The Great Academic Novel

At the ripe age of 50, John Williams’ “Stoner” is getting the attention it deserves

Joanna Scutts November 24, 2015

The early-20th-century university of Williams’ novel has many of the problems that plague academia today. (RETROROCKET/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Are the human­i­ties doomed? In 2015, it can cer­tain­ly seem that way as uni­ver­si­ties rein­vent them­selves as glob­al brands, invest­ing their resources in ameni­ties and admin­is­tra­tors while turn­ing the slow labor of teach­ing over to cheap, dis­pos­able adjuncts. Those who have devot­ed their lives to the study of Old Norse poet­ry or Hait­ian reli­gion find it hard to defend them­selves in the lan­guage of mea­sur­able out­comes and action able data. Mean­while, to the stu­dents watch­ing tuition climb relent­less­ly as career options shrink, the old ivory tow­er ide­al — col­lege as refuge from ruth­less cap­i­tal­ism — looks as out­mod­ed as a professor’s tweed suit.

Stoner’s students are still indistinguishable packs of walking hormones, out of which a bright acolyte or sullen antagonist might occasionally emerge.

The tor­tured ques­tions of what exact­ly the human­i­ties are for, what their study can do or give or cre­ate, and there­fore how they can be defend­ed, are hard­ly new — John Williams’ ele­gant, anguished nov­el Ston­er makes that clear. Pub­lished 50 years ago and set 40 years pri­or, the nov­el, which fol­lows the undis­tin­guished career of a Mid­west­ern pro­fes­sor of medieval lit­er­a­ture, has enjoyed a sur­pris­ing resur­gence of pop­u­lar­i­ty in the 21st cen­tu­ry. A new French­trans­la­tion in 2011 sparked a rap­tur­ous response in Europe that spread back to the Unit­ed States. What­ev­er has dri­ven that well-deserved revival, it is cer­tain­ly not nos­tal­gia for some pre-smart­phone era of under­grad­u­ate pas­sion for learn­ing. Ston­ers stu­dents are still indis­tin­guish­able packs of walk­ing hor­mones, out of which a bright acolyte or sullen antag­o­nist might occa­sion­al­ly emerge. The uni­ver­si­ty admin­is­tra­tion is still an obtuse, unbend­ing bureau­cra­cy, and pro­fes­sors are still under­ap­pre­ci­at­ed and underpaid. 

Ston­er is hard­ly a rous­ing defense of the acad­e­my, but it forces us to reck­on with fun­da­men­tal ques­tions of the val­ue and pur­pose of the humanities.

Most nov­els that probe the clois­tered obses­sions of col­lege pro­fes­sors play them for laughs. Writ­ers from Aristo­phanes to Julie Schu­mach­er, win­ner of this year’s Thurber Prize for her satir­i­cal nov­el Dear Com­mit­tee Mem­bers, have found rich com­e­dy in the con­flict between the refined intel­lect and the baser dri­ves of heart, loins and ego. For Williams, how­ev­er, that con­flict is seri­ous and some­times trag­ic. His nov­el tells the life sto­ry of William Ston­er, a pro­fes­sor whose schol­ar­ship is unim­por­tant and whose impact on his hun­dreds of stu­dents is neg­li­gi­ble. His death, report­ed on the first page, inspires no more than a faint ges­ture of piety from his col­leagues, who bequeath a medieval man­u­script to the library in his name. 

When tall, shy, ungain­ly Ston­er arrives on the cam­pus of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mis­souri at the age of 19, he regards the place with awe. An only child, raised on a strug­gling farm by silent, sto­ical par­ents, he is divert­ed from his fixed path in life when a uni­ver­si­ty recruiter sug­gests that he and the farm might ben­e­fit from a course of study in mod­ern agri­cul­ture. In his sopho­more year, quite against his will, a required lit­er­a­ture class warms some­thing in Stoner’s soul that he had no idea was there. When his cur­mud­geon­ly pro­fes­sor tells him, to his amaze­ment, that he might be able to keep study­ing and even­tu­al­ly be paid to teach at the uni­ver­si­ty, he dis­cov­ers the life to which he will com­mit him­self as deeply and unwa­ver­ing­ly as his par­ents to their farm. Although he has to break painful­ly with his past, the work he ends up doing at the col­lege is odd­ly sim­i­lar: Just as inex­orably tied to the sea­sons, it repeats itself with minor vari­a­tion, year after year. Like the farmer, the pro­fes­sor con­tin­u­al­ly con­fronts the lim­its of his own pow­er, the suc­cess of each year’s stu­dent crop” depen­dent large­ly on forces he can nei­ther pre­dict nor control. 

Ston­er meets his wife Edith at a fac­ul­ty par­ty and mar­ries her after a brief courtship, only to find him­self shack­led to a wealthy, unhap­py young woman who is utter­ly unable to voice her own needs or desires hon­est­ly. When their only daugh­ter is born, she aban­dons the baby almost entire­ly to William’s clum­sy, lov­ing care, then a few years lat­er reclaims con­trol and turns the girl into a pawn in an inex­haustible mar­i­tal war. Even­tu­al­ly, Ston­er has his love affair” with a younger instruc­tor, anoth­er famil­iar trope of the cam­pus nov­el that is here trans­mut­ed from sor­did farce into the rev­e­la­tion that true hap­pi­ness exists in the union, as his lover puts it, of lust and learn­ing.” The affair, which begins when Ston­er helps the younger woman with research for her dis­ser­ta­tion, briefly reignites his own enthu­si­asm for schol­ar­ship. Its cat­a­stroph­ic, inevitable end shuts down that light, and he returns to the steady grind of teach­ing. But at the moment of his death, described in wrench­ing­ly beau­ti­ful prose, Stoner’s fin­gers reach for his only pub­lished book, a minor, for­get­table study that nev­er­the­less holds, for its author, a sacred weight.

The 50th anniver­sary edi­tion of Ston­er includes cor­re­spon­dence between Williams and his agent, in which he explains that the book is not the chron­i­cle of a failed life. In the end, Ston­er is a kind of saint,” a man whose work and life are the same, and both valu­able for the sim­ple rea­son that each allowed the oth­er to con­tin­ue. That val­ue is dif­fi­cult to artic­u­late and impos­si­ble to mea­sure objec­tive­ly. It’s the stuff of lit­er­a­ture, not data, and it hard­ly lends itself to cam­pus slo­gans or recruit­ment dri­ves. But despite — or because of — his obscu­ri­ty, medi­oc­rity and dis­ap­point­ment, there are few more pow­er­ful reminders than William Ston­er of the human with­in the humanities.

Joan­na Scutts is a free­lance writer based in Queens, NY, and a board mem­ber of the Nation­al Book Crit­ics Cir­cle. Her book reviews and essays have appeared in the Wash­ing­ton Post, the New York­er Online, The Nation, the Wall Street Jour­nal and sev­er­al oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. You can fol­low her on Twit­ter @JC_Scuttsr.
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