U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Everybody Must Get Stoner: A S-USIH Reading Group

54176-119037Before I begin discussing the novel Stoner, I feel that I must speak briefly to the events ongoing at Yale University, including a March of Resilience today. I am not living in New Haven though I am a graduate student there, and so what I can say is not in the nature of reportage or even of commentary. More competent voices are telling the story, and you can find an important analysis here, and, from what others are telling me, this Washington Post story from a few days ago also provides key insights into the underlying factors, particularly the frustration many students feel with Yale’s poor record at hiring and retaining faculty of color. Both pieces are written by current Yale seniors. I have also found this Yale Daily News editorial and this op-ed in the YDN useful in understanding the emotions and the reasons behind the student protests. Finally, Daniel Drezner of Tufts University offers what seems to me to be a very balanced request that those of us who are not living in the midst of these events withhold judgment given our limited access to the full weight of what is happening there:

The problem is that for those of us not at Yale, it is all too easy for the most absurd, theatrical and controversial elements of this dispute to blow up on our social media, and to have those aspects of the incident frame how we perceive the current state of play. The larger context does not mean that outside observers should say that students have every right to scream at administrators. Nor does it mean that free speech issues shouldn’t be of paramount concern on college campuses. But it is just too easy to take the most extreme incidents, caricature them even further and then conclude that today’s college students “just don’t get it” — when, in point of fact, there is probably a lot more that external observers aren’t getting.

Secondly–and appropriately, given the fact that Stoner is set at the University of Missouri at Columbia–I would like to take note of the actions of numerous students and faculty at Mizzou. For an excellent read of the situation, look to this timeline from the Mizzou Maneater and Dave Zirin.


John Williams, Stoner, page 82 in the NYRB Classics paperback edition; 83 in the 50th anniversary hardcover edition:

In the summer of 1921, searching for a reference to a Latin poem that he had forgotten, [Stoner] glanced at his dissertation for the first time since he had submitted it for approval three years earlier; he read it through and judged it to be sound. A little frightened at his presumption, he considered reworking it into a book. Though he was again teaching the full summer session, he reread most of the texts he had used and began to extend his research. Late in January he decided that a book was possible; by early spring he was far enough along to be able to write the first tentative pages. (82 ppbk; 83 hc)

Maggie Doherty has written a brilliant essay at The New Republic about the ways that the academic world inhabited by Stoner and his colleagues exists in what now seems a parallel universe: for them, tenure is absolute and unthreatened; student enrollments are not sources of worry for the humanities; one can find stable employment at a single university for one’s entire career. But this passage reveals yet another divergence, this one perhaps the widest of any. William Stoner—at this point not (I believe) a tenure-track professor but one committed to an academic career—not only appears to have had no definite plans to publish but is “a little frightened at his presumption” for weighing the question of whether his work is good enough to revise with that aim in mind.

Publication of one’s work might not be routine but it is routinized in academia; to make plans for publication is not so much presumptuous as presumed. And yet, the novel’s careful and quiet message that academic pursuits—especially those, but any kind of specialized inquiry, really—are at a basic level presumptuous resonates and is, I feel, a central element of Stoner’s extraordinary effect on readers today. Our presumptuousness not just about publishing our words but about arrogating to ourselves the time, money, and energy to dedicate the next several decades of our lives to the study of specialized and occasionally arcane topics is a sort of collectively suppressed experience in academia and Stoner—in addition to much else—excavates it and offers us a chance to make some peace with it.

Stoner works sedulously and competently; in no way does Williams intimate that academia is a soft life or that Stoner feels the prick of presumption because he is not a genius, that he is presumptuous only because academia is properly meant for better scholars than he. Rather, Williams implies that there is for almost all who enter an academic field a sort of cost in our relations with most others in our lives, and that it requires a certain amount of presumptuousness on the part of anyone to be willing to meet that cost. Let me explain a little further.

In the part of the novel I read for today—the first five chapters—there are three key moments in which the question of presumption arises. The third is the one I quoted above, the second is the speech by Dave Masters about the purpose of the university (pp. 31-32 ppbk; 30-31 hc), and the first is perhaps the most emotionally shattering and occurs when Stoner reveals to his parents, who sent him to and paid for college in the belief that he was getting an agricultural degree to help out at their farm, that he had never told them that he dropped that program and took his bachelor’s in English instead. Furthermore, he planned to stay at the university to pursue a master’s and then a doctorate, and not to return with them to their home.

