John Williams’ “Stoner,” an Academic Novel Review

dreamstime_8445313testAn academic novel, assuredly but it feels like Dreiser, too.  William Stoner is not a tragic hero, but his pathos is poignant.  Stoner hails from the country around Booneville, Missouri, where he was born into a rugged, hard-working farm family in 1891.  He works the land with his parents, but finds his way to the agricultural college at the University of Missouri just down the road.  Thanks to a required course, Stoner discovers English literature and unbeknownst to his parents changes his field. His uncomprehending parents accept this change which will only increase their own drudgery.

Stoner, after the callouses of field work are gone, discovers a new kind of drudgery as his own indiscreet behavior causes Hollis Lomax, a vindictive department head to condemn him to a taxing schedule of undergraduate courses and relentless grading of freshman composition.  By this time he has become a senior professor and by tradition should be working with doctoral students.  Like his stoical father back on the farm, Stoner bears up, but the opportunity for pav back does come for Stoner.

The farmer’s son makes a very bad marriage to a banker’s daughter, a mean, selfish, frigid  princess.  Again, Stoner suffers her cruelty stoically compensated only by his love for his daughter.  A beautiful affair with a young teacher brings him joy for a time.

Williams places Stoner into the very realistic world of academic politics as accurate today as in the early 20th century.  Ultimately professors have jobs to do like everyone else.  There is nothing really special about being a professor.  If Stoner is a hero, it is not because he completes with glory an agenda of Herculean tasks.  It is because he meets despair and death with stoicism that touches the sublime.

David Millken

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Insights into Academic Life via a Joanne Dobson Mystery

I have only just read Death without Tenure and The Maltese Manuscript by Joanne Dobson, literary mystery writer of the Karen Pelletier series from Doubleday.  I intend to read the entire series.  They are literary, academic mysteries of intriguing, suspenseful plot and excellent characterization.  They are also warm, sensitive and full of humanity. Brilliant Karen Pelletier, the sleuth, by virtue of stubbornness, determination, and professional passion pretty much asks for all the difficulties her curiosity brings upon her.  But she perfectly captures my ideal image of the teaching Ph.D. who really cares about her students.

As part of my ongoing desire to shed light on the realities of academic life to would-be English professors, I add Dobson to my collection of references.  Like the graduate students Pelletier teaches, I was incredibly naive many years ago.  I dreamed of the professor’s life, but many years later I wondered why.  All told I passed four years in the university, taking courses and notes in anticipation of  writing a dissertation and then leading an idyllic life teaching and writing; especially challenging the minds of my students.  Life in the university eluded me no matter how hard I deluded myself.

Certainly Dobson spins a great tale, but along the way her insights into academic life are lessons from which I might have benefited.  I’m not sure I would have dropped out of grad school because of  them — but I might have. How youth deceives itself!  She depicts truths that only the rarest of tenured faculty would convey to a graduate student.  One has to have the ears to hear and eyes to see.

Here’s one example of  Dobson’s satire of academic jargon. At a dinner party in the Maltese Manuscript(p.83),  Harriet, a member of the English faculty, asks of Sunnye, the famous detective novelist, “As a woman author suppressed by the cultural  strictures of partriarchal capitalism, do you find murder provides you with a transgressive symbol system for an anti-essentialist social critique?”

“Sunnye stared at her. ‘Murder?’  she queried.  ‘Are you asking me if I condone murder?’

“Only as a mode of hermeneutical rhetoric.”

“The novelist turned abruptly to me[Karen Pelletier].

‘What’s she talking about?’

‘I[Karen] translated. “I believe she’s asking if you write about murder in order to protest the male-dominated power structure of modern life.”

“She pursed her lips, annoyed. ‘Why doesn’t she say that?”

As far as I am concerned Dobson’s work and Karen Pelletier  meet the highest purpose of the best literature — to teach and delight.  David Milliken

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