Book Discussion [Stoner]: “What did you expect?”

A quick internet search reveals that John Williams’ novel Stoner has become something of a literary phenomenon since its re-release by NYRB Classics a few years ago. Appreciated if not adored when it was originally published in 1965, today it’s become an international bestseller. I suppose I want to start my meandering thoughts on the novel by asking Why now? That is to say, what does it say about the novel and the times that it’s now captured the literary imagination. Obviously, some works of art just take a while to find their audience. Moby-Dick famously needed some seventy or eighty years to gain its momentum. It seems all the more obvious to me, however, that such works do not simply lie in wait like Prince Charmings turned toads, quietly minding the years, puckering for every princess who walks by before finally being picked up and smooched by one of the maids. The novel, and by this I mean any novel, is somehow different “now” than it was “then.” Strictly speaking, there is no “then” to speak of. It’s funny to me that we can say what appears to be the opposite and mean the same thing: “then” is only ever spoken of.

Perhaps then, better than Why now? I should pose the same question differently. Who now? That is, who now is reading Stoner, and finding in this story of a single, rather cut-and-dry life of a middle class, unremarkable English professor, something not nearly so homogenous? Well before David Foster Wallace was extolling the hum drum as a medium for a life’s worth of passion, and ultimately failing in his attempt to render this message in a novel, it seems to me that John Williams did so in Stoner. This isn’t to say it cannot be done again, or that no other artist worth her salt should try — no new things under the sun, etc. My point, maybe a little clumsily expressed, is rather to unite the questions: who are these readers looking for a different perspective on the mundane? and why are they now so ravenous? Again, I refuse to think the answer is so so banal as we’re somehow more mundane now than they were then.

So perhaps better still we should clarify our sense of “now” when we pose either question — or, yes, maybe it’s just me asking them — you’re certainly free to have your own questions. As I see it, to add “now” to Why? or to Who? is not necessarily to set it in contrast to a “not-now” — oh, let’s just say it, to the past or the future. It also raises the hoary old thing we used to call “meaning” before we were vaccinated of such sentimentality by a good many well-placed postmodern suspicions. (Hat-tip to Adam Kotsko for this idea.) Indeed, one of the things I love about Stoner is that it clings in such a defiantly anachronistic way not only to meaning but, oh dear, passion!

He had, in odd ways, given it most fully when he was unaware of his giving. It was a passion neither of the mind nor of the flesh; rather, it was a force that comprehended them both, as if they were but the matter of love, its specific substance. To a woman or to a poem, it said simply: Look! I am alive.

“Look! I am alive.” I.e., I am now. That I at one point was not and that I at another point will not be are moot, obvious points. I am now: that is all.

Does that change the tenor of the questions then: Why now? and Who now? I think so, if for no other reason than it compels us to focus on what is the case rather than what isn’t. Wait, but that’s a blurred way of expressing what I mean. Because let’s face it: there’s no escaping the what isn’t. Consider William Stoner near death’s door:

Dispassionately [n.b.: how quickly passion escapes us], reasonably [n.b.: the getaway car], he contemplated the failure that his life must appear to be. He had wanted friendship and the closeness of friendship that might hold him in the race of mankind; he had had two friends, one of whom had died senselessly before he was known, the other of whom had now withdrawn so distantly into the ranks of the living that . . . He had wanted the singleness and the still connective passion of marriage; he had had that, too, and he had not known what to do with it, and it had died. He had wanted love; and he had had love, and had relinquished it, had let it go into the chaos of potentiality. Katherine, he thought. “Katherine.”

And he had wanted to be a teacher, and he had become one; yet he knew, he had always known, that for most of his life, he had been an indifferent one. He had dreamed of a kind of integrity, of a kind of purity that was entire; he had found compromise and the assailing diversion of triviality. He had conceived wisdom, and at the end of the long years he had found ignorance. And what else? he thought. What else?

The what isn’t of now — the regrets of the past (the failures of actuality and the impotence of potentiality) and the resignations to the future (that at some point there will be no answer to the question “What else?”) — isn’t something so easily avoided. Arguably, and maybe in the comments if not the post itself I’ll make this argument, Stoner‘s enduring value is its meditation on the play between “what isn’t” and “now,” and its willingness not simply to declare the latter victorious in some kind of look-at-me existential triumph.

