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.
John Williams, Stoner, 50th Anniversary Edition, New York Review of Books, 2015, page 1.
William Stoner, a stoic and reserved only child, was born and raised on a small farm in America's heartland at the turn of 20th century. Destined to lead a hard life of mind-numbing labour, an opportunity arose for him to study novel agricultural practices at the University of Missouri. It was during a mandatory course in English literature, however, that Stoner’s smoldering intellect caught fire. An elder instructor recognized and nurtured latent Stoner’s passion for language and story, and Stoner came to understand that he would never return home to take over the family farm. Stoner went on to have an undistinguished, yet rewarding, career in academia. He taught up until the time of his death at the age of 65. His wife, Edith, his daughter, Grace, and his grandson, Edward, survive him.
William Stoner is a character drawn so vividly that a short obituary seems appropriate to mark his passing and to introduce John Williams’s masterpiece of American literature.
Williams’s novel is a meditation on life as a whole. It is like staring at the sun with respect to the power of the truth it conveys – it is hard not to look away. As we watch Stoner navigate the signposts of life with a quiet dignity, we are compelled to step back and take an accounting of our own lives – to look squarely at the end that awaits us and to choose with purpose how we conduct ourselves and experience the richness of life in the interim.
Williams allows us to see the impact of poisonous relationships and environments, both in the workplace and at home, and to recognize instances of petty psychological warfare. He also encourages us not to overlook the fleeting moments of grace that surround us as we endure the hallmark hardships of the human condition.
Many practitioners will relate to how a well-rounded education and mentorship have altered the course of their own lives in unforeseeable ways, and will identify with how Stoner derived satisfaction from his lifelong study and engagement with the subject matter of his profession.