Stoner tried to explain to his father what he intended to do, tried to evoke in him his own sense of significance and purpose. He listened to his words fall as if from the mouth of another, and watched his father’s face, which received those words as a stone receives the repeated blows of a fist. When he had finished he sat with his hands clasped between his knees and his head bowed. He listened to the silence of the room.

Finally his father moved in his chair. Stoner looked up. His parents’ faces confronted him; he almost cried out to them.

“I don’t know,” his father said. His voice was husky and tired. “I didn’t figure it would turn out like this. I thought I was doing the best for you I could, sending you here. Your ma and me has always done the best we could for you.”

“I know,” Stoner said. He could not look at them longer. “Will you be all right? I could come back for a while this summer and help. I could—”

“If you think you ought to stay here and study your books, then that’s what you ought to do. Your ma and me can manage.”

His mother was facing him, but she did not see him. Her eyes were squeezed shut; she was breathing heavily, her face twisted as if in pain, and her closed fists were pressed against her cheeks. With wonder Stoner realized that she was crying, deeply and silently, with the shame and awkwardness of one who seldom weeps. He watched her for a moment more; then he got heavily to his feet and walked out of the parlor. He found his way up the narrow stairs that led to his attic room; for a long time he lay on his bed and stared with open eyes into the darkness above him. (23-24 ppbk; 22-23 hc)

I let that quote run long (probably longer than fair use permits) because the passage itself is so relentless, so diligent in its ache and its intensity. It is a passage of stupefying potency for anyone who has tried to communicate the felt need to pursue postgraduate study.

It is important, however, to focus on more than the emotions of this moment. Stoner has committed a species of fraud before his parents; he never explained to them that he had discontinued the educational program they believed they were paying for, and so in a more than technical way he has stolen his education from them. Moreover—though less legalistically—he has seized his future labor from them. They were counting on his help as they aged to manage the farm he would inherit; even apart from his abandonment of the agricultural/technical education that would be of service to the farm, their plans were contingent upon his presence and his work.

His parents end up hiring an African-American man to take up most of the farm labor, a subtle touch that Williams includes, demonstrating (perhaps half-consciously) that it has often been people of color and their labor who have enabled the life of the mind by releasing white men like Stoner from continued manual labor. At any rate, what is overwhelmingly evident about Williams’s intentions is that he meant to demonstrate how the decision to commit oneself to an academic life is a kind of dispossession of oneself from one’s family, a process quite akin to marriage (Matthew 19 is a quite interesting intertext here). There is even a sort of directness in the novel about this parallel—Stoner’s advisor, Archer Sloane, in informing Stoner what career awaits him, asks, “Don’t you understand about yourself yet? You’re going to be a teacher… It’s love, Mr. Stoner… You are in love. It’s as simple as that.” (The novel was also at one point going to be titled “A Matter of Love.”)

But if pursuing graduate education (and perhaps undergraduate education as well) was a sort of presumptuous dispossession of the self from one’s parents in Stoner’s day, how do we—as Maggie Doherty did for other aspects of Stoner’s world—bring that up to date in the age of mass student debt? In many cases parents are involved quite extensively in those debts, by paying them or otherwise supporting their children as they work to make good those loans. But the future-oriented structure of debt also turns the question of dispossession forward—to one’s potential partners and children. Student debt has revived with a vengeance the sense that a certain amount of presumptuousness and selfishness is required if one chooses an academic career, and given the intense precariousness of academic employment, this state of affairs holds even if one is not buried in debt and continues to hold even after one receives one’s doctorate. We ask a great deal of those we love when the stakes of pursuing our intended career are continued financial insecurity.

None of this is in any way meant to question or diminish the worth, importance or even necessity of an academic career or of specialized intellectual work. It is something I believe in wholeheartedly. Yet conditions have made and continue to make the choice to pursue such a career a more than individual one: this is more or less true of other professions as well, I assume, but removing oneself from other kinds of work in order to continue one’s education has undeniable ramifications for others, especially for one’s family. In that sense, Stoner’s shudder before his own presumption is an experience that echoes in our own lives, even as the outward circumstances of his academia and ours have changed almost beyond recognition.

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Andy —
    What a great post. I can’t possibly do justice to all the questions you raise here (I have to run off to make a bare bones living as as a teacher, after all:), but let me offer two lines of inquiry, one about the characters in the novel itself and one about the–what to call it?–the lingering cultural capital of committing to an academic life over other forms of professional labor, esp. types associated with the “creative class.”

