U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Everything You Say Is a Fact, But None of It Is True: Stoner Part II

Stoner John Williams[Part I of this reading group is here.]

For most readers who have been through a PhD program, it is quite likely that in some sense, Stoner ends on page 165 of the paperback edition (169 in hardcover).

“Well,” Rutherford said, walking between Stoner and Holland, “it’s an unpleasant business. No matter how you look at it, it’s an unpleasant business.”

“Yes, it is,” Stoner said and turned away from them.

It is dialogue that, taken out of context in this way, could be quite unobtrusively spliced into the final pages of a film noir script. Yet it is not that at all, but rather the denouement of a harrowing oral comprehensive examination, a scene that, I would wager, affects the once or future PhD reader more potently than anything else in the novel. There is such a condensation of intellectual, emotional, and even moral tension packed into these few pages that a trigger warning might not be entirely inappropriate.

One can argue over what the novel’s primary conflict is: the other possibilities, I suppose, are between Stoner and his wife Edith, or between Stoner and Hollis Lomax, the eventual chair of the department. Or if you wish to be existential, one might say that the novel’s primary conflict is between Stoner and himself or between Stoner and the meaninglessness of existence. For me, though, the novel pivots around Stoner and Walker and the deep opposition between the ways each approaches and makes use of literature. Stoner, for his part, cannot tolerate Walker; he confesses quite candidly to wanting to crush him and banish him from academia. This is a rather uncharacteristically direct expression of will and commitment from the generally passive or oblique postures Stoner typically takes up; Williams also stages no fewer than four major confrontations between Stoner and Walker, as (in addition to voting to fail Walker on his comps) Stoner flunks him in a course on the Latin Tradition and Renaissance Literature the semester before. Walker’s advisor Lomax accuses Stoner of harboring an intense, overmastering prejudice against Walker and, although we are supposed to believe Stoner’s protestations that this charge is specious, it is difficult to dismiss: My God,” he said. “How you make it sound! Sure, everything you say is a fact, but none of it is true. Not the way you say it” (175 hc; 170pb)

In a comment on the first post, Ben noted that he was “struck by how inscrutable Stoner’s loves are… his love of literature / criticism / teaching (it’s even a bit hard to say which it is).” At first blush, as we’ll see, Stoner’s antipathy toward Walker is far from inscrutable. But the more I sit with this conflict between Stoner and Walker the more I am inclined to see some merit in Lomax’s determined accusation that Stoner’s aversion to Walker is excessive and unbalanced. For Stoner expands Walker’s scholarly incompetence into a threat to the university itself, and he does so for reasons that are incredibly unclear, and for that reason are (to me) relatively flimsy, even melodramatic.

As I said, on first glance, the case against Walker is open and shut. In Stoner’s graduate seminar, Walker puts off his presentation to the class until the very end of the semester, making up the sort of paper-thin excuses with which any professor is all too familiar—a book hasn’t come in, a spell of illness interrupted work, etc. Then, rather than speak to the topic he had committed to earlier in the semester, Walker extemporizes a barely veiled attack on the paper which another student in the course had given the week before. Walker’s performance challenges the very premise of the course—that the jewels of (English) Renaissance literature were cut according to classical standards, or at least with the knowledge of those standards. Walker protests that Shakespeare was too much a genius to have been interested in such standards even if there exists proof that he was aware of them. “[P]artaking of that mysterious source to whence all poets go for their sustenance, what need had the immortal bard of such stultifying rules as are to be found in a mere grammar? What would Donatus be to him, even if he had read him? Genius, unique and a law unto itself, needs not the support of such a ‘tradition’ as has been described to us, whether it be generically Latin or Donatan or whatever” (146 hc; 142pb).

