I’m sure most of us when visiting a cemetery have stopped to gaze at the headstones of those buried there to wonder about the lives behind those names. Who were those people? Were they happy? Did they lead meaningful lives? But what seems so especially tragic is to see gravestones so old that the names and dates have almost been completely effaced as a result of weather and time. Does anyone alive today even know anything about those buried in those semi-anonymous plots? And though we may wish to deny it, no doubt this is the fate most of us, eventually, will also share. And so I wonder if this notion of lost and forgotten lives was the inspiration behind John Williams’ excellent novel Stoner.
Originally published in 1965, and apparently receiving something of a comeback recently, the novel is the story of William Stoner, a life-long assistant professor at the University of Missouri. Right from the opening passages, we’re told that after his death Stoner was barely remembered by his students, “held in no particular esteem” by his colleagues, and was rarely spoken of now. Written in plain, lapidary prose, the novel is a straightforward, chronological examination of a man’s life. Beginning with his early life on a farm, Stoner enters the University of Missouri to study agriculture, but switches to English after taking a survey literature course. He eventually gets his PhD and is hired on as an assistant instructor at the same university. When World War I breaks out, he avoids conscription, falls in love and marries a woman who only turns out to be his enemy, and has a daughter whose own life also turns out to be a tragedy. During his 40-year career, he faces numerous battles that prevent him from rising in stature, renown, and professional fulfillment. He’s an incredibly dedicated teacher, but only because his life has so little else to offer. Only once does Stoner fall truly in love, but even that is thwarted due to social pressures. Somewhat redolent of The Death of Ivan Ilych, John Williams’ Stoner is an enormously tragic novel and a compelling read. I’d never heard of Williams before, but only noticed the book recently at Word on the Street; a sticker affixed to it that read, “As good as everyone says” was what drew me to it. Although I’m usually skeptical of such praise, Stoner turned out to be much better than I expected, and I’m glad to see it being revived from the dustheap of forgotten works of literature and to receive the kind of immortality this novel deserves.