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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