This is, I hardly need add, terrible scholarship as well as bad oratory, and no intellectual historian or literary historian will grant it a hearing. When Walker refuses to turn in the manuscript that he supposedly had been working at before his performance, Stoner knows all he needs to know: he recognizes that Walker never did any work on his seminar paper, that all his excuses about difficulties with acquiring materials were worse than exaggerated; they were completely fraudulent. He fails Walker, completely within reason. But he also harangues Walker and admits to anger, he accuses him of “laziness and dishonesty and ignorance,” and he concludes, “Mr. Walker, it seems almost superfluous to say this, but I would most strongly advise you to re-examine your position here. I seriously question whether you have a place in a graduate program” (151 hc; 147 pb)

It is these words which overhang the scene of Walker’s orals. It is another peculiar and obviously fraudulent performance on Walker’s part. His advisor, Lomax, has choreographed his own section of the examination, feeding Walker the answers which he will parrot back during the exam; moreover, Lomax himself intervenes to rephrase many of the questions put to Walker by the other examiners in ways that Walker is prepared to answer. Eventually, Stoner begins his line of questioning, and to preclude the possibility of Lomax’s interference, he asks Walker embarrassingly elementary questions: “Name three medieval dramas… What is the first blank verse tragedy in English? … Can you name any drama of significance before Shakespeare?” and so on. The questioning culminates in Walker mistakenly attributing Byron’s “English Bards and Scottish [sic] Reviewers” to Keats, a particularly egregious lapse, as Walker’s specialty is ostensibly the Romantics.[1] Stoner, again entirely correctly, votes to fail Walker.

Yet now, Stoner expands beyond his earlier denunciation of Walker as incompetent and lazy and paints him as a menace to the academy:

“Do you realize what you’re doing, Stoner? Do you realize what you’re doing to the boy?” [Lomax asks.] “Yes,” Stoner said quietly, “and I’m sorry for him. I am preventing him from getting his degree, and I’m preventing him from teaching in a college or university. Which is precisely what I want to do. For him to be a teacher would be a—disaster.” (167-168 hc; 163pb)

He reiterates this position later, in a conference with Gordon Finch, the dean of the arts and sciences and Stoner’s friend: “It would be a disaster to let him loose in a classroom” (171 hc; 167pb). And then he presses the point, recurring to a conversation from much earlier in the novel, in which their friend Dave Masters half-mockingly identified their covert ideals and visions of the university:

“Gordon, do you remember something Dave Masters said once?”
Finch raised his brows in puzzlement.“Why do you bring Dave Masters up?”
Stoner looked across the room, out of the window, trying to remember. “The three of us were together, and he said— something about the University being an asylum, a refuge from the world, for the dispossessed, the crippled. But he didn’t mean Walker. Dave would have thought of Walker as—as the world. And we can’t let him in. For if we do, we become like the world, just as unreal, just as . . . The only hope we have is to keep him out.” (172 hc; 167pb)

I am not sure what that means; I am not sure how a silver-tongued fraud who idolizes Shakespeare and Shelley and shuns the stacks represents “the world.” What’s worse, I am not sure that Stoner knows. I am not sure that Stoner has anything more substantial behind these words than Walker has behind his ode to genius.

It is a little possible that Williams sees through—and means for us to see through—Stoner. I footnoted the slight error in Stoner’s citation of Byron’s poem, which by itself might be attributed to Williams’s oversight and not Stoner’s. But Stoner may also have another more significant lapse of scholarship. The seminar paper which Walker attacks—the attack which drives Stoner to admit (rather unprofessionally, I feel) to anger and to belittle a student—is by Katherine Driscoll, the woman who will later in the novel be his lover. There is no evidence given during the seminar that Stoner is attracted to Driscoll, but he is attracted to her paper, and it is when he reads Driscoll’s expansion of it into a dissertation that he falls in love with her. He believes it is brilliant, and Williams’s description of his inner state while he reads it records a profound state of intellectual joy:

At first only a nervous edge of his mind touched what he read; but gradually the words forced themselves upon him. He frowned and read more carefully. And then he was caught; he turned back to where he had begun, and his attention flowed upon the page. Yes, he said to himself, of course. Much of the material that she had given in her seminar report was contained here, but rearranged, reorganized, pointing in directions that he himself had only dimly glimpsed. My God, he said to himself in a kind of wonder; and his fingers trembled with excitement as he turned the pages. (190 hc; 185 pb)

Yet there is no more detail about the dissertation’s content than what you see here, and as they work on the dissertation together over the next nineteen or so pages, not a single sentence or even noun gives a further hint as to its argument or its ideas, or even its subject. (For that you have to return to the description of her seminar paper: “Her paper was entitled ‘Donatus and RenaissanceTragedy.’ Her concentration was upon Shakespeare’s use of the Donatan tradition, a tradition that had persisted in the grammars and handbooks of the Middle Ages” {142 hc; 139 pb}.)

