Reading Journal: "Stoner"

John Williams, Stoner. New York Review Books 2003. Originally published 1965. Paperback. 278 pp. $14.95. I found my copy at Central Avenue Bookstore in Faribault.

Early in Stoner, John Williams' spare and beautiful novel about the life of William Stoner, a quiet young man who leaves his parents' Missouri farm to become a professor of English at the state university, Stoner and two other young English instructors sit around over beers and discuss the nature of the university. Dave Masters insists that the university is a kind of asylum for those unable to make it in the world, for the impractical, the incompetent, the irresponsible, the idealistic. "For the dispossessed of the world," Dave says. There's some truth in this. But even for Professor Stoner, quietly tucked away with his study of the medieval grammarians, life is hard. He finds himself unhappily married to a cold, manipulative, unstable woman. Cut-throat departmental politics threaten to derail his career. The one thing that sustains him is his teaching. But even as a teacher he feels his inadequacies, and senses "the gulf that lay between what he felt for his subject and what he delivered in the classroom."
Those things that he held most deeply were most profoundly betrayed when he spoke of them to his classes; what was most alive withered in his words; and what moved him most became cold in its utterance.
But through his engagement with his subject, and through his attempts to express what he most deeply feels, he remains alive. Teaching is what redeems him.
He felt himself at last beginning to be a teacher, which was simply a man to whom his book is true, to whom is given a dignity of art that has little to do with his foolishness or weakness or inadequacy as a man.
For Stoner, the university is not a cloister or an asylum, but the place where he is best able to become himself. Stoner is a silent and isolated man who finds in the classroom his opportunity to live a life of engagement and a life in words.

Comments

Richard Gilbert said…
Thank you for this post, a nice review of the novel, which I recently discovered and read with great pleasure.

I wonder about the meaning of the phrase "a man to whom his book is true" and whether its origin is in the Wallace Stevens poem that mentions "a scholar to whom his book is true."

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