    I love your descriptive summary of an early theme of this novel: “it requires a certain amount of presumptuousness on the part of anyone to be willing to meet the cost [of an academic career].” Dave Masters’ satirical speech uses the word “dispossession” but in a much more self-righteous way than Stoner ever would. For DM, the university is a refuge in which freakishly cerebral aesthetes can be “locked up,” where we can be “safely irresponsible.” It functions as the social equivalent of King Lear’s shelter from the raging storm on the heath, a “hovel” from the stormy terrain of bureaucratic modernity. “It’s for us that the University exists, for the dispossessed of the world; not for the students, not for the selfless pursuit of knowledge . . We do no harm, we say what we want, and we get paid for it” (31-2 pb).

    I don’t think Williams wants us to approve of Masters’ sentiments here (and in any case, most of us _don’_ get paid for it anymore). And I think Masters’ is right that this isn’t always “selfless,” at least not in the sense of being entangled with our most fundamental self-conceptions. (Daston and Galison’s _Objectivity_ is a tour de force of this topic in the realm of scientific practice). And yet I feel that there is an element of truth to what Masters’ says. Shouldn’t there be a place where certain conversations and arguments are offered “shelter” from the buffeting forces of modernity? I often contrast my own field of literary study with that of art history–I can’t imagine it if every masterpiece I loved (_Moby Dick_ say, or _The Great Gatsby_) could literally be sold at a Sotheby’s auction to the highest bidder. On this view, of course, Universities are not businesses, but charities–or perhaps a kind of nationalized Yaddo colony. A place that begs the sufferance of society so that thinking can get done. Masters’ downplays the seriousness of our play, I think (“we do no harm”?) but not the fundamental requirement of leisure and autonomy of research from market logics.

    Masters’ view is distinctly different from Stoner’s, I think. Behind Master’s dandyism is a lingering feeling that what he is doing is “irresponsible.” But Stoner feels no such qualms about pursuing the life of the mind. He calls it “love.” The professorial life is not, as Masters has it, for the freakish or the insane, but for lovers, those who want to enter into a lifelong partnership. When his two best mates go off to fight in world war one, Stoner doesn’t join them; he feels a modicum of shame about dodging the wartime effort, but not much. Notice too how Masters talks about the academic career as appealing to the “dispossessed of the world.” But for some of us, and I would include Stoner here too, the academic life is what allowed us to _possess_ the world in the first place; in some sense, growing up in small town NC, I was already living in the hovel. The University (of NC) gave me a chance to gain access to the the world for the first time. Acquainting myself with the great literature and intellectual conflicts of Western culture _was_ the storm, not the hovel.

    Do occasional glimpses of freedom and knowledge justify putting others in our debt, financially and morally? I’m not sure it does. I have noticed how differently (i.e. more dismissively) people tend to think about this topic based on the type of career in question. I live in an area of NYC where a lot of actors and musicians are trying to make a living while raising small children. Many of them have spouses who provide the funds to enable them to pursue their “creative” aspirations. Many of these creative types, I would argue, live under a _greater_ social stigma than do academics in pursuing their careers. It is a hard thing to watch a 45 yr. old father remain essentially jobless so that he can play blues covers in a bar a few times a month. And yet if we change the nature of the work in this example–say, to teaching French literature to 22 yr olds a few times a month–somehow our society feels this is a slightly more acceptable form of getting by, despite the immense financial burden this type of work places on our family and friends. I’m not sure if this is because of the way that the affect of “cruel optimism” is built into the structures of late capitalism (e.g. Lauren Berlant’s book of that title) or because the chances of making it full-time as a blues singer seem more remote than the chances of obtaining a permanent position teaching French literature (though the odds of doing so seem roughly equivalent–near zero).

    In any case, I’m enjoying the novel and this discussion immensely!

  2. Thanks for this reading group and this post, Andy! I’d never read STONER before and I’ve enjoyed taking the opportunity to do so (in an unpaginated Kindle e-book, I’m afraid, so that this will make the pagination issue even more difficult).

    Having finished the first five chapters, I’m struck by how inscrutable Stoner’s loves are. Take his love of literature / criticism / teaching (it’s even a bit hard to say which it is). The key moment when Stoner discovers this love comes in Chapter I. While attending Sloane’s required survey of English literature, Stoner is essentially struck dumb by Sloane’s request that explain the meaning of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73. Usually, I think, we identify a love of scholarship with an ability / desire to say things about our chosen objects of study. But Stoner’s love seems marked by an inability to do so. And nowhere else, in the first five chapters at least, does Williams give us much hint of Stoner as literary critic or Stoner as teacher. We never actually read what Stoner thinks about any work of literature.

