” An occasional student who comes upon the name may wonder idly who William Stoner was, but he seldom pursues his curiosity beyond a casual question. 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. ” (I 3-4)
Every once in a while comes a novel that is so remarkable in its quality that it stands out not only as an example of what literature (well-written fiction) should be, but also as a satisfying reading experience all by itself. Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety is such a book for me last year. Stoner is no less remarkable in both writing and story. It’s both depressing and inspiring at the same time. Stoner, the titular character, has an origin as humble as the earth his parents worked on in Missouri. From the earliest time he can remember, he was obliged to duties on the farm. Stoner was raised in an austere and lonely household bound together by the necessity of its toil. Sent to the state university to study agronomy, he instead falls in love with English literature and embraces a scholar’s life, which renders estrangement from his parents.
His parents were happy to see him, and they seemed not to resent his decision. But he found that he had nothing to say to them; already, he realized, he and his parents were becoming strangers; and he felt his love increased by its loss. (II 26)
Though sold out on his passion for literature and teaching, Stoner never rises above the rank of assistant professor. Few students remember him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses. His marriage turns out to be a failure just after honeymoon. His wife shuts him off emotionally and physically, leaving him the only option to maintain an unobtrusive and delicate regard for the world in which Edith had begun to live. As his wife manipulatively turns his daughter away from him, he takes on extra workload with an intensity and ferocity that awes his colleagues. But his career is stymied as his mentor Archer Sloane, is replaced by one Hollis Lomax, who becomes Stoner’s implacable enemy. Their inveterate feud over work politics, spanning Stoner’s entire career, broaches scenes of conflict that are almost unbearable in their intensity.
The enormity came upon him gradually, so that it was several weeks before he could admit to himself what Edith was doing; and when he was able at last to make that admission, he made it almost without surprise. Edith’s was a campaign waged with such cleverness and skill that he could find no rational grounds for complaint. After her abrupt and almost brutal entrance into his study that night, an entrance which in retrospect seemed to him a surprise attack, Edith’s strategy became more indirect, more quiet and contained. It was a strategy that disguised itself as love and concern, and thus one against which he was helpless. (VIII 123)
A transforming experience of new love ends under threat of scandal, despite for the first time in life he knows what intimacy is. Instead of an absolute state of being, it dawns on him that love is “a condition that was invented and modified moment by moment by the will and the intelligence and the heart.” (XIII 195) All the disappointments amount to a solitary existence so withdrawn from reality of the world. The prose that elaborates on Stoner’s reflecting moments of self-realization and profound insecurity is most beautiful. John Williams, in depicting Stoner, whose indifference becomes a way of living among the dark forces and sadness that have swept over the society, seems to be saying that most of us will live quiet, unremarkable lives that can probably be summarized in a few sentences and that contribute nothing to humanity’s accomplishments, like the first paragraph of Stoner. But the beauty, as Williams shows, is in the details, the filler and backstory that make up our lives. Stoner doesn’t defeat his adversaries, nor does he live happily ever after with his true love, but he is admired for striving constantly to become someone other than who he had been. In a way, he has triumphed over the inimical world by being indifferent to disappointments and joy, and by focusing on the work for which he has a passion. He is defined by his formidable determination.
278 pp. NYRB Classics [Read/
Skim/ Loss] [Buy/ Borrow]