The novel “Stoner” was written in 1965, long before the term received a new connotation in today’s world. “Stoner” is actually the last name of a fictitious English professor who lived in the early part of the 19th century. The book did not sell well in 1965, less than 2000 copies. It was once considered one of the great forgotten novels of the past century, but it is forgotten no longer. It was published again in 2003; and in 2012, the novel won the Waterstone Book Award in England and became more widely known; its sales soared after that. The author John Williams was himself an English professor, and so he knows whereof he speaks. The book was chosen for discussion by my Book Club, and is by far our most interesting choice this year.
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William Stoner was the son of very poor parents who worked a farm for their subsistence with the help of their only son. Stoner’s father decided that William should attend the University of Missouri in Columbia to study agriculture to improve their farming methods and contribute to their financial future. Stoner did so.
He was an anomaly at the University, as his clothes were old and did not fit well. He was withdrawn and did not make friends. In his sophomore year, he attended a required course in English literature given by a brilliant professor, Archer Sloane, who saw promise in Stoner and encouraged him to change his major and to continue on towards a Master of Arts degree in English Literature. Stoner took his mentor’s advice and did not tell his parents until the day of his graduation that he was not planning to return to the farm. Archer Sloane obtained for him a part-time teaching position at the University while he was in the Masters Program. He even received his Ph.D. while World War I was being conducted, and which he did not join as many of his fellow students went off to war.
Stoner did make two close friends at the University, Gordon Finch and David Masters. Finch and Masters volunteered for the war effort and Masters was killed in Europe almost as soon as he had arrived. Stoner and Finch remained as long-life friends.
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Stoner Meets Edith
When the war ended, Finch returned and planned a party for the returning veterans at the home one of the fabled deans, Professor Claremont, who was well beyond the age of retirement. Stoner spotted a beautiful young lady across the room and asked Finch to introduce them to each other. Her name was Edith Bostwick, just 20 years old, and she was visiting her aunt in Missouri for a few weeks. Her father was President of a bank in St. Louis, so Stoner was way out of his element in his desire to meet her. They spoke to each other briefly, and as she was leaving, Stoner asked if he might call on her next evening. She answered coolly, without a smile, that, yes, he could.
Stoner Calls on Edith
He arrived at Mrs. Darley’s home the next evening and learned that Edith and her aunt Emma were planning a trip to Europe in the spring. Stoner told Edith that he wanted to learn everything about her. They were very quiet with each other for a while, and then Edith blurted out a long list of things about herself. It was the most that Stoner ever heard from her from that point on.
Stoner Proposes to Edith
One week before Edith was scheduled to go to Europe, Stoner told her that he loved her and proposed to her. She did not commit herself and returned to St. Louis. Stoner received a letter from her asking him to come to St. Louis to meet her parents. They were pleasant to him when he arrived. Edith left the room so that her father could speak to Stoner alone. Mr. Bostwick explained that Edith had several advantages and wondered if Stoner would be able to accommodate her life style. It had not occurred to Stoner; he only knew that he loved her. Mr. Bostwick called Edith back into the room and gave the couple his blessing.
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The Wedding and Honeymoon
Edith stated that she wanted the wedding to be soon. She would forego her trip to Europe with her Aunt Emma, and she preferred to be married in Columbia at her Aunt Emma’s home rather than in St. Louis. Gordon Finch was Stoner’s best man. Stoner’s parents came to the wedding and felt out of place in the surroundings. They stayed at a friend’s house and chose not to mingle with the other guests.
Stoner and Edith spent their honeymoon in St. Louis at the Ambassador Hotel. Edith was not a willing participant in the event, and became ill on the bottle of champagne that Stoner bought at the hotel. They returned to Columbia two days earlier than they had planned.
Their New Home
Stoner had found a vacant second-floor apartment five blocks from the University. Edith scrubbed and painted the unsatisfactory space, as she regarded this as her job. When Stoner returned from his job at the University in the afternoon, she struggled to put together a meal, ate very little, and went to their bedroom where she slept until Stoner left for his classes the next morning.
