Stoner: A Rarely Read American Classic

stoner John-Williams-Stoner

I recently heard about an American novel that nobody in America cares about. What’s remarkable is that outside of America the novel is a big success; a classic American writing that simply must be read. This novel is called Stoner, and it was published in 1965 by John Williams to be overshadowed years later by Williams’ next work: Augustus. What is Stoner? To take a stab at such a question in such a small space: Stoner is a novel about solitude. It first takes you into a world in which a man, William Stoner, begins a desperate search to find meaning for himself so that he can no longer feel both lost and disappointed. He begins by connecting himself to people, only to find that the company of others is no cure for loneliness. He finishes in defiance; finding his own solitude that overcomes desire.

The plot of Stoner centers around a man, as named above, William Stoner, who is confronted by his father one day after working all day on the family farm. Stoner’s father wants him to go to college and get a degree in Agriculture, so that he can better attend to the family farm. Stoner is conflicted, but dutifully obeys his father and goes to school at the University of Missouri in Columbia. During his sophomore year, Stoner takes his required survey of English Literature and is unsettled by it, causing him to pursue a degree in English instead of Agriculture. In the end, Stoner becomes an academic, forsaking his father’s wishes and finding himself a stranger to both himself and others in the process.

There are multiple remarkable aspects of the novel, but I start first with the prose. Williams’ prose is straightforward, there is no fluff, there are no wasted words. Each term is carefully selected and it shows. The book quickly becomes unskimmable. There is a tremendous scene in the beginnings of the book which I will not spoil, but it must be remarked that the description of human idiosyncrasies and perfect situational honesty that Williams exhibits is special. It is in this scene that Stoner makes known that each sentence has the potential to disturb, depress, uplift, or cause a reader to laugh. There was the sense of being on something like a roller-coaster, in which each sentence was a sharp turn in a different direction.

Stoner will most likely remain most memorable to me due to its characters, yet this is precisely why I did not walk away from the novel thinking it was as good as a novel I find exceptionally similar: John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. In East of Eden, Steinbeck tells the stories of two families who become entwined with one another. It is primarily a novel told through the experiences of the different characters and spans the scope of a lifetime. In it, a man forsakes his father and his family by leaving the family farm for one of his own. He furthers this by marrying a woman he has no real knowledge of, and the novel becomes an explication on the repercussions of his actions. Stoner is doing something very similar, but makes its narrative unfold through a focus on one particular character. The novels differentiate in prescription, in the end, as Williams portrays the value of Stoicism and Steinbeck moving towards a hopeful message of life being more than simple repetition, and that if one so chooses, he or she may triumph over the things that inhibit his or her full humanity from being realized.

The similarities extend greatly to the main female characters found in both novels. Both Edith, who William Stoner marries, and Cathy Ames, who Adam Trask (the main character in East of Eden) marries. Steinbeck has been criticized for Cathy Ames, as people have chosen to view her as an indictment against women rather than as the embodiment of evil, which Steinbeck intended her to be. Edith, I highly doubt Williams’ wrote to be even remotely an embodiment of evil. However, she most certainly participates in relation to Stoner in the same way Cathy does with Adam Trask. In a way, both novels portray people who are acting for their own egos and wills, and then flesh out the implications of their actions. This happens below the main theme of both books, which is an examination of the path from naivety to enlightenment.

You, as the reader, are emotionally invested in the characters, be it with intense dislike or a near fandom. I don’t think there is an escape from this aspect of both books. The characters are crafted with a purpose and a reason. None of them can be thrown away without the book losing something important to its success.

In the end Stoner was difficult read, not detracting from how good it is, because it is relentless. It takes no pauses in the match, continuing to unwearily fight back and body punch its reader with the life of William Stoner. It is a worthwhile read, though I am unsure if I want to read it again.

Stoner succeeds greatly at what it does, much like The Catcher in the Rye, but it simply isn’t a favorite book of mine and took a lot out of me to read.

Recommended to: Those who enjoyed East of Eden, those who like a strong emotionally investing novel, and the general public. This book is important and is not difficult in its use of language or style. This is a classic American novel that should be read.

Avoid as if it was Clayton Kershaw on short rest: Those who cannot handle a “depressing” novel. Though I found the ending complex and interesting, on a basic level, I would imagine most people finding it upsetting.


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