Call me hard-hearted or pedantic if you will, but it seems strange to me that Williams so thoroughly evades all intellectual content in describing this ostensibly intellectual romance. There are not very many examples of novels that depict the growth of love between two people as an intellectual process, or at least not many that do it very well (and almost all, I’d add, are written by women—A. S. Byatt, Lily King, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, Doris Lessing), but Williams does not try. The dissertation turns into a sort of romantic McGuffin, there to bring the two together but not to give the reader an additional intellectual satisfaction.

It is entirely possible that Williams simply didn’t want to imagine any more details for the dissertation than that it was about Donatus and Shakespeare. But that is a strange kind of laziness embedded in a story about a man who very vocally despises aversion to precisely that kind of hard intellectual work.

Or, we might consider that the argument of Driscoll’s dissertation—that Shakespeare made use of the Donatan tradition—is, as far as I can tell, mostly a matter of conjecture (like most arguments about Shakespeare’s debts to the classical tradition). While I would not go so far as to say that Walker may have had a point in crediting Shakespeare’s genius rather than the classical tradition, it is, I feel, safe to say that Williams could have given Driscoll a less tendentious subject for her dissertation, and a more solid intellectual foundation for Driscoll’s love affair with Stoner.

Then again, perhaps the dissertation’s precarious inference (Shakespeare’s plays look like they adhere to Donatan principles, ergo Donatus is an influence) would more than have passed muster among English departments of the interwar period, and Williams had no intention beyond creating a plausible topic. I don’t know. But something feels thin here where there should be more substance, and the problem, I think, is Stoner.

[1] The correct title is “English Bards and Scotch Reviewers.”

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Andrew, thou hard-hearted pedant: how dare you put a smack down on one of the great dramatizations in fiction against academic fraudulence and pretension?

    Sorry in advance for the excessive length of this reply: I’ve been dying to keep this conversation going!

    I wonder if the way we respond towards Stoner depends in part on our own position within the academic system, i.e. whether one is in the business of pursuing a graduate degree or granting one. I suspect one’s feelings might change a bit as one crosses to the other side of the examination table. (Personally, I’ve never participated in a Ph.D exam other than my own, so I can’t speak to this directly.) I would note, though, that it isn’t just Stoner that feels shocked and angry about Walker’s blustering bullshit; the other professors at the table are disappointed and alarmed by the degree of fraudulence committed by Walker and Lomax. (Oddly, the novel proposes a rather reductive thesis as to why Lomax is willing to commit this heinous academic sin—vanity, yes, because Walker is his favorite student; but also because Lomax has suffered socially as a “cripple”; Walker, with his stunted arm, is a younger version of Lomax).

    I agree that parts of this novel feel “thin,” but Stoner’s skirmishes with Walker were not the main points of weakness for me. I find the casual way in which he allows his daughter to slip away almost inexplicable—especially in light of his inexorable obstinacy when facing down Lomax. Stoner’s anger and contempt for Walker were quite relatable to me. Maybe I had one too many pretentious classmates in graduate school. Or perhaps the years of teaching are starting to wear down my sympathies—having apprehended plagiarists nearly every semester of my academic career—so I’m prone to side more with the righteous scholar than with the eager but misinformed, deceptive student.

