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Art and Culture

Likely Stories: Stoner

Jim McKeown
Stoner by John Williams

A young man raised on a struggling farm, goes off to the University fo Missouri to study agriculture; however, an encounter with an English Professor dramatically alters the course of his life.  

I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.

Recently, Stoner by John Williams came to my attention.  I had never heard of Williams or any of his works.  Scant information is available, and what I could find out remains largely undocumented.  All I knew was Stoner told the story of an English professor.

Williams was born in northeast Texas in 1922.  His grandparents were poor farmers, and his first attempt at a junior college ended in failure after one year.  He joined the Army Air Corps during World War II, and while serving completed a draft of his first novel.  After discharge from the military, he enrolled at the University of Denver.  He completed a BA in 1949 and an MA in 1950.  During this time, his first two books were published, a novel and a book of poetry.  He enrolled in the PhD program at the University of Missouri, which he completed in 1954.  He then returned to the University of Denver and became an assistant professor.  He remained in Denver until his retirement in 1985.  He died in 1994.  (Sources: various book reviews).

His third novel, Stoner, published in 1948, is set at the University of Missouri.  William Stoner came from dirt-poor farmers.  His uneducated parents sent him to the University so their son could learn about modern agricultural techniques.  While a student, William lived with a cousin of his mothers, and helped work their farm.

He began agricultural classes and a survey of English Literature with the forbidding Archer Sloane.  He failed Sloane’s class, but he was bitten with the mystery and beauty of literature.  He changed his major and completed a BA, then an MA and began teaching.  World War I interrupted the plans of many students and faculty.  William did not enlist, but rather applied for and received a deferment.  He completed a PhD, and was hired as an assistant professor.

Stoner is one of those rare novels with such beauty, grace, and wisdom I was captivated from page one.  Williams writes, “Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers."  English Literature “troubled and disquieted him in a way nothing had ever done before."  Professor Sloane asked Stoner his plans, but he did not have a clue.  “‘But don’t you know, Mr. Stoner? … Don’t you understand about yourself yet?  You’re going to be a teacher.’  ‘Are you sure?’  ‘I’m sure,’ Sloane said softly”. 

This intelligent, thoughtful novel tracks an event which alters Stoner forever.  The prose is filled with literary references, philosophical musings, along with all the politics and infighting of academia.  I nearly read this book in a single sitting.  In fact, I think I will take that rarest of steps and read it again … now!  A mere five point scale simply will not do.  8 stars.

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  You can read my book blog at RabbitReader.blogspot.com.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and HAPPY READING!