My rating: 5/5 stars
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 solitude.
John 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.
Stoner must be the most famous “under appreciated” book around. It seems that everywhere I look, a blogger or a literary critic is entreating us to give this forgotten classic a chance. It was reprinted by the highly regarded NYRB Classics in 2006, and just a few months ago was endorsed by Ian MacEwan. But, it’s not on any of those top 100 or 1001 lists, and its Wikipedia page is just a tragedy. And it did, predictably, make an appearance on BookRiot’s Most Underrated Books list.
Stoner was my Classics Club Spin pick, and it was from my “dreading it” list. I was intimidated, as the bloggers talking it up were all really smart and I was afraid I would be in over my head; and I was managing expectations, because the last time I got all excited because of a bookish-internet frenzy I was let down.
Oh, and I could tell from the blurb that this was going to be one of those “poor little privileged white dude is bored, cheats on his wife but feels really bad and conflicted about it, wah wah, epiphany of some sort, the end” stories. So there was that. And it absolutely is one of those stories. But, once I got over myself and started reading, I quickly realized that, like most people’s real lives, you can present William Stoner’s life as a happy story or a sad story, depending how you look at it:
- The “Quit Whining, Privileged White Dude” version: Stoner doesn’t have to fight in either world war. He loves literature, and is able to study it then teach it. He attains tenure, and so isn’t really at risk of losing his livelihood during the depression. He marries the first girl he ever asks out. They have a daughter without having to try too hard (more on THAT later.) He has a torrid mid-life love affair, but his marriage survives. He lives a quiet life and dies surrounded by his family.
- The “I Feel Really Bad Now” version: Stoner grows up in abject poverty. He alienates his parents when he goes to University, and alienates his friends when he chooses not to enlist in WWI. He discovers a love of literature but his career is mired in petty politics and he never achieves any real recognition. He marries a deeply damaged woman who seems wholly incapable of love. He enjoys a close relationship with his daughter until his wife cruelly turns her against him. He finally finds a woman he can love and is forced to give her up. His never reconciles with his wife, and his daughter descends into alcoholism. He dies a protracted, painful death, having never resolved any of these issues. Continue reading