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Lessons From ‘Stoner’

John-Williams-StonerWhen the writer Jim Harrison died last month, I came across the following quote from one of his books:

“I wasn’t very long at Stony Brook,” he writes in Off to the Side, “when it occurred to me that the English department had all the charm of a streetfight where no one actually landed a punch.”

I promptly put this quote up on Facebook. Those words appealed to me. They revealed the tensions that make academic interactions so very fraught, and they also told me that all the warring that goes on is quite pathetic and achieves little. There was a macho swagger to Harrison’s statement, sure, but I was prepared to overlook it in favor of its honesty. Or what I was calling its honesty, because of my belief, as a naturalized citizen of an English department, that we fight, often for small stakes, and without any real result.

But is there a recognizable style to our fighting?

Trained as we are in the language of criticism, we are seldom afraid to practice it while conducting departmental business. But perhaps also because of this training, our severest rebukes are masked, the hostility veiled in formality of sorts, in a language that at least takes on the appearance of judicious discrimination. I rather appreciate this. It makes departmental meetings tolerable. Over 25 years, in the different institutions where I have worked, I have witnessed shouting and open insults and tears only twice. At other times, I have had occasion to sit back and enjoy the deployment of irony.

This reflection on style was instigated by my recent reading of Stoner, by John Williams, a 1965 novel that has witnessed a revival in the last few years. The protagonist, William Stoner, is a professor of English at the University of Missouri. There is a plainness to the novel, and yet I found it profoundly affecting. Stoner also contains the portrayal of an implacable enmity between Stoner and his colleague, Hollis Lomax. The sections about Stoner’s clashes with Lomax ought to be made compulsory reading for graduate students contemplating a career in the academy. I say this because these sections serve as an introduction to a culture: The cause of the grudge has been forgotten, but it can last as long as a career.

In one of the most dramatic renditions of a matter as unpromising as a thesis examination, Stoner and Lomax square off. We are seeing things from Stoner’s point of view. The qualities that I have mentioned above as characteristics of tense academic exchanges, at least in English departments, are all there. But there is something else too that I have neglected to mention: intense self-consciousness and, despite the righteous rage, some regret.

Here are two paragraphs, divided from each other by the space of a few pages, that I want to share with you:

“During this time Stoner did not speak. He listened to the talk that swirled around him; he gazed at Finch’s face, which had become a heavy mask; he looked at Rutherford, who sat with his eyes closed, his head nodding; and he looked at Holland’s bewilderment, at Walker’s courteous disdain, and at Lomax’s feverish animation. He was waiting to do what he knew he had to do, and he was waiting with a dread and an anger and a sorrow that grew more intense with every minute that passed. He was glad that none of their eyes met his own as he gazed at them.”

“Relentlessly Stoner continued his questioning. What had been an anger and outrage that included both Walker and Lomax became a kind of pity and sick regret that included them too. After a while it seemed to Stoner that he had gone outside himself, and it was as if he heard a voice going on and on, impersonal and deadly.”

So much emotion! So much truth! And, not least, a clear confirmation of what I had long suspected, that a few of our departmental exchanges can easily turn into an out-of-body experience. And the only way to represent them is to cast oneself as a distant, detached observer, speaking in a voice that we don’t even recognize as our own.

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