February is a short month and usually a busy one, so I only managed to finish reading one non-academic book, John Williams’ 1965 campus novel, Stoner, which is set at my current institution, The University of Missouri, Columbia.
William Stoner is a Missouri farm kid from a dirt-poor family who, in the early years of the 20th century, came to the university to get an education at the newly-opened school of Agriculture. But in his required freshman English class he is inspired by an acerbic professor and decides to turn his back on his farm roots and pursue an undergraduate degree, and then a graduate one in English Literature. When he completes his thesis, the university hires him on. Stoner marries and has a child, but the marriage is a disaster. He completes a book and receives tenure, but his career never really advances. His motivation to improve his teaching and pursue research waxes and wanes, the seasons come and go, and Stoner grows old.
The pivotal sequence in the novel is a confrontation between Stoner and an ambitious colleague, Hollis Lomax. Lomax has some physical defects, but an unimpeachable intellectual pedigree, having come to the university from getting his degree at Harvard. Their disagreement begins when Lomax manages to persuade Stoner to accept his graduate student into Stoner’s seminar; in Stoner’s estimation, the student does not perform adequately and receives an appropriate grade. Lomax disagrees, but their conflict comes to a head when department regulations force Stoner to sit on an examination committee for that same student.
Stoner is, as the reviews say, a quiet, powerful novel that explores the condition of an intellectual who is chooses and, simultaneously, is forced into increasing isolation. The students, for the most part, flash by as a faceless blur, not because Stoner doesn’t care, but because, at some point, they are all the same. The graduate students are essentially interchangeable, with two conspicuous exceptions, and the same could be said even of the professors. The world changes beyond the borders of the University, but Stoner’s life plods on.
The genius of the novel is that it is utterly relatable, particularly to someone who have spent any time on the other side of the classroom. Williams also does a remarkably good job at capturing the University of Missouri and its environs, so much so that multiple locations featured are easy to identify as real-world buildings. Likewise, everyone who has been in some of these situations has known graduate students and professors like those described in the story, both for good and for ill. Despite the tragic outcome and the consistently grim and oppressive atmosphere of the academy, there is a sense of purpose and vocation and therefore a dark, hopeless optimism in the story that did not appear in, for instance, Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim (the only other true campus novel I have read).
My main critique of the novel is not of execution, but of form. To me, it was immediately evident that Stoner was written by an English professor who is well-versed in narrative form. As a result, the turns in the story seemed inevitable, formulaic. The execution was excellent, nonetheless. I also hesitate to issue a blanket recommendation for Stoner because I wonder if it is a story that will fail to resonate with a wider audience as much as it does with people who have chased higher degrees in non-STEM fields, but I am adding it to my list of top novels.