    The closest we come, I think, is a passage in which Williams describes the general impact of literature on him (Google Books tells me this is from p. 16 of the NYRB edition): “The past gathered out of the darkness where it stayed, and the dead raised themselves to live before him; and the past and the dead flowed into the present among the alive, so that he had for an intense instant a vision of denseness into which he was compacted and from which he could not escape, and had no wish to escape. Tristan, Iseult, the fair walked before him; Paolo and Francesca whirled in the glowing dark; Helen and bright Paris, their faces bitter with consequence, rose from the gloom. And he was with them in a way that he could never be with his fellows who went from class to class….” Literature clearly moves Stoner, but not apparently in any way that he can put into words (or at any rate, words that are significant enough in Williams’s view to tell us about them). And even after this description of Stoner’s encounters with the past, he still needs Sloane to tell him that what he’s experiencing is love.

    Stoner’s love for Edith, his eventual wife, is similarly difficult to grasp. She is as hard for Stoner to understand as Sonnet 73 was. And everything about their relationship, from its beginning and into the marriage, is awkward and uncommunicative. Stoner’s attraction to her seems almost entirely based on her physical beauty, which seems to overwhelm him with desire despite all else about her personality and their relationship.

  3. I enjoyed this post and the comments. Thank you for the careful thoughts Andy, so good, so welcome. I have some general thoughts related to my impressions of those chapters after reading it for the first time. It has to do with the general success and failure narratives that characterize American thought at times. I was struck by how, according to the usual rigamarole, we would consider Stoner a success. After all, he had overcome necessity and made a life for himself very different from that on the farm. Is it that these narratives can only be unambiguously about business or related fields? Of course, you treat this directly, the touching scene with Stoner and his parents, their disappointment.

    Yet it would be easy, I think, to suggest that this is yet another chapter in how Americans prize “practical” matters over the humanities or the like. As Ben points out, the ambivalence runs deeper. His love is inscrutable. This is what happens when a boy from the farm encounters the mind. As I thought about it then and now, it made me think about how much time people on the farm spend with themselves. There’s an interior life that goes on when one does labor like farming. Those guys are in their heads all of the time. It’s an empty space often, the “fields;” they look out on a landscape and wonder what it all is and know only too well their own insignificance. The inward and the outward become lovers in a way when one does that kind of work. (It makes me think of the rapturously erotic landscapes of Willa Cather in O Pioneers, where the landscape collapses into the erotic body).

    So maybe this is the story of what happens when a farm boy adopts the cloistered life of books. It’s not about success in any traditional sense at all. It’s about the loss that comes when the pure experience of the landscape gives up the ghost for books. One expanse gives way to another, and the loss is keenly felt, particularly in that moment with his parents. One solitude is given up for another. One question of the novel, it seems to me, is whether giving up the solitude of the land is worth it, whether the solitude of books is really solitude at all, in the sense that someone like Montaigne thought of it. Maybe it’s only entre to the loneliness in our culture, exemplified in our higher life in the university–the highest to which we might aspire for the life of the mind (how’s that for success!)–particularly when the banal rigors of academic life present themselves to us and eventually crush us under their weight.

    • I should mention that for Willa, It ain’t guys who experience this. So forgive my “guys” generalization.

  4. These three comments are each so germinal, so productive of many different avenues to keep thinking about this first part of Stoner that I am completely at a loss to respond–thanks to all three of you.

    But perhaps I can loop together all three by posing Ben’s question a little more sharply and turning it on its head: we are all, I think, puzzled by what Stoner wants, what he wants to take from the university, from study, from literature, from his wife, from his friendships. But although he is quite obviously making decisions–often precipitate ones–throughout this section, is it not truer to the novel to ask what wants Stoner? There is a sense, I feel, in which the way that Williams describes Stoner’s response to literature and particularly to books themselves corresponds to a certain tradition of speaking about the earth as actively waiting for the farmer to cultivate it. The books of the university library wait for Stoner to activate them with his touch in a similar way (and for a time, this is true of Edith’s behavior as well, while she is hoping to become pregnant). Stoner is, as yet, more responding to the desires latent in literature and in language, desires which are looking for an outlet; Stoner feels this, and draws near, even as he has not yet found a way to be that outlet.
    Take, for instance, the following passage as an illustration:
    “He planned the course during the week before the opening of the autumn semester, and saw the kinds of possibility that one sees as one struggles with the materials and subjects of an endeavor; he felt the logic of grammar, and he thought he perceived how it spread out from itself, permeating the language and supporting human thought. In the simple compositional exercises he made for his students he saw the potentialities of prose and its beauties, and he looked forward to animating his students with the sense of what he perceived” (27 ppbk).
    “He thought he perceived” is intentionally clumsy, and describes quite aptly the state of Stoner’s intellectual development: he has not been able to respond directly or naturally to these “potentialities” which are pressing themselves upon him.

