Before I begin discussing the novel Stoner, I feel that I must speak briefly to the events ongoing at Yale University, including a March of Resilience today. I am not living in New Haven though I am a graduate student there, and so what I can say is not in the nature of reportage or even of commentary. More competent voices are telling the story, and you can find an important analysis here, and, from what others are telling me, this Washington Post story from a few days ago also provides key insights into the underlying factors, particularly the frustration many students feel with Yale’s poor record at hiring and retaining faculty of color. Both pieces are written by current Yale seniors. I have also found this Yale Daily News editorial and this op-ed in the YDN useful in understanding the emotions and the reasons behind the student protests. Finally, Daniel Drezner of Tufts University offers what seems to me to be a very balanced request that those of us who are not living in the midst of these events withhold judgment given our limited access to the full weight of what is happening there:
The problem is that for those of us not at Yale, it is all too easy for the most absurd, theatrical and controversial elements of this dispute to blow up on our social media, and to have those aspects of the incident frame how we perceive the current state of play. The larger context does not mean that outside observers should say that students have every right to scream at administrators. Nor does it mean that free speech issues shouldn’t be of paramount concern on college campuses. But it is just too easy to take the most extreme incidents, caricature them even further and then conclude that today’s college students “just don’t get it” — when, in point of fact, there is probably a lot more that external observers aren’t getting.
Secondly–and appropriately, given the fact that Stoner is set at the University of Missouri at Columbia–I would like to take note of the actions of numerous students and faculty at Mizzou. For an excellent read of the situation, look to this timeline from the Mizzou Maneater and Dave Zirin.
John Williams, Stoner, page 82 in the NYRB Classics paperback edition; 83 in the 50th anniversary hardcover edition:
In the summer of 1921, searching for a reference to a Latin poem that he had forgotten, [Stoner] glanced at his dissertation for the first time since he had submitted it for approval three years earlier; he read it through and judged it to be sound. A little frightened at his presumption, he considered reworking it into a book. Though he was again teaching the full summer session, he reread most of the texts he had used and began to extend his research. Late in January he decided that a book was possible; by early spring he was far enough along to be able to write the first tentative pages. (82 ppbk; 83 hc)
Maggie Doherty has written a brilliant essay at The New Republic about the ways that the academic world inhabited by Stoner and his colleagues exists in what now seems a parallel universe: for them, tenure is absolute and unthreatened; student enrollments are not sources of worry for the humanities; one can find stable employment at a single university for one’s entire career. But this passage reveals yet another divergence, this one perhaps the widest of any. William Stoner—at this point not (I believe) a tenure-track professor but one committed to an academic career—not only appears to have had no definite plans to publish but is “a little frightened at his presumption” for weighing the question of whether his work is good enough to revise with that aim in mind.
Publication of one’s work might not be routine but it is routinized in academia; to make plans for publication is not so much presumptuous as presumed. And yet, the novel’s careful and quiet message that academic pursuits—especially those, but any kind of specialized inquiry, really—are at a basic level presumptuous resonates and is, I feel, a central element of Stoner’s extraordinary effect on readers today. Our presumptuousness not just about publishing our words but about arrogating to ourselves the time, money, and energy to dedicate the next several decades of our lives to the study of specialized and occasionally arcane topics is a sort of collectively suppressed experience in academia and Stoner—in addition to much else—excavates it and offers us a chance to make some peace with it.
Stoner works sedulously and competently; in no way does Williams intimate that academia is a soft life or that Stoner feels the prick of presumption because he is not a genius, that he is presumptuous only because academia is properly meant for better scholars than he. Rather, Williams implies that there is for almost all who enter an academic field a sort of cost in our relations with most others in our lives, and that it requires a certain amount of presumptuousness on the part of anyone to be willing to meet that cost. Let me explain a little further.
In the part of the novel I read for today—the first five chapters—there are three key moments in which the question of presumption arises. The third is the one I quoted above, the second is the speech by Dave Masters about the purpose of the university (pp. 31-32 ppbk; 30-31 hc), and the first is perhaps the most emotionally shattering and occurs when Stoner reveals to his parents, who sent him to and paid for college in the belief that he was getting an agricultural degree to help out at their farm, that he had never told them that he dropped that program and took his bachelor’s in English instead. Furthermore, he planned to stay at the university to pursue a master’s and then a doctorate, and not to return with them to their home.
