The Greatest American Novel You’ve Never Heard Of

Stoner (1965) by John Williams

Stoner (1965) by John Williams

The title of this post comes from Tim Kreider, who used it in a New Yorker article on October 20, 2013.  The book begins slowly:

William Stoner entered the University of Missouri as a freshman in the year 1910, at the age of nineteen. Eight years later, during the height of World War I, he received his Doctor of Philosophy degree and accepted an instructorship at the same University, where he taught until his death in 1956. He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses. When he died his colleagues made a memorial contribution of a medieval manuscript to the University library.

On the face of it, the novel, Stoner, by John Williams (1922-1994), does not appear to be promising. And yet, to my mind, it is one of the best American novels written after World War II.

Williams gives us a story of a life in academia, where the politics are particularly awful. I myself had wanted to become a professor of film history and criticism, but was so disgusted by the infighting at the Theater Arts Department of UCLA that I fled to the corporate world and concentrated instead on computers.

William Stoner marries a young woman who catches his attention at a party. It does not take more than a month before he discovers that his marriage is a failure. He and his wife Edith have a daughter named Grace, toward whom Edith acts strangely and inconsistently over the years, leading to Grace getting pregnant and moving away from home.

Author John Williams

Author John Williams

The English department at Stoner’s University of Missouri is headed by one Hollis Lomax, who becomes chairman and begins a career-long feud with Stoner after he flunks one of Lomax’s protegées.

In his forties, Professor Stoner enters an affair with a beautiful young colleague, but is pressured by Lomax to either stop it or resign his post.

In the end, Stoner develops cancer and dies.

So what’s the big deal? Several things. First of all, the book is shockingly true to life. Stoner falls into his profession because, originally enrolled as an agriculture major, he falls in love with English literature. Again and again, he lurches from one decision to the next with a shrug, almost, and finds enjoyment where he can—even when there is no consolation from his work or home life. Even as he dies from a cancer that has metastasized throughout his system, he evinces not a moment of fear, but yields to the necessities of his disintegrating body.

Williams’s style is a thing of beauty. As Krieder wrote in his 2003 article:

[Stoner’s] ambition is evident in the apparent humility of its subject: like Updike’s Rabbit tetralogy, it’s to be nothing more or less than the story of a life. And there is something in even those first paragraphs, an un-show-off-y assurance in the prose, like the soft opening notes of a virtuoso or the first casual gestures of a master artist, that tells us we are in the presence not just of a great writer but of something more—someone who knows life, who maybe even understands it. It’s the same thing I sense in reading James Salter: the presence of wisdom. And wisdom is, of course, perennially out of style.

Especially among postwar writers, there is a tendency to tart things up so that the work coruscates with some special grace irrespective of its appropriateness to the subject. Williams comes at you straight and tells you what this man’s life is like.

Williams wrote only three other novels other than Stoner:

  • Nothing But the Night (1948), which is out of print
  • Butcher’s Crossing (1960), a Western, and …
  • Augustus (1972), an epistolary novel about the Roman Emperor Augustus

The latter two are available from New York Review, as is Stoner.