No, for in Stoner the now is unsexily tucked in a geographical pocket of rarely regarded America (rural Missouri) during a period rightly regarded with a lot of justifiable chagrin (most noticeable in the treatment of Stoner’s lover by the novel’s characters and Stoner’s wife by the novel’s narration — more on this later), and it is slightly stooped and worn. To what extent, I wonder, can we affirm that both in spite of the differences and not merely because of the similarities, this now is our now. For in it we keep posing the same nagging question Stoner asks himself throughout the final chapter, as both vindication and interrogation: “What did you expect?”

12 thoughts on “Book Discussion [Stoner]: “What did you expect?”

  1. Wonderful post, Brad.

    When I read it, the ending puzzled me somewhat, but now it makes more sense when I think about it through the distinction between “what isn’t” and “now” that you’ve laid out here.

    Then I realised this too: before he discovers his love for literature, Stoner was a man who lived in the present. He didn’t think much of his past, nor of his future, but just performed the tasks he was prescribed religiously. It seems that the value of living in the present only occurs to him when he starts to think about the past and the future, this thought having been initiated by his encounter with literature in Sloane’s class in his sophomore year. After that experience, he is aware of how much more literature he is yet to read—how much pleasure there is to be found in the future. He is also aware of how literature itself is a record of the past, and that reading is an encounter with lives past—so, the pleasure to be found in the past.

    But, of course, it’s an ambivalent affair. The thought of the future brings him pain too—the realisation that there’s more to be read than he has time for. The past that is neither recorded nor narrativised to be read is opaque, mysterious, and unsettling—just like when he reflects on his own past and struggles to maintain a continuity between his former life as a man of the land to his current life as a man of teaching.

  2. And even when he seems to be living in the present, like in his affair with Katherine, the past and the future are still at work. He values the affair because his marriage had failed and tries to live what could’ve been his marriage—one of passion. But the passion he has with Katherine is one that is inseparably mingled with the dispassion of his marriage, because he only values the former in light of the latter. It is a medium by which he interrogates, negotiates with the past—the past, the enigma, of his marriage—which remains ever so opaque to him. Thus, in the affair he is stuck in the past and unable to see the future to which he and Katherine are heading, and this future that is equally opaque to Stoner only appears to him when it’s too late, ie. has already past, has become irretrievable. After all, it is only in retrospect that he sees that Katherine was able to see the future that awaited them.

    In the marriage, quite opposite was the case—he could only see the passion to come (which I think explains to some extent his preference to wait until his wife changes, than try to change her—always playing the waiting game) and cannot see the nature of the passion that attracts him to Edith. He never tries to understand why he desired her, what she was to him, and here I’d like to make a suggestion: I think he saw his former self in her, and desired to teach her to become like him, as Sloane taught him to become who he was now. He saw in her a passion that hadn’t been allowed to be expressed, an intelligence that never met a suitable environment, parents that never saw her potential but kept her in isolation—sounds very familiar, huh?! I think Stoner’s one passion throughout the novel is his passion to teach—that he inherits from Sloane—and it is this same passion that he directs to Edith, and Katherine (in a more obvious way).

    I wonder what the outcome would’ve been if he had had the occasion to interrogate his desire.
    Would something have changed?

  3. It seems odd that the condition mentioned in the first sentence doesn’t show up in the further discussion of the question “why now?”. Why now rather than a decade ago? Well, it was only re-released under a prestigious imprint a few years ago. That doesn’t explain why, when it was re-released, it caught on as well as it did (I’m sure that being re-released by NYRB rather than by a much smaller press didn’t hurt, but not everything NYRB brings out does so well), but it surely has something to do with the fact that it *didn’t* have all that success before. People may have been ravenous earlier as well.

  4. Ben, odd indeed.

    nullibiquite, that’s an interesting thought, re: how Stoner’s passion for teaching is directed also to Edith & Katherine. I’d not considered that at all w/ respect to his relationship with Edith. Do you have any particular sections in mind when you suggest he wanted to teach Edith to become like him?

  5. I looked in the book and it seems like all that stuff’s in Chapter 3. Edith first enters Stoner life in a moment of astonishment—he is stunned by her because he thinks her “the most beautiful woman he had ever seen,” and so he says, “I—I want to know about you.” (51) He wants to know, to understand, this alluring object. At this moment, she’s an anomaly, a curiosity—but he’s not yet in love.