    Driscoll’s topic, given the time and place (Univ. of Missouri, 1920s-1950s), doesn’t seem that far-fetched to me. It seems exactly the type of topic Stoner would be drawn to intellectually—his entire course on the Latin tradition is pitched in just this pedantic direction, approaching a work of literature as derivative of previous classical works. This commitment to “old” historicism also explains why Stoner and his colleagues expect Walker, a scholar of Romanticism, to be familiar with the titles of medieval drama and the history of verse forms—a curricular assumption that almost no English Ph.D program would require of a Romanticist today. Stoner is a backwards-looking, empiricist pedant (he gets high on philology); I don’t find his scholarly assumptions very attractive, but they are intelligible.

    To check these impressions about the scholarly outlook at that time period, I dusted off my copy of Graff’s _Professing Literature_ and turned to the chapter on “scholars vs. critics.” Graff notes that it was quite common in the late 1920s and 1930s for scholars to write entire books hunting down sources, for example, John Livingston Loewes’ _The Road to Xanadu_, a 1927 book-length exposition of the intellectual and literary sources behind Coleridge’s fifty-line poem, “Kubla Khan.”

    I can’t claim a great deal of familiarity with Donatus, but what little I could discover from Google Books suggests that Driscoll’s choice of topic contains a bit of an in-joke on our leading character. Donatus was famous for advancing a theory of classical comedy in which mistakes of identity are seen as constitutive of the plot. Perhaps Driscoll’s dissertation speaks to Stoner so deeply because it prompts a form of self-recognition: she is, after all, the means by which he discovers that the life he had been living—and the love he has failed to experienced in marriage, thus far—are a mistake. The Donatan influence of mistaken identity turns out to be relevant not just to Shakespeare, but to Stoner as well. Like a protagonist in a Shakespearean comedy, Stoner doesn’t know himself until he meets Katherine. (Ironically, Driscoll focuses on a different genre–Donatus and Shakespearean _tragedy_–which is precisely how their relationship turns out).

    One last thought: perhaps we can understand Williams’ decision not to discuss Driscoll’s topic in any detail as a problem of novelistic composition. Isn’t it more fun (and funny) to parody the pedantry of fake scholarship rather than imitate the real thing? As a point of comparison, we might compare _Stoner_ to Section V of Joyce’s _Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man_, where the text goes on forever (okay 20 pages) as Stephen attempts to construct an aesthetic theory based on the philosophy of Aristotle and Aquinas. This part of _Portrait_ is always slow going for my students and for their teacher. Incorporating details about the argument and substance of Driscoll’s dissertation would radically alter the flow and style of _Stoner_. Ultimately, what Stoner cares about—and frankly, what I care about when reading student essays—is less _what_ is being argued, than _how well_ it is argued. This is what excites Stoner about Driscoll’s scholarship, the way it was “rearranged, reorganized, pointing in directions that he himself had only dimly glimpsed.” She has grasped a key aspect of the intellectual calling—how you put together an argument is as important as what you have to say.

  2. Patrick,
    Thanks so much for this pushback, and for the greater context regarding the Donatus question. Both are tremendously helpful! My point about the Donatus project wasn’t that it was an implausible one for the time, though, but that for a novel written in 1965 it was meant to seem not only old-fashioned, but also somewhat dubious. But perhaps I’m wrong about that.

    I do think that where one stands in one’s academic career will likely shape one’s response to the Walker-Stoner conflict, but I don’t know that my lack of sympathy for Stoner’s position is about experience with academic frauds or pretension. I’ve dealt with plagiarism, I’ve dealt with students who lie routinely about their absences, their delays, and so forth. I’ve certainly encountered staggering pretension among academics (one just has to read Niall Ferguson for a full dose!). But I don’t feel that the kind of student Walker is represents the gravest threat to the academy or even to the humanities; I don’t see him as the barbarian at the gate. I frankly pity him, and I am confused by Stoner’s lack of pity.

    Stoner recognizes that Walker has great talent; it just isn’t talent for scholarship. Walker is a superlatively gifted orator; while his speeches seem obnoxiously florid and sententious to us, Stoner certainly acknowledges their power. And that probably holds the key to what is so menacing about Walker in Stoner’s eyes, or in Williams’s eyes. Walker is an academic demagogue, and placing the novel in the context of the early to mid-1960s, it seems likely that Williams injected into it the lingering concerns of the post-WWII authoritarian personality line of thinking. Walker is, to Stoner and to Williams, a sort of Father Coughlin in cap and gown.