  5. What does William Stoner want? A life lived with a modicum of integrity dedicated to the maintenance of western civilization via the study of great books and the transmission of their value to oncoming generations. So far, so Harold Bloom perhaps.
    However, Williams’s hard-scrabble upbringing in various obscure precincts of North Texas and his shattering experience in the USAF during WWII drills this down a bit deeper. He was dismayed, naturally, by the early twentieth century flirtation with totalitarianism and total war. Williams also loathed the Texan materialism and anti-intellectualism he’d removed himself from via the GI Bill and that he took to be the milder New World flip-side to such barbarism.

    Stoner’s “isolation” in a Missouri college town is thus also a reflection both of the appeal to his creator of inter-war mid-west isolationism and of his rejection of martial American impulses (especially pronounced in Texas and its “bastard father”, the Volunteer state Tennessee, the birthplace of Williams’s grandfather). Stoner’s low key refusal to serve in WWI and response to both that conflict and WWII–he loses a friend and son-in-law in each respectively–is cast in terms of Bartlebyesque naysaying and retreat. Politically, of course, this may be questionable–Williams in later life admitted that WWII had been “necessary”–but it resonates as a portrait of a certain strain of early to mid C20th American sensibility.

    But the genius of Stoner as a novel, to pursue a line opened up by Peter Kuryla, is that its author refuses to then tell the central figure’s story within conventional success/failure parameters. Take teaching for example. Isn’t it much more interesting that Stoner, notwithstanding his understanding of his career as “calling”, suspects that he isn’t, after all, very good at it? I suspect that this has resonated with many of the book’s academic acolytes (and especially perhaps academics recalling their own university educations). It’s common for us to recall those pedagogues who inspired us but how many others have we kicked into the dustbins of our personal histories? How many times must even the most able of students have listened as clearly more intelligent professionals have struggled to transmit their ideas in the classroom or lecture hall? And how many more times must less able students have struggled? This is because, for the most part, teaching isn’t about “sharing” or “exchange” in the more mundane sense of those verbs but about finding fresh ways of articulating whatever we wish to convey in a fashion that less mature and experienced minds can readily apprehend. We also of course have to help students re-describe complex scenarios in their own language in ways we find acceptable. These are by no means easy undertakings. The processes can be immensely frustrating for the more uncompromising among us and it’s the main reason that good scholars don’t always make for good teachers. The more precious our matter is to us the less we might want to see it alloyed to baser forms of understanding. Stoner, and many more like him, doesn’t see that we have to let it go.

    The capacity for such “compromised” forms of communication also requires a certain sociality which Stoner’s isolated rural upbringing has made him ill-equipped to cultivate. Equally, that upbringing also helps entrench a kind of unworldliness that renders Stoner especially vulnerable, Billy Budd style (overplaying my Melville hand here), to the institutional intrigue that ultimately thwarts his career.

    As Kuryla also notes, however, Stoner’s background does facilitate the process of patient rumination that allows him to pursue, in steady if sometimes painful increments, a less dramatic version of the American success story. Stoner is something of an anti-Gatsby, Gatsby re-drawn by Sherwood Anderson on a better day perhaps, but an equally “heroic” figure nonetheless and a notably less tragic one. Williams always maintained this when readers interpreted Stoner as a “tragedy” rather than the story of a man who, on the whole, lived a fairly good life.

    The novel gives very fine expression then to a once fairly straightforward idea that neoliberal conditions may well have radicalized: that an American life well lived need not be extraordinary. In the (hopefully fading) moment of Trump and amidst the more deeply rooted valorisation of the suddenly rich baby-faced internet mogul, that’s got to be worth something.

    Thanks for all the other commentary on the book by the way; particularly the material on how it reads in light of recent developments in HE. Stoner as heroic adjunct is hard to
    envision. Instead of dying in a firelit home, monograph in hand, Stoner-style, this figure might better be depicted as expiring in an unheated apartment clutching a composition paper.

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