    Fast forward to their first meeting. After some serious *awks*! moments, Stoner decides to bail. “Gee, I can’t understand this girl,” he must be thinking, “What am I to do with her?”—so he settles on the classic male move, the time-out: “May I call on you again in a few days? Perhaps…” (53)

    Then Edith starts babbling all of a sudden.

    He is amazed, and his immediate desire is “to tell her to stop, to comfort her, to touch her.” Yet, “He did not move or speak.” (53) He can’t understand her babbles yet, and probably wants to stop her because he thinks she’s speaking in tongues or something, but he decides to be patient and “after a while he began to her what she was saying.” See, patience always pays off.

    And it is only when it’s over that he first “knew that he was in love.” (53)

    So this babblepisode is absolutely crucial in Edith’s transformation from a captivating object to a love object.

    And how does he interpret this babblepisode?—”. . . what he heard was a kind of confession, and what he thought he understood was a plea for help.” (54)

    Understood this way, Edith is a perfect object for his ‘educational’ desire. She needs to be helped, to be cultivated, to be taught.

    The passage immediately following the above quote, from pp. 54-55, is all about the education Edith had actually gone through, how it had been premised on “protection” or defence against herself, that is, her sexuality. She is forced to become the woman she isn’t, so that that volatile force called sexuality can be contained. It is through this immense cultural wall of defence, “to that inner privacy William Stoner now intruded.” (55) And his intrusion wasn’t completely unwarranted, because Edith herself admits that “something unsuspected within her, some instinct, made her call him back . . .” (55) And I make a personal association here between this instinct and that not entirely conscious ‘instinct’ that made Stoner call Sloane (well, literature) back after that sophomore English class. And in both cases, the “call back” was preceded by a long silence. So, I saw that class scene being somewhat replayed in the scene with Edith.

  6. But alas, Edith’s immense cultural wall of defence proved to be much tougher to breach than the farmer’s veil of ignorance. There was not much enjoyment to give up in Stoner’s case by adopting a non-farmer lifestyle, but in Edith’s case I guess she couldn’t really let go of the enjoyment she got from her defensive manoeuvre. Edith’s character reminded me of this passage in Freud:

    “The motives for being ill often begin to be active even in childhood. A little girl in her greed for love does not enjoy having to share the affection of her parents with her brothers and sisters; and she notices that the whole of their affection is lavished on her once more whenever she arouses their anxiety by falling ill. She has now discovered a means of enticing out her parents’ love, and will make use of that means as soon as she has the necessary psychical material at her disposal for producing an illness. When such a child has grown up to be a woman she may find all the demands she used to make in her childhood countered owing to her marriage with an inconsiderate husband, who may subjugate her will, mercilessly exploit her capacity for work, and lavish neither his affection nor his money upon her. In that case ill-health will be her one weapon for maintaining her position. It will procure her the care she longs for; it will force her husband to make pecuniary sacrifices for her and to show her consideration, as he would never have done while she was well; and it will compel him to treat her with solicitude if she recovers, for otherwise a relapse will threaten. Her state of ill-health will have every appearance of being objective and involuntary—the very doctor who treats her will bear witness to the fact; and for that reason she will not need to feel any conscious self-reproaches at making such successful use of a means which she had found effective in her years of childhood.” (Freud, Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria, SE7:44-5)

  7. I got my book finally today and read it once quickly. Tomorrow I’ll do so again and return with fuller thoughts, but just to keep the conversation going I’d like to offer something now (and also because its 2am and I’m having trouble sleeping).

