In his extreme youth Stoner had thought of love as an absolute state of being to which, if one were lucky, one might find access; in his maturity he had decided it was the heaven of a false religion, toward which one ought to gaze with an amused disbelief, a gently familiar contempt, and an embarrassed nostalgia. Now in his middle age he began to know that it was neither a state of grace nor an illusion; he saw it as a human act of becoming, a condition that was invented and modified moment by moment and day by day, by the will and the intelligence and the heart.
William Stoner grew up on a farm, a hardscrabble farm too small to provide more than just subsistence living. They were an undersized family for that time period, just his father and mother and himself. It took all of them to keep up with the backbreaking work of a farm in the early 20th century. His father, in his own way, a visionary man could see that farming was on the cusp of great changes. He sent Stoner to the University of Missouri to find out what the future was going to be for agriculture. Stoner wasn't an inspired student. He still had to work on a relative's farm to pay for his tuition and found the more work he did the less help he got from his relatives. He still had to go back to the family farm and help his father whenever he had spare time. He was almost too busy to worry too much about school
The first pivotal moment for Stoner is when he is sitting in an English class taught by his future mentor. The professor puts him on the spot asking him to explain a Shakespeare Sonnet. Stoner was dumbfounded not only with embarrassment, but by the language of the English bard. He switched majors from the department of agriculture to the department of English literature.
I grew up on a farm about 80 years after Stoner, as anticipated by Stoner's father, production agriculture took great leaps forward replacing a lot of backbreaking labor with machines. Farmers were able to increase their land holdings as tractors and thrashers allowed them to maximize daylight hours. I stacked a lot of hay, feed cattle in subzero weather, pulled calves (you've never been properly slimed until you've spent time up to your elbow in a cow's uterus.), fixed fence, rode tractors listening to Royals baseball games to keep from dozing off, drove trucks full of grain, and every minute I wasn't doing something for the farm or playing sports I was reading books. My parents don't know how it happened. It must have been an aberrant gene. Nobody I knew read books, except for the good book, which most of the time I couldn't tell they'd grasped many of the concepts of that book either.
The 1980s farm crises hit just as I was coming of age. Land values had jumped up and many farmers had expanded their operations. Then land values plummeted and bankers started realizing that the loans they had made to these farmers were no longer secured with enough equity. They started calling their customer's notes due. Thousands of farmers were forced to sell out. My Dad survived by the skin of his teeth. He decided there was no future in farming and told me I was going to college. My younger brother was a better fit for farming anyway. My Dad knew that I wasn't really cut out to be a farmer (my nose in a book all the time might have been the tip-off). A crises for many created an opportunity for me. Like Stoner I majored in English Literature.
Stoner becomes a teacher. He decides not to go to war with his friends and suffers from the stigma of swimming against the tide. This is a theme for Stoner, going his own way, ignoring the odd looks, and the snide remarks. He meets a demure young woman named Edith and pursues her doggedly believing that his kindness would be recognized and appreciated by someone so fragile. The description of the consummation of the marriage is one of the grimmest most agonizing that I have ever read.
"Edith was in bed with the covers pulled to her chin, her face turned upward, her eyes closed, a thin frown creasing her forehead. Silently, as if she were asleep, Stoner undressed and got into bed beside her. For several moments he lay with his desire, which had become an impersonal thing, belonging to himself alone. He spoke to Edith, as if to find a haven for what he felt; she did not answer. he put his hand upon her and felt beneath the thin cloth of her nightgown the flesh he had longed for. He moved his hand upon her; she did not stir; her frown deepened. Again he spoke, saying her name to silence; then he moved his body upon her, gentle in his clumsiness. When he touched the softness of her thighs she turned her head sharply away and lifted her arm to cover her eyes. She made no sound."
For a man so sensual and in need of romantic love he unfortunately married the wrong woman. He hoped for a partner, but found himself roped to a woman that embraced invalidism and waged nasty little wars against him that by his nature made him incapable of defending himself. He finds solace in books and spends more and more of his time at the University in Jesse Hall reading.
Jesse Hall at the University of Missouri
Stoner makes enemies of some of his coworkers. He is so unsuited for office politics that it proves to be a detriment to him. Though I was so proud of him towards the end of the book when he cleverly outflanks a department chair intent on driving him from the profession.
He meets a woman, a very special woman as if molded by the gods to be the perfect mate for him. Her name is Katherine Driscoll and the gymnastics involved with the misinterpretations, missteps and miscues of their burgeoning relationship left me emotionally drained. There are movies sometimes or television shows where the audience is on the edge of their seat waiting for the moment when the characters finally realize they are meant to be together and kiss for the first time. Well it wasn't a kiss that became that epic moment for William and Katherine.
"He found himself trembling; as awkwardly as a boy he went around the coffee table and sat beside her. Tentatively, clumsily, their hands went out to each other; they clasped each other in an awkward, strained embrace; and for a long time they sat together without moving, as if any movement might let escape from them the strange and terrible thing that they held between them in a single grasp."
Stoner's enemies leap at an opportunity to destroy him. Even the liberal community of a university has it's limits. Stoner for the first time in his life is becoming the person he always wanted to be, but the heady days of joy are under assault, and he is trapped by his own sense of honor. He suffers for love just as he is starting to understand it.
"In this forty-third year William Stoner learned what others much younger, had learned before him: that the person one loves at first is not the person one loves at last, and that love is not an end but a process through which one person attempts to know another."
This is such a deceptively simple novel. The sparse, powerful prose give this book so much depth. Stoner gets under your skin. He is so stoic in the face of continued and unremitting harassment from the people around him that I found myself sharing the pain with him. The author John Williams grew up on a small farm in Texas and had a similar escape to the University as Stoner and I. He ended up developing the writing program for the University of Denver. In the introduction by John McGahern he relates something that Mr. Williams said that resonates with me as well.
Williams complains about the changes in the teaching of literature and the attitude to the text "as if a novel or poem is something to be studied and understood rather than experienced."
I'm a reader that likes to be told a story. I don't want to break books down to their mathematical or scientific structures. I want the mysticism, the emotion of a journey that expands my understanding of humanity. William Stoner is as real to me as the mailman that delivers my mail or the publisher that signs my checks. If I ever run into him I will shake his large, farm hardened hand and ask him if he has a little bit of time to talk to me about a certain sonnet written by a man by the name of Shakespeare.