‘The important thing is to keep the tradition going’

I keep returning to a book I first read a couple of years ago after coming across this recommendation by Stephen Elliott.

The book is Stoner by John Williams. It tells the outwardly uneventful story of the life of a not particularly distinguished tutor at an American university. William Stoner, the novel tells us, was raised by poor parents on a small farm in Missouri in the early 1890s. Aged 19 he is sent away to university to study agriculture and while there discovers a love of literature, in pursuit of which he writes a book and becomes an assistant professor. Williams tells us at the start of the book that:

during the height of World War I [Stoner] received his Doctor of Philosophy degree and accepted an instructorship at the same university, where he taught until his death in 1956. He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness…

In the course of his (we are forewarned) unexceptional life, Stoner marries – unhappily – and brings into the world a beloved daughter whose childhood becomes a casualty of the warring disintegration of his marriage. A bitter common room dispute prevents him from rising higher in his career and, while an affair with a doctoral student brings him joy, it is not allowed to last.

It will be obvious from this that Stoner is not a particularly happy book. But the outward facts do not convey the power of a novel that manages, in a really profound way, to be a story of hope and transformation. It is a brilliant book, utterly compelling and written with an astonishing delicacy and intensity. Not surprisingly, it has won a small but passionate band of champions whose enthusiasm has kept a neglected work in print. Lately, the book has been getting something like the critical attention it deserves, and quite a few words of appreciation have been written about it (a few excellent pieces are available online and are well worth searching out – this is one of the best). I won’t presume to add too many more words to this list but I would like to draw out a couple of aspects of the novel which, for me, as someone working in the field of education, are particularly meaningful.

The first is the vision of the university conveyed by Williams. For all of the in-fighting and small-mindedness of campus life described (not inaccurately) by Williams, Stoner remains steadfastly committed to the idea of the university as a disinterested, safe space, free from utilitarian pressures, in which one can pursue one’s interests and curiosities and, indeed, discover what those interests and curiosities might be. This is the experience of Stoner whose life is transformed by his exposure to English literature – he experiences ‘an epiphany of knowing something through words that could not be put into words’ – and by what he finds to be the first stirrings of a lifelong love of learning. People come by their sense of who they are and what they want to do gradually and at different points in their lives. Like many of us, Stoner’s sense of identity emerges slowly. Without the space offered by university life he would never have found his vocation, and he is prepared to defend it, refusing to compromise his academic standards and allow a lazy, pretentious student to graduate his course, despite pressure from his head of department and despite knowing that his refusal will cost him his career.

Stoner sees the university as a place of ‘security and serenity’ which has to be protected against the forces which drive change through the rest of the world. He would not have understood today’s attempts to appraise what universities do in economic terms, less still the wisdom of introducing a ‘market’ in higher education. But he would, I imagine, have been sympathetic to the sort of vision set out in the Robbins Report of 1963. Universities, Robbins argued, must not simply be about ‘instruction in skills’ but must also promote the ‘general powers of the mind’ in order to produce ‘not mere specialists but rather cultivated men and women’. Stoner’s transformation could not have taken place in an institution dedicated to ‘mere’ specialism (where he would have had little choice but to follow the narrow and well-trodden path working-class youngsters continue to tread, denied the sort of rounded, general education their wealthier peers take for granted). With the notion of a liberal arts education, empowering individuals with broad knowledge and understanding as well as job-ready skills, under threat in institutions around the world, it is worth reminding ourselves of its power to transform lives – as well as of how diminished we would be without it. It should not be the preserve of the already privileged.

The second aspect of the novel I wish to mention concerns Stoner’s vocation as a teacher. In the course of the novel, Stoner comes to realise that his work, his life, for all its apparent frustration and seeming futility, has meaning and value, and that this meaning and value reside in his contribution to the civilising tradition of liberal education. The passages in which Williams describes this realisation are among the most luminous in the book. Stoner comes to love what he does, to define himself by it, and through the patient, modest application of his skill as a teacher, comes to understand both it and himself. Through his devotion to his work he finds a way of putting himself ‘into a kind of order’, of appreciating not only the significance of his work but also its place in a larger tradition, held together, Williams (in a later interview) suggests, by love:

It’s the love of the thing that’s essential. And if you love something, you’re going to understand it. And if you understand it, you’re going to learn a lot … you never know all the results of what you do. I think it all boils down to what I was trying to get at in Stoner. You’ve got to keep the faith. The important thing is to keep the tradition going, because the tradition is civilisation.

Stoner is, perhaps above all, about a man’s love of his work, and the importance of keeping faith in that work, and the tradition of which it is a part, even when other things fall apart and the world sees no value in what you do. Though the many blows borne by Stoner in the course of the book make it, in places, a difficult read (the passages which describe the disintegration of his relationship with his daughter are terribly painful), Williams succeeds brilliantly in conveying the worth of a life lived honestly and with conviction, though, to others, it seemed a life of little or no account. In the end, Stoner emerges triumphant – though it is not a triumph everyone will recognise – his quiet integrity intact, his care for and dedication to his work vindicated.

There is much to love and admire in John Williams’ book, not least its expression of solidarity with those stoic folk who work quietly and with integrity at their jobs in spite of the indifference, even hostility, of the world. It is arguable how well the novel would work had Stoner been, say, a librarian, a nurse or a youth worker, but the choice of teacher as his profession is interesting and resonates strongly with me. Perhaps this is because many of those who now teach in higher education feel the values they bring to their work are under threat. Williams’ message, however, is broader. He tells us that, whatever the view of the wider world, by keeping on and resisting the desire to compromise or to devalue the standards of one’s profession, it’s possible to find dignity, satisfaction and meaning in one’s work. Stoner, Williams considers, is a ‘real hero’ because while his defence of the values he believes in does not make him happy, and, indeed, brings him into conflict with the world, he continues to defend them because he believes they are right.