    First, I quite thoroughly disagree that the story of Edith can or should be summed up as a failed attempt by Stoner to replicate in her his own awakening. I don’t for a moment wish to exculpate Stoner or the narrator from the opprobrium their treatment of Edith ought justly to bring upon them — for example the repeated characterization of Edith as an aggressor in a war, both calculating and dispassionate (as she is portrayed in her firsts interaction with Stoner), yet weak and sentimental (as she is portrayed in “stooping” to use their child as a weapon even while — we are told — sincerely believing herself to be acting out of maternal love). I detested how Williams implicated me in that chauvinistic point of view as I found myself having, actively and repeatedly, to resist a steadily insinuated enmity against her. — BUT, at the same time I think it would be possible and useful to consider the possibility of a sort of feminist reading. On this reading, Edith’s development is parallel in form to Stoner’s in a way that amounts to a powerful critique of gender expectations. Stoner’s early story is presented as the rise from peasant to scholar, the installing in a heart of clay the Promethean fire of literature. (I would propose that this is ironic and that Williams offers us a satire upon the dubious notion of a precious inner life, that he seeks meaning in aesthetic and intellectual activities withou resorting to Cartesian dualism. — If the “most highlighted by readers” sections in my Kindle edition of the book are any indication, most readers have completely missed this aspect of the story. But I’ll reserve my remarks on this subject for later comment or their own post.) Anyway, in contrast to Stoner’s man-of-the-soil to man-of-the-mind thing, we witness Edith’s opposite apotheosis. She has been cultivated in the ethereal graces meant to subserve an overriding duty to a husband, art and music. Yet she has transmuted these arts of subordination into a sort of aesthetic life of her own. When we meet her she is preparing to travel to Europe, to enrich — this is key in my counter-reading — a “life of the mind” she already posses. Upon her marriage she is taken aside — literally at her wedding — and introduced to the earthy reality of adult sexuality. Furthermore, though never trained in the necessary skills, she clearly perceives that her role as wife is expected to be one in which she maintains a house. Her transformation is *into* creature of soil from creature of mind — naturally, the drift of this transformation is not smooth and joyous, the working out of a feeling of vocation, but harsh and dangerous, the suppression of genuine interests by a heteronomous and hierarchical concept of duty. Stoner’s turning point is a moment in a sophomore survey of literature class, which his mentor later glosses (in a way that enriches the parallel I’m trying to draw) as falling in love. Edith’s turning point is in calling Stoner back as he prepares to depart, narrating her life story to him — dutifully conforming to the norms of that as which burgeoning love has been represented to her. Now the point of all this is that both characters’ choices are socially appropriate and formally parallel (I might point out further points of parallel — e.g., both confirm their decisions by giving up a chance to go to Europe), yet the immediate outcomes are wildly different. Both pursue socially sanctioned passion; and the essential inequality of that society is revealed in the way in which the man’s passion gives him joy and the woman’s turns into the crucifying kind of passion. I need to stop because the insomnia is making me bombastic. But perhaps we could explore the ways in which the novel could be seen to function as a feminist critique — though we can and should also level such a critique upon it.

  8. Note that I’m proposing an alternative to nullibiquite’s comments about Edith here, not to anything in Brad’s post. Re: Brad’s question who now? And why now? I have some further thoughts, but I’ll save them for morning. (Er, later in the morning.)

  9. There’s a moment on p. 83 that I find very interesting, in which Edith has a sort of sexual awakening. What’s interesting about this section to me is that it happens in such a manner that Stoner is not at all privy to it. Up to this point, and for the most part beyond, the narrator & Stoner seem to see things in a corresponding way — esp. as it relates to Editth. But for this moment, as she inspects her body in the mirror, it is completely outside the view of Stoner. I’m actually still unsure what to do w/ this short bit, or even if I desperately want to read too much into it. Nevertheless, it just feels different to me than the rest of the book’s presentation of Edith, and this has entirely to do (it seems to me) because it escapes Stoner’s attention. He only encounters the consequences of her awakening. Anyway, I bring it up not to dictate what I think it’s happening, but to see if others notice anything else going on there.

  10. When Edith visits her mother after her father dies, Williams recounts the circumstances of her decision to change her style and ‘renew her assault’ on Stoner. This also occurs outside of Stoner’s view. I suspect the implication of both passages — this one and the one you mention, Brad — is, among other things, that Edith only acts freely — in the sense that she gathers herself together and makes plans — when not in Stoner’s presence. Of course there is a parallel in that Stoner shows, from first to last, a similar inability to gather himself and make plans in her presence. For example: his awkward first attempt at courting. Or the curious way in which they two interact regarding Katherine. Their singularly uncommunicative relationship depends in part upon the fact that each of them only encounters, as you put it, the “consequences” of the other’s decisions. The brief moment when something else was a possibility — described by Williams as the first part of the honeymoon, in which they walked around and happily made plans together for the future — was crushed with finality by the fiasco of sex.

  11. Aren’t there much more mundane reasons why the novel failed to attract much attention in 1965?

    The rather mundane existence of Stoner himself was not going to be very appealing to 1965 readers who were looking at the exploding campuses of the late 1960s. That is to say, we in 2013 know that the campus rebellion of 1968 is going to fail miserably, and in fact, that that failure presaged the decline of American public higher education simply. But that’s not what a reader in 1965-1968 is going to know – they’re looking at the University of Wisconsin of the time and thinking that the University of Missouri might as well be next as any other place. Stoner’s struggles look trivial or unimportant in that light – why should the reader care about the mediocre intellectual life of an era that they think (falsely) is imminently going to vanish? We only recognize Stoner’s tragedy because of the our own past four or five decades, something that most readers in 1965 were not going to be able to easily relate to.

