The 50th Anniversary of John Williams’ Stoner
John Williams’s Stoner — which this month is celebrating its 50th anniversary with a tastefully geometric hardback edition from New York Review Books — is a quiet novel; a portrait painted in sober tones of the life of a somber, unremarkable man, a story that unfolds softly and with grace. The book treads along with William Stoner, from his birth and childhood on a small family farm in rural Missouri, to university where he is awakened to his inner life, on through World War I and the Great Depression, his years as an instructor, his marriage, the birth of his family, the destruction of it, and finally, inevitably, his death. It’s the stuff of Russian literature, and a novel that has become more necessary today than ever before.
But unlike the Russians, there are no great battles and very few untimely deaths. Stoner is no ostensible hero. He does not partake in the Great War. He does not crusade for his love or rage for justice. He is a scholar. He writes a meddling book of lit theory, lectures piously, marvels at his daughter, stands for the sanctity of literature. He is passive and, quite possibly, dull. At least from the outside. In other words, he is the exact opposite of what much of modern literature asks of its protagonists. Today, no story is sufficiently alive without a quirky, irksome narrator, an acerbic and stifled genius, an anti-hero.