On Sunday I was rereading The America of George Ade (1960), a collection of the Indiana humorist’s work edited by the great Hoosier-born radio storyteller Jean Shepherd, when Dave Lull passed along a PDF file of an essay, "A Sadness Unto the Bone," in the summer issue of the Sewanee Review, part of a special section called "Fiction: Our Spectacle, Our Suspense, and Our Thrill." The author, Mel Livatino, is new to me but his subