William Stoner is the son of dirt-poor Missouri farmers, and when he goes off to the University of Missouri it's to enter the agricultural program so that he in turn can become a better farmer. He's a good student, but meets his match in the English program, where a cantankerous teacher demands to know what Shakespeare's Sonnet 73 (my favorite) means. Stoner is unable to answer, but the mystery has awakened something to him, and he embarks on the long and lonely life of an English academic.
Williams, like Stoner, was a relatively unimportant academic who toiled in obscurity. It's easy to overdo the parallels and wonder if he too suffered from an unhappy marriage to a neurotic socialite, or finally found love as a late-life affair with a younger colleague. But certainly Williams knew something of the life as lived by Stoner, measured not in its successes--Stoner publishes only one book, mediocrely reviewed, which bestows upon him a pride not related to its quality--but in its ineffable quietness and dignity. At the book's end, on Stoner's deathbed, he thinks of himself as having been like a clergyman of literature, having led a monastic life. Williams' prose, sometimes self-consciously plain, is designed to complement Stoner exactly.
What was it like to read this, as a teacher? Well, I recognized certainly the feeling of "knowing something through words that could not be put in words"--perhaps as good a defense of the value of literature as ever written. And I recognized, too, the way in which the things that touch you most deeply about the study of literature as being those things which are impossible to impress upon your students:
Always, from the time he had fumbled through his first classes of freshman English, he had been aware of the gulf that lay between what he felt for his subject and what he delivered in the classroom. He had hoped that time and experience would repair the gulf; but they had not done so. Those things that he held most deeply were most profoundly betrayed when he spoke of them to his classes; what was most alive withered in his words; and what moved him most became cold in its utterance.
I recognized also, I'm sad to say, the kind of student represented in the text by Charles Walker: the knowitall who really knows nothing, mistakes platitudes for depth, and despises the tedious and elaborate work of analysis without knowing he really despises it. In Stoner's case, it's his noble insistence that Walker should not be awarded a degree that puts him at odds with the chairman of the English department and scuttles his chances of professional enjoyment or advancement for decades. In this way Stoner is one of those stories in which a good man is attacked on all sides by selfishness and vindictiveness, and even his goodness turned into a weapon to destroy him. But it's the simplicity of Stoner's motives that make his nobility believable, and his suffering, such as it is, profound.
I have always wondered: can anyone really write about failure, or mediocrity, successfully? It seems to me that even the most affecting literary accounts of these things are tempered by the very fact that you can read them, that they are, in a sense, successes. Even Williams won a National Book Award in his lifetime, though the recently renewed attention to his work is (apparently) thanks to a new posthumous French translation. But Stoner comes as close to anything I've ever read at finding the value in a life quietly and unobtrusively lived.