Salter and Raymond Chandler than like Thomas Wolfe. And as far as turning a phrase just enough to improve on the English language, well, think of Salter again.

And think of Cervantes. Both Stoner and Don Quixote end with long death scenes in which the books’ namesakes discover who they really are beneath their strident idealism. Is this also really necessary?

Photo of John Williams.


  1. Peter,
    Have you ever read Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire? Not fiction, but yesterday I picked up one of my own (recent) college books, and started reading. As I was reading I thought of you, which is what led me here this morning, and then ended up reading this. Speaking of “inarticulateness” – I’m not sure I can articulate why your reflections here or even you as a person resonate with what I’ve been reading again in Freire. But a quote I read this morning is part of what reminds me of you and your love of the word and even your “fault” mention of your “desire to change the world”:

    As we attempt to analyze dialogue as a human phenomenon, we discover something which is the essence of dialogue itself: the word. But the word is more than just an instrument which makes dialogue possible; accordingly, we must seek its constitutive elements. Within the word we find two dimensions, reflection and action, in such radical interaction that if one is sacrificed – even in part – the other immediately suffers. There is no true word that is not at the same time a praxis. Thus to speak a true word is to transform the world.

    1. “I’m not sure I can articulate why your reflections here or even you as a person resonate with what I’ve been reading again in Freire.”

      I’m in tears every time I read this, Margaret. I can’t articulate it, either, but something has been going on inside of me that your entire comment touches deeply.

      Just the most surface of the connections: when I discovered your comment, I was about to write a post about how two educational theorists’ work aimed at protecting children from the kind of oppression that Freire seems to have written about. Before even reading your comment, I clicked through to see your blog. I read your post about combatting “the resistance that most writers and creative people feel towards doing their most important creative work” — words I also needed to read.

      I must turn away from apologizing for what David Kiersey describes of my personality type: ” . . . now a crusader, now a monastic” (Please Understand Me, II, at 239). Such an apparent dualism builds its nest in the word, as Freire suggests. (I haven’t read Freire, but I put his book on my wish list, pending February’s funding. :).

      Thank you so much, Margaret.

      1. You’re welcome, Peter. Glad I followed that intuitive nudge. When you get Freire, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Definitely a slow read with every sentence packed with statements that demand reflection and meditation. We took a class period or two to discuss it in a grad school seminar, but I felt I could have spent an entire semester talking about nothing but Freire.

        He was an interesting guy. From middle class family in Brazil, but became very poor as a child during the Depression. He ended up 3 or 4 grades behind, which he attributed to the effects of hunger. He later attended university and studied law, philosophy and the psychology of language. You can see these influences – especially philosophy and psychology in his writing. He never practiced law, but immediately began teaching at secondary school level. He later had opportunity to put his theories into practice teaching literacy on a large scale with tremendous success. My anthropology of education professor described his work as an intensely practical, which is interesting given the depth of his writings. I guess he really put into practice the idea of the word being both reflection and action. Reflection is clearly seen in his writings, and action is seen in practical application he made of the theories he wrote about.

        Thanks for the comment on my blog. It encourages me to follow through on what I said I’d do which is to post shorter posts more frequently. If you noticed the date, I haven’t posted in a while.


    2. Interesting. I do like theorists who work it out in the classroom. (One of my favorite literary critics, Cleanth Brooks, worked out some of what we know as New Criticism in his classroom.)

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