Stoner soon realized that the marriage was a failure. Edith endured his advances without passion, and Stoner blamed his clumsiness for her withdrawal. Stoner suggested that they might have some dinner parties, to which Edith acquiesced, and proved to be a charming hostess, a façade which disappeared as the last guest left their home.
Shortly thereafter, Gordon Finch became engaged to a lovely girl named Caroline Wingate, and he was given a permanent post as Assistant Dean under Professor Claremont, with the understanding that he would take over as Dean when Claremont retired.
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Edith Decided She Wanted a Baby
After three years, Edith decided that she wanted a baby. To Stoner’s surprise, her passions were highly ignited for the next two months, when her desire for a child was overwhelming to her. Grace was born after three days of labor and Stoner fell in love with her instantly. Edith remained bedridden for long after the birth of Grace, and Stoner kept the house and took care of both of them. He hired a woman to come in while he was attending to his classes at the University. Grace Stoner became accustomed to her father’s touch chiefly, as well as his voice and his love.
Hollis Lomax was Hired by the University
Archer Sloane died that summer and Stoner was one of the pallbearers at his funeral. It was Gordon Finch’s job to find his replacement, which he did. Hollis Lomax, Ph.D. was hired as an Assistant Professor, and Finch remained as interim Chairman for one more year. Lomax was a short man with a grotesquely shaped body which included a hump back. He never accepted invitations but was unusually popular with his students whom he invited to his apartment for conversation and recordings.
Stoner Receives Permanent Tenure
Stoner had published a significant book, on the strength of which he was promoted to Assistant Professor and granted permanent tenure. Edith went to St. Louis with Grace to visit her parents and came back with a check for $6000, a loan from Edith’s father so that they might purchase a house. Stoner felt that they could not afford the payments and did not want to accept the loan, but Edith prevailed, and Stoner agreed to teach in the summers rather than devote himself to writing and studying which he had hoped to do.
Their New Home
He was able to have a study in their new house, a joy he had never known. He had Edith lived mostly apart, she taking care of the house, and he relegating himself to his study. Grace became his companion in his study, playing quietly on the floor as he worked. That is, until Edith realized that she was being left out, and refused to let Grace disturb her father in his study any more.
Charles Walker is Accepted into the Seminar
Dr. Lomax suggested to Stoner that his favorite student, Charles Walker, a crippled young man, should take Stoner’s seminar in English literature, even though the class was overbooked already for an intimate seminar. Walker proved to be a difficult student, and was late handing his final paper in. A young instructor, Katherine Driscoll, a lady in her twenties who was working on her dissertation, had asked to audit the course and to present a paper which she felt the other students would profit from. She was scheduled to give her paper last, but when Walker was not prepared, she filled in and gave hers earlier. When Walker was finally forced to speak of his research, he seemed to be speaking extemporaneously, and not from the sheath of papers in front of him. He used his hour to object to the premises that Katherine Driscoll had used in her paper, and steered far clear of his own topic. This evasive effort was understood by Stoner who apologized to Katherine Driscoll when the class was dismissed. He also told Walker that he would receive an F for the course.
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Stoner is Assigned Freshman Composition Classes
Lomax was furious at Stoner and forced him to give Walker a passing grade. As punishment, when he was made Chairman of the English Department, he assigned Stoner Freshman classes in composition, which was a severe demotion.
Katherine Driscoll Returns
Stoner was startled one day to see Katherine Driscoll before him in his office. She asked if he would read her dissertation. He said “Of course.” Thus began a love affair that had evaded him for all of his years with Edith. He had never known such bliss as he shared in his moments with Katherine. He found pretexts to visit her at her apartment, which he did quite often. She was of the same mind, and admitted that she had been infatuated with him while auditing his seminar. Of course, Edith somehow was aware of it, but chided him a little and made no protest. Illicit love affairs are frowned upon, especially among members of the academia, and so the lovers were forced to make a decision.
You must read this tale to find out the ending. It will not be divulged here. Leave it to say, this novel was the most beautifully written piece of work I have experienced in many years. It has finally come into its own, sadly after the author has passed away without learning of its delayed success.