Stoner by John Williams

published 1965  chapter 1

He came to Columbia with a new black broadcloth suit ordered from the catalogue of Sears & Roebuck and paid for with his mother’s egg money, a worn greatcoat that had belonged to his father, a pair of blue serge trousers that once a month he had worn to the Methodist church in Booneville, two white shirts, two changes of work clothing, and twenty-five dollars in cash, which his father had borrowed from a neighbour against the fall wheat. He started walking from Booneville, where in the early morning his father and mother brought him on the farm’s flat-bed, mule-drawn wagon.

It was a hot fall day, and the road from Booneville to Columbia was dusty; he had been walking for nearly an hour before a goods wagon came up beside him and the driver asked him if he wanted a ride.

observations: William Stoner is about to go to University at Columbia (though that’s Columbia, Missouri, not New York). He will start out studying agriculture, intending to go back to his father’s farm with new-fangled technology and knowledge. He is meant to be a farmer. But instead, he discovers literature at the university, and stays, and stays.

Vintage are republishing this book, and sent me a copy. I was very happy to receive it, but there was no need: I already have it, I have read it, featured it on the blog, and think it’s one of the best books you could ever spend time with. So I am happy to have the chance to recommend it to others.

Almost exactly a year ago I said (in this entry, which should be read with this one) that Stoner is an extraordinary book, but it’s almost impossible to describe what makes it so good, and that still applies.
John McGahern (another blog favourite, and whose work might fall into the same sector as Stoner) should be better at it than me - he says in his introduction that the book is about work, and that 

how Williams manages to dramatise this almost impossible material is itself a small miracle.

-- but also that

if the novel can be said to have one central idea, it is surely that of love, the many forms love takes and all the forces that oppose it.
(Both ideas, incidentally, that would apply to McGahern’s own novels too.) There is a moment when it looks as though Stoner might find unexpected happiness, but it goes wrong: but you’re grateful that he even got a short time of joy. And yet none of this is as miserable or depressing as it sounds…it’s just a wonderful book, a true work of art.

Links on the blog: More university novels here and here and here. Stoner before, McGahern before.

The picture is of Vincent Astor (so the suit probably isn't from the Sears catalogue) and is from the Library of Congress.


  1. Moira - There are some books like that, aren't there, that tell about life and about people's experiences in a way that just draws the reader in. It takes a very talented hand to invite the reader along for the ride like that. Thanks for reminding us that it can be done.


Post a Comment