    But I just don’t see that, and I feel that Williams doesn’t give us enough to make that characterization stick. What would be Walker’s likely effect in the classroom? If he is such an effective speaker, could he not awaken students to some love of literature? Are we sure that his passion for Shakespeare and Shelley is not genuine, that he is a fraud through and through? I am not willing to go that far, and I don’t feel that Williams provides any reasons to doubt that Walker does not have some kind of passion for poetry.

    To me, Walker is a poor man’s Harold Bloom. I find most of Bloom’s scholarship nugatory and largely self-aggrandizing, but I would bet there are a number of scholars–good ones–in the academy today who read something because he said it was a work of genius, and they found it beautiful, and they became an English major, or a Comp Lit major, and eventually went to grad school. I count that a net gain, and I wonder whether it is so impossible to imagine that Walker might have had something of the same effect, particularly if Stoner had tried to influence him in more constructive directions rather than to crush him.

    I don’t know, though–maybe I’m too forgiving!

  3. Andy,
    Ah, I’ve probably painted myself into a corner here. Who wants the job of defending “standards” and “competence” like a latter-day Matthew Arnold or Irving Babbitt? My analogy with plagiarism was inexact: Walker’s fault is more a matter of his incompetence than trying to pass off work that is not his own. Your response generates the following questions for me: do you need to be a good scholar to be a good teacher? Can a person who is an incompetent researcher nonetheless be an inspiring classroom orator, as you propose Gerald might be?

    Before I take up that issue, let me see if I can harden your heart against Gerald Walker a little. First, Stoner doesn’t _want_ to fail Gerald in his seminar or in the examination. In both cases, Stoner attempts to avert disaster. He asks Gerald not to enroll in his specialized seminar, and he also tries to recuse himself from serving on Gerald’s exam committee (152 pb). In both cases, Gerald _forces_ himself upon Stoner’s attention. GW probably could have glided through the PhD program if he had just stuck with those teachers who didn’t care whether or not he really knew what he was talking about.

    I think we need to emphasize the institutional context here: Stoner doesn’t encounter Walker’s bluster in a popular magazine or on a lecture tour. Gerald isn’t just a bad student in one class, or someone who’s turning in a late paper or a fake paper; he’s a PhD candidate. Stoner has the job of determining, to the best of his ability, whether Walker has the requisite knowledge and habits to serve adequately as a college-level teacher _and_ scholar. Based on a handful of exam questions, it is pretty clear that Walker hasn’t the faintest curiosity about the wider terrain of his declared field of study. As you noted earlier, he’s not even an expert on Romanticism, his declared academic specialty (he flubs the Byron question). Instead, Gerald is committed to Romantic literary ideology: no matter the topic, he rides a hobbyhorse about poetic “genius” off into the sunset. While he may declare his _passion_ for the work of Shakespeare or Shelley, he doesn’t really _know_ their actual writing; he reveres the figure that Emerson called “The Poet” rather than the work of actual poets. Gerald is familiar with a handful of stock passages (Shelley’s “Adonais” comes up, as does Keats’ final words in “Ode to a Grecian Urn”) that fit into his preconceived idea of what “poetry” is, namely, a Platonic emblem of poetic beauty, those Arnoldian touchestones that later produced Pater’s hard gemlike flame. One gathers that Gerald hasn’t read _Titus Andronicus_ or _The Revolt of Islam_ or any of the other works by Shakespeare or Shelley that would challenge his idea of what “great” authors do or say or think. He already knows what greatness is; he doesn’t need to read any further.

    I like your concept of Gerald as a poor man’s Harold Bloom. My take on Bloom’s public impact is pretty much the same as yours—too self-indulgent and idiosyncratic to be helpful to the learned, the inquisitive, or the skeptical, but someone whose public authority helps certain kinds of readers to discover genuinely interesting books. He preaches a gospel of literature and some people take it to heart. My sister-in-law is a devotee and has read all of Emerson’s essays and much of Dickinson as a result of reading Bloom.