Stoner tried to explain to his father what he intended to do, tried to evoke in him his own sense of significance and purpose. He listened to his words fall as if from the mouth of another, and watched his father’s face, which received those words as a stone receives the repeated blows of a fist. When he had finished he sat with his hands clasped between his knees and his head bowed. He listened to the silence of the room.
Finally his father moved in his chair. Stoner looked up. His parents’ faces confronted him; he almost cried out to them.
“I don’t know,” his father said. His voice was husky and tired. “I didn’t figure it would turn out like this. I thought I was doing the best for you I could, sending you here. Your ma and me has always done the best we could for you.”
“I know,” Stoner said. He could not look at them longer. “Will you be all right? I could come back for a while this summer and help. I could—”
“If you think you ought to stay here and study your books, then that’s what you ought to do. Your ma and me can manage.”
His mother was facing him, but she did not see him. Her eyes were squeezed shut; she was breathing heavily, her face twisted as if in pain, and her closed fists were pressed against her cheeks. With wonder Stoner realized that she was crying, deeply and silently, with the shame and awkwardness of one who seldom weeps. He watched her for a moment more; then he got heavily to his feet and walked out of the parlor. He found his way up the narrow stairs that led to his attic room; for a long time he lay on his bed and stared with open eyes into the darkness above him. (23-24 ppbk; 22-23 hc)
I let that quote run long (probably longer than fair use permits) because the passage itself is so relentless, so diligent in its ache and its intensity. It is a passage of stupefying potency for anyone who has tried to communicate the felt need to pursue postgraduate study.
It is important, however, to focus on more than the emotions of this moment. Stoner has committed a species of fraud before his parents; he never explained to them that he had discontinued the educational program they believed they were paying for, and so in a more than technical way he has stolen his education from them. Moreover—though less legalistically—he has seized his future labor from them. They were counting on his help as they aged to manage the farm he would inherit; even apart from his abandonment of the agricultural/technical education that would be of service to the farm, their plans were contingent upon his presence and his work.
His parents end up hiring an African-American man to take up most of the farm labor, a subtle touch that Williams includes, demonstrating (perhaps half-consciously) that it has often been people of color and their labor who have enabled the life of the mind by releasing white men like Stoner from continued manual labor. At any rate, what is overwhelmingly evident about Williams’s intentions is that he meant to demonstrate how the decision to commit oneself to an academic life is a kind of dispossession of oneself from one’s family, a process quite akin to marriage (Matthew 19 is a quite interesting intertext here). There is even a sort of directness in the novel about this parallel—Stoner’s advisor, Archer Sloane, in informing Stoner what career awaits him, asks, “Don’t you understand about yourself yet? You’re going to be a teacher… It’s love, Mr. Stoner… You are in love. It’s as simple as that.” (The novel was also at one point going to be titled “A Matter of Love.”)
But if pursuing graduate education (and perhaps undergraduate education as well) was a sort of presumptuous dispossession of the self from one’s parents in Stoner’s day, how do we—as Maggie Doherty did for other aspects of Stoner’s world—bring that up to date in the age of mass student debt? In many cases parents are involved quite extensively in those debts, by paying them or otherwise supporting their children as they work to make good those loans. But the future-oriented structure of debt also turns the question of dispossession forward—to one’s potential partners and children. Student debt has revived with a vengeance the sense that a certain amount of presumptuousness and selfishness is required if one chooses an academic career, and given the intense precariousness of academic employment, this state of affairs holds even if one is not buried in debt and continues to hold even after one receives one’s doctorate. We ask a great deal of those we love when the stakes of pursuing our intended career are continued financial insecurity.
None of this is in any way meant to question or diminish the worth, importance or even necessity of an academic career or of specialized intellectual work. It is something I believe in wholeheartedly. Yet conditions have made and continue to make the choice to pursue such a career a more than individual one: this is more or less true of other professions as well, I assume, but removing oneself from other kinds of work in order to continue one’s education has undeniable ramifications for others, especially for one’s family. In that sense, Stoner’s shudder before his own presumption is an experience that echoes in our own lives, even as the outward circumstances of his academia and ours have changed almost beyond recognition.
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