The Short Version: The life of William Stoner, a young Missouri farmboy who discovers a love of the English language and becomes a professor. He marries, has a daughter, builds a career, and lives out a full life in Columbia, MO. It is a wholly American story – one that, even without reading this novel, comes pre-loaded into our modern consciousness.
The Review: My father is quite fond of the saying “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” He is not a morose man nor an unhappy one. He is simply, like Thoreau, an intensely American man. Not the America we see paraded before us in modern political campaigns or the America we memorialize in modern films and novels, but the America our forefathers hoped we would discover. He has lived and continues to live a complicated and fascinating life, complete with adventures and triumphs, defeats and setbacks, and at times you can catch him as he looks wistfully to the West. See, he believes that there are a few – a rare and proud few, of whose number he once counted himself – who will continue to represent the unabashed hope that we can rise above the constraints of modern America… but he also knows that most of us will continue on a different path. A path of quiet acceptance, stasis, and (yes) desperation.
I can’t be sure that I’ve ever read a more American book than Stoner. It was published in 1965 but remarkably shows no signs of the era in which it was written. Oh, the details of plot certainly pull it forward to a relatively present: both World Wars and the opening salvos of the Cold War have quite an impact on the world around William Stoner. But the book itself belongs to an older tradition, a tradition that was dying out even as Stoner must’ve been going to press. A book like this simply could not be written today. The 60s and 70s revolutionized literature in a way that it’s difficult to understand from a modern perspective… because so much of what we read that was written before, say, 1950 is read in the light of the classroom. We look at it academically in much the same way that we look at modern novels as pleasure. This is the sort of book that fits into the tradition of The Rise of Silas Lapham – it is a rare individual indeed who would pick up that book of their own volition. But this book also has something more than that dry tale. Something I’m having difficulty categorizing.
At its heart, this book is nothing more than the story of a man living a life of quiet desperation. He is not exceptional by any modern standard. Even by the standards of his time and his location, he is only exceptional in the way that every individual is ‘exceptional’ in some way. He becomes a respected professor in his time but the beginning of the novel makes it clear: he will be forgotten. He is not the sort of professor who gets a building or scholarship or professorship named after him. He is exceptional in his moment, perhaps, but will fade just as easily.
So why, then, do I find myself intrigued and even captivated by this book? The writing is good but is not jaw-dropping like Durrell (who, might I note, was writing even earlier than Mr. Williams and already making clear that the old literary tradition was not long for the world). The characters are simple, sometimes even a bit too simple. And yet… they are real. Stoner, especially, feels so very real. He is a literary ‘hero’ not because of his deeds but because of his very existence: he is a fully realized creation whose very reality makes the rest of his surroundings seem more fully realized despite the fact that they’re… often not.
There’s an existential bent to this novel, which is perhaps why I find myself continuing to think about it. It is not existential in the French tradition but, more uniquely, in the American tradition. It forces the reader – especially a modern reader – to examine these lives of quiet desperation. Most of us will work from when we graduate from college until we reach an age where we probably should’ve stopped working a few years before but couldn’t yet afford to retire. We may be cut down by war or disease or we may see our loved ones fall to the same implacable foes. We will find moments of triumph (Stoner’s late successes in his decades-long battle with Lomax) and moments of defeat (Grace’s drift away from her father’s affections and Edith’s utter loathing for her husband) – but in the end it will all mostly balance out. We will sit on our deathbed, in a moment of clarity, and be at peace with the life we leave behind. This is the final feeling we’re left with at the end of Stoner and it raises the question of what the final accounting of a life should be.
For Stoner was not, by any modern accounting, happy. The happiest he was – with Katherine or inspiring his students – was often undercut by forces he could not or would not battle against: Lomax, Edith, the wars. He allowed life to happen to him and rarely struck out to make his life happen. But he is not unhappy and so the reader is left to wonder: is that enough? This reader sees the argument and its remarkable presentation in the life of one William Stoner… but for me, it is not enough. I look at the events of Stoner’s life and I think, “By God, man, why didn’t you push? Why weren’t you striving for more?” But that is not who Stoner was; it is rather who I am. And that realization not only enforces the existential qualities of the novel but also its incredible strength and necessity. Because you will read this book and find a certain level of understanding about yourself.
Rating: 5 out of 5. I was not convinced that I would like this book at the outset. I, unlike my father, am not a man of the American mold. I look to the West and the skies and the future in the way that only Americans can, sure – but I am a man of an older world. A more refined world, a world that has only the most tenuous grasp here in America. I am an East Coast man, no matter how passionately I may look to the frontier. The modern Presidential campaign would have me believe that I am not truly an American and I’ve done nothing to dissuade that notion. The people who tell me I’m not, though, aren’t true Americans either. This book is for the true American. The people who lead the lives of quiet desperation – or at least the ones who pause to reflect upon that uniquely American reality. This is a book for my father. For those of you (most of you) who don’t know him, you may find this hard to entirely understand… but let me simply say that it is a book for the America that once almost was and now never quite will be. We lost that America at some point, for better or worse. William Stoner was the everyman we all were but never wanted to believe we were. How you react to him will only further clarify your existential boundaries.