    Is this the impact Gerald is likely to have in the classroom, though—to inspire others to read more widely than they otherwise would, to boost their desire to lead a more intellectual life? I don’t think it is. As I said before, Gerald strikes me as a shrinker not an expander of curiosity. He already knows what the great literary monuments are, which touchstones have been blessed with genius. He’s far closer to another Bloom—Allan, not Harold.

    Gerald is also a very different creature from the Harold Bloom who walked around Sterling library in the 1950s reciting entire cantos of Edmund Spenser and Hart Crane, to the amazement and awe of both his fellow graduate students and professors. Gerald does not have the ability, as Bloom did, to ace his PhD exams under the watchful eyes of W.K. Wimsatt, Martin Price, Maynard Mack, Cleanth Brooks and other mid-century Yale luminaries. Unlike Gerald, Bloom went on to produce genuinely innovative scholarship throughout the 1950s-1970s. Bloom had the intellectual firepower and knowledge—the competence—that Gerald, unless he changes his ways, will never possess.

    Personally, I would feel ashamed if my graduate institution allowed someone like Gerald Walker to obtain his Ph.D as if it had the same meaning as my own degree. I don’t want to overvalue the PhD. credential itself—Lord knows, it is certainly possible to be exceptionally competent without one—but when faced with gross inadequacy, isn’t it better to be painfully candid and say ‘no’ rather than let anyone who asks to enter the field? It doesn’t happen often, but I’ve had the unpleasant experience of encountering students who were so poorly prepared as readers that they could not consistently pass the English courses in my department. And even though these students badly wanted to become English majors, we had to tell them to look elsewhere.

    Do you need to be a legit scholar to be a good teacher? I think that depends on what one is trying to “teach.” If your goal is simply to get people to read more often—no matter how well they read—then one’s capacity for scholarship is probably irrelevant. I’m sure we’ve all encountered energetic boosters who fervidly promote a small range of pet literary authors (the Beats, Ayn Rand, Salinger, Plath, etc.) but who are not actually very knowledgeable about what they are talking about. I’ve known quite a few conservatives and even a few high school teachers (the Dead Poets Society variety) who fit this model. Part of me agrees with you that these types of teachers represent a “net gain”—they help to turn people into more committed readers, and isn’t that a good thing? Yet another part of me questions the value of promoting literary ideology for literary ideology’s sake. Does it really matter if you read Shakespeare or Shelley if you read them badly—unhistorically, selectively, through the blinders of rigid classicizing dogma, as Gerald does? I’m not sure what kind of gain that really is. It isn’t clear to me that reading “great” works really matters if you read them without possessing sensitivity to language, context, form, moral complexity, etc. One could spend one’s time just as profitably with didactic science fiction or Harry Potter.

    Since this is a history blog, I’ll see if I can apply the lesson to a different field. There are many popularizers out there who promote the study of history for nakedly ideological purposes—whether it involves worshipping the American founders, praising old Abe Lincoln, or thanking god for free markets—but we may want to question the intellectual value of such endeavors when they chalk up hits on best seller lists or on the History Channel. As Thomas Haskell writes, “the very possibility of historical scholarship as an enterprise distinct from propaganda requires of its practitioners that vital minimum of ascetic self-discipline that enables a person to do such things as abandon wishful thinking, assimilate bad news, discard pleasing interpretations that cannot pass elementary tests of evidence and logic, and, most important of all, suspend or bracket one’s own perceptions long enough to enter sympathetically into the alien and possibly repugnant perspectives of rival thinkers.” It seems to me that a teacher who has also been trained as a scholar is far more likely to acquire these ascetic virtues than one who has not. This is what Stoner fears about Gerald’s future as a teacher and scholar–that he would never advance beyond propaganda.

    In any case, your post has provided a great occasion for me to get in touch with my inner Stoner. I’m so grateful for your thoughtful reflections on this novel, Andy. It is one of the more interesting novels I’ve read in quite some time and your comments have shed a great deal of light on its puzzling narrator.

