Stoner: Revisited

The love of literature, of language, of the mystery of the mind and heart showing themselves in the minute, strange, and unexpected combinations of letters and words, in the blackest and coldest print -- the love which he had hidden as if it were illicit and dangerous, he began to display, tentatively at first, and then boldly, and then proudly." John Williams

Until a few years ago I had never heard of the novel Stoner or its author, John Williams. My introduction to the novel occurred while reading a blog where it was given the kind of praise normally reserved for a masterpiece. It was also said to be a tragic tale of a college professor of literature.

Within minutes I left to buy a copy of the novel and not long after had one of the highpoints of my reading days. Early last year I wrote a short review of it and began to read whatever else I could find about the book and its author. Every now and then I chance upon another person’s discovery of the novel and how they were as overwhelmed by it as everyone else is.

I am led to wonder why we don’t hear more about Stoner? I don’t think I’ve ever met a person who has read it or seen more than a handful of commentators write about. C. P. Snow’s explanation is that “…we live in a peculiarly silly age and it doesn’t fit the triviality of the day.” Earlier he said, “Very few novels in English, or literary productions of any kind, have come anywhere near its level for human wisdom or as a work of art.”

I read about Snow’s appraisal in a recent essay, A Sadness Unto the Bone: John William’s Stoner, by Mel Livatino in the Summer 2010 issue of the Sewanee Review. Livatino feels much the same way as Snow. He has read the novel four times and says that knowing the plot and being so familiar with its pages has not diminished their power. Isn’t that what is said about a classic work of literature? Still he confesses he isn’t sure if he “can endure Stoner’s sorrow again.”

Livatino considers the novel “remarkable” in four ways.

1. Unlike most contemporary novels, Stoner unfolds the life story of an individual from birth to death.

2. “The narrative “runs counter to modernism’s dictum to show, not tell.”

3. The novel reads like a work of poetry, it is deeply moving and “pitch perfect.”

4. He also believes few writers today express the depth of understanding and sympathy of the characters they write about as Williams does in Stoner.

There is something else about Stoner that led me to feel similarly moved. It has nothing to do with its structure or how it was written or the fact that Stoner’s life in the university bore a certain similarity to my own. Rather it was the way in which literature transformed his life, gave him a new life and identity, one that as Livatino notes changed his life from “dumbness to consciousness.”

“His teaching excels not because he is brilliant of creative, or flashing—none of which he is, as the novel shows—but because he is witness to such a consciousness and is dedicated to the literature that has brought it into being and because he demands much of his students.”