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Book recommendation from ... Irial Glynn

Every month a member of the Institute for History tells about a book that he/she has read and that has inspired him/her: from novels to biographies. At the end, the pen is passed on to another colleague. This month Irial Glynn tells about a book he has read recently.

Stoner by John Williams

The novelist, Dan Wakefield, referred to his friend John Williams as 'Hemingway without bluster, Fitzgerald without fashion, Faulkner stripped of pomp'. The central protagonist in this novel would never feature too prominently in any Hemingway, Fitzgerald or Faulkner story but Williams has the ability to make the ordinary seem extraordinary. William Stoner grows up as an only child on a small farm in Missouri. When he completes high school in 1910, he expects to start working full-time on the family farm. The work is tough and monotonous. When his father was thirty years of age, he looked fifty. At 17 years of age, Stoner’s shoulders ‘were already beginning to stoop’ from the hard labour required to sustain the family’s arid patch of land. Yet, a visit from a county agent changes the course of Stoner’s life forever. The agent convinces Stoner’s father to send his son to the newly established College of Agriculture at the University of Missouri to complete a degree. It is an investment his father thinks will reap benefits for the farm in the future because his son will come back with some ‘new ideas’.

It’s love, Mr Stoner

When Stoner first travels the 60 kilometres from his farmstead to Columbia, Missouri – the furthest he had ever travelled in his life – he is awestruck by what he finds. The university is imposing but nevertheless provides him with ‘a sudden sense of security and serenity he had never felt before’. He remains at that university for the rest of his life: first as a student, then as a teacher. Stoner’s first year finishes as planned: he completes his agricultural studies and returns in the summer to help his parents on the farm. During his second year, he is required to take an obligatory course in English literature. The professor frightens but fascinates Stoner and the course ‘troubled and disquieted him in a way nothing had ever done before’. Soon after, he drops his agricultural courses and switches all his attention to the humanities, specialising in English literature. Significantly, he fails to tell his parents of this shift in focus when he returns to work on the farm the following summer. He excels at English literature and is told by the same professor who attracted him to the subject in the first place that he is going to be a teacher. Stoner wonders how his professor can be so sure: ‘It’s love, Mr Stoner. … It’s as simple as that’. His parents are shocked and hurt when he tells them after his graduation that he would not be returning to the farm.

Bitter politics

Stoner completes an MA on one of Chaucer’s  Canterbury Tales and a PhD on the influence of the classical tradition upon the Medieval Lyric. A shortage of teaching staff caused by several faculty members’ decision to join the U.S. war effort in 1917 results in Stoner receiving a full-time teaching position in the department after his PhD. The vast majority of the resulting novel follows Stoner’s travails in academia and in love.

Missouri University is the same institution at which the author attained his own PhD in English. Williams is at pains to explain to his former colleagues in Missouri in a note before the novel begins that no event or character portrayed ‘has its counterpart in the reality we knew at the University of Missouri’. Presumably Williams’ experience at Missouri and later at the University Denver, where he became the director of its creative writing programme, provided him with at least some inspiration. Some of the bitter politics played out in the novel reminded me of a story from one university in which I was once based, where two professors reputedly refused to speak to each other for decades, even at small staff meetings. 

Value of education

Academics reading this novel might come away from it with a much more optimistic outlook than others since Stoner adores his work. Much of the backdrop for Stoner’s life story is taken up with a delicate discussion of the role of the academic. Despite Stoner’s often trying personal circumstances, his belief in the value of education makes him persevere and drives him on. As Williams recounted in a later interview: teaching gave meaning to Stoner because ‘[h]e was doing what he wanted to do, he had some feeling for what he was doing, he had some sense of the importance of the job he was doing’.

Henry Roth’s marvellous  Call it Sleep, which tells the story of a Jewish immigrant family’s first years in New York City through the eyes of a young boy, disappeared largely without a trace when first released in 1934. When it was reissued in the 1960s, it sold over one million copies and has since become a classic. John Williams’  Stoner appears to be going through a similar renaissance. It has sold astonishingly well across Europe since its most recent re-issue, almost fifty years after its publication. Almost all of the recent reviews have been gushing in their praise of Williams’ novel, with Tim Kreider of the  New Yorkerrecently referring to it as 'the greatest American novel you've never heard of'. But it’s not without its critics. The British novelist Alex Preston has termed it 'colourless', 'disheartning' and 'soulless'. Most significantly, he finds the depiction of Stoner’s wife misogynistic.  I recommend that you read it and decide for yourself.

Irial passes the pen on to Jeff Fynn-Paul

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