  4. Patrick,
    This is a terrific and truly inspiring defense of scholarly curiosity. And it is everything that I value as well. (Maybe not Spenser recitations. TFQ rolls over my mind like sludge.) Curiosity to me is the sine qua non of scholarship, and if someone lacks it, I don’t think there’s much hope for them.

    But I feel that we probably differ as to what Walker’s besetting sin is, or even what we mean when we say incompetence. It did not occur to me that Walker was incurious. I felt merely that he had that mixture of arrogance and insecurity which often characterizes extremely eloquent but facile speakers or writers. His eloquence has worked for him very well so far, it seems, and so he leans on that and takes great pride in that. But he also recognizes that a deeper, more nuanced knowledge of his subjects may hamper or bog down his flights of oratory, and so he is chary of any real study. This likely has much to do with his physical disability–not having the capacity to play normally with other children or adolescents, he would have been acutely sensitive about appearing to be bookish or a “grind.” So, finding a way to win admiration through his oratory, he directed his energies there and drew away from activities which could make him appear too studious.

    Of course, this is entirely speculative. (It is, as you indicate, a mark of how strong a novel Stoner is, though, that we can have such a detailed discussion about one of its characters very much as if they had a full life beyond what the novel itself gives us!) But if my account is at all persuasive, then my counsel for Stoner would have been to try to win Walker over, to introduce him to the joy of research and of rigor, to show him how the rewards of deeper knowledge outweigh the cheaper victories of phrase-making. If Walker is truly incurious, then there’s no hope there. But if he’s just arrogant and insecure, well then, I think he’s quite salvageable, and Stoner’s refusal to try represents a failure on his part and not on Walker’s (or Lomax’s).

    I am still quite unsure where Williams stands–whether I am simply importing these ideas wholesale into the novel or whether there isn’t a hint of Williams’s own slight disapproval of Stoner’s austere standards. Lomax’s scholarship is not in question in the novel–Stoner even acknowledges that Lomax is probably the best “man” in the department and deserves the appointment as chair for more than his administrative skills. I also think that it is worth noting that Williams inserts into some of the procedural comments by Rutherford indications that these exams (as is the case in most doctoral programs) are meant not as conclusive statements on the candidate’s readiness as a full-fledged member of the profession but as interim progress reports. “This was an examination which all doctoral candidates underwent, [Rutherford said] and it was designed not only to judge the candidate’s general fitness, but also to determine strengths and weaknesses, so that his future course of study could be profitably guided” (emphasis added, 153 pb). Clearly, Walker was not a fit candidate at that moment and did not deserve a pass. But Lomax does bring up the possibility of a conditional pass, and a great deal rides on whether he is suggesting that merely to neutralize Stoner (with no intentions of pushing Walker to make good on that extra time before re-taking his comps) or whether it is meant in good faith: Lomax merely fears the finality of a failing grade and intends to make Walker into a candidate who is fit, who has done the reading.

    I don’t know whether issues like time to degree were as paramount for the English department at Mizzou in the 20s or 30s as they are today, but the language Williams uses to describe the scheduling of Walker’s orals seems to me to indicate a sort of inflexible routine: ready or not, Walker had to take them when they were scheduled (156 hc; 152 pb). It is thus not terribly difficult to imagine that Lomax was acting from something less than malevolent motives in trying to squeeze Walker past the committee when he knew Walker was unprepared. My feeling is that he believed that Walker would make up for his poor preparation later, that he could vouch for Walker’s essential quality, and that he could take Walker more in hand and mold him into a good scholar as long as Walker wasn’t run out of the program. Lomax also seems to have taken Stoner’s stance quite personally, and there is clearly some degree of mortified vanity at stake. But that is a petty offense, and it is only Lomax’s unrelenting vindictiveness that exceeds a pretty ordinary response.

    As I said before, I know that I am being extremely charitable to Walker and Lomax, and perhaps that is unwarranted, or at least unsupported by the text. But when I say that I think Walker is incompetent, I don’t mean that he is impossible as a scholar, only woefully incomplete.

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