By Benjamin J.N. Harrison
Every once in a while, the reader is taken to a world of such splendor, such beauty, that their experience must be discussed – only to find language elusive. At least, that is precisely what John Williams’ Stoner did to me.
Written in 1965, upon first publication, Stoner sold fewer than two thousand copies and went out of print a year later; it was not until three decades later in 1998 when it was reissued by The University of Arkansas Press and later in 2003 in paperback by Vintage . Of the few reviews it received, its praise was incredibly glowing; however, Stoner still remains virtually unknown to the average reader, and wrongfully so. When one thinks of the great American novel, one’s mind most probably floats to books such as Moby Dick, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Scarlet Letter, and The Catcher in the Rye – never have I come across a reader who cites Stoner as the great American novel, which is an ignorance proving the failure of the American literary establishment. Not only is Stoner a source of tremendous pleasure, it is a source of existential sustenance.
William Stoner, the titular character and protagonist of Stoner, is born in late-19th century Missouri to a dirt-poor farming family. Throughout adolescence, farming is all he understands and all he ever expects to do; however, the state soon opens a university, where he is sent to by his father to study agronomy. There, William is successful in his courses – although he sees no purpose of them beyond their practicality, he is perfectly content. It is not until he takes a compulsory English course when he truly falls in love; allured and enchanted by the mysteries of literature, Stoner drops all of his courses pertaining to agriculture and instead switches to courses only in the humanities department, namely those in history and literature. Without his parents’ knowledge, he embraces a scholarly life during his years at school, only returning home in the summers to help with the farm. When he graduates, he tells his parents that he will not be returning to the farm, but instead completing his MA while teaching several courses. And while he may never be the most liked teacher, he enjoys his work and continues to pursue it until his mandatory retirement.
Despite his fervor for literature, Stoner still encounters his sorrows: a marriage, troubled from the start, which ends with his wife and daughter turning coldly away from him; a transcendental experience of infidelity resulting in the threat of scandal; his closest friends leaving him at school to enlist during WWI; trivial workplace politics. Stoner soon realizes that throughout his life, he has only had one truly loyal companion: literature.
Stoner is a novel of such rare authenticity and elegance that merely describing its greatness would seem futile. Its narrative style is warm and genuine, but never descends into kitsch sentimentality, a sin far too many books have committed. Furthermore, the book never claims to be anything more than the story of a completely ordinary life, and perhaps that is what makes it so extraordinary. By avoiding pretention and pseudo-intellectual philosophizing, William Stoner comes across as a character like anyone else in the world: utterly and beautifully normal. The book, then, demonstrates how even in the simplest and most mundane of lives, there lay complexities and stories both profound and indescribably gorgeous.
My experience with Stoner is of a somewhat ineffable nature; how the author managed to keep me so deeply enchanted throughout is something beyond my comprehension. By the end of the book, I had been touched in a way akin to a religious awakening; it was as if my life had only begun upon finishing the last page. Stoner was indubitably an event in my life. Novels such as these make living seem meaningful. Novels such as these transcend greatness and enter the realm of perfection.
1. Rabalais, Kevin (5 April 2014). “Literary Rebirth”. The Sydney Morning Herald.
Various insightful reviews about books and movies.