    There’s also the mundane reason that, in 1965, American literature was going to go into it’s misguided foray into more radical literary experimentation, as exemplified by Vonnegut. It’s something that’s notable in a lot of realist writer’s careers in the mid-1960s. The same thing happened, for instance, to Richard Yates, Seymour Epstein, Evan Connell, Edward Wallant and others. Their careers essentially stopped dead for a few decades (of course, Wallant simply just died, but it’s true of his literary reputation).

  12. Sorry for the absence, guys—I was stuck in Yorkshire without a computer, or even internet for that matter!

    Rob, I do think that the book opens itself to social critique like that. Williams does it himself, in fact—for example, when he talks about Edith’s moral education, it’s clear that he sees her personality as partly a product of her times. In addition to her personality, we also witness the social pressures to which she is subjected—for example, she has been prescribed art and music, though they do not appear to be where her talents lie. Given the description of her as having grown to a height near that of a grown man and the “ungainliness” of her body (55), it seems that even her body is rebelling against the mould that’s been imposed on her by society. This all makes me think that she would’ve flourished if she’d been allowed the social privilege that men had, and would likely have pursued a life of the mind like Stoner—and that could explain her ‘instinctive’ attraction to him. But alas, her development was stunted by the restrictions of a housewife’s lifestyle. She responds to this first by depression, then later by an over-identification with ‘the woman’ of her times.

    But Edith is no feminist hero. Though she’s been thrown into such repressive society, she’s to some extent complicit in it. When Stoner proves himself to be a lackey—and not someone who’d go against the grain for the sake of Edith’s flourishing—by giving up on the Eurotrip, Edith redirects her energy to taking revenge on him, rather than go all Wollstonecraft. She makes this societal problem into a personal one. She find a way to derive enjoyment from her misery, first by depression, then by blaming Stoner for this wrong for which he must pay. She must enjoy being a charming host to the guests, while she’s cold to Stoner; or overtaking the function of host from Stoner, to undermine him; or sending him out of his own office to the conservatory, so that he won’t be able to work; or separating him from their daughter, so he’s alone. She takes advantage of the fact that Stoner is a lackey, a laissez-faire, waiting game kinda chap. Again, I wonder what Edith been like if she had interrogated her desire and saw something of what she was doing.

    Also, as regards Stoner’s desire to teach—I should’ve been more clear. I meant the desire that underlies his passion for teaching, the desire that precedes teaching and employs teaching as an outlet. It’s far from innocuous. It’s more self-serving, than altruistic. I think of his desire as the desire to be lost in something, something other than himself, so that he can avoid introspection, avoid the interrogation of his desire. That lies behind his lackeying, I think. This desire was satisfied first by learning, which allowed him to be lost in literature and the lives of others.

    Then he found that it could also be satisfied by teaching, but he didn’t realise this immediately. He didn’t have any passion for teaching when the job was given to him, and for a long time he was the stiff teacher reading from his immaculately prepared notes. He enjoyed the preparation, because that allowed him to be lost in the material. But the teaching, it only reminded him of his failure to transmit the enjoyment he experiences in preparing for the lecture (though he misrecognises this enjoyment as “love of literature”) and this failure leads to self-directed questions, like “Why can’t I show them what I feel?” or “Why am I not a good teacher?” and these introspective questions are anathema to him, of course. So he decides to just do it as a routine thing, without much passion. It is only when he opts for a more improvisational approach in his lectures than a heavily prepared one—which is basically tantamount to him doing what was previously preparation, the thing that he enjoys, in the lecture itself—that he realises he could be a good teacher too. But it’s not like he’s become more attentive to his audience. It merely happened to be the case that students found Stoner being lost in thought entrancing and he became a popular as a result. He became a better teacher unwittingly.

    So I think that reading the book through this idea of “Stoner’s desire to be lost in something (other than himself),” is helpful because it can explain the change in his attitude towards teaching, his being a lackey, and also his opacity to himself that he complains of repeatedly.

    But yeah, it seems that both Stoner and Edith are in the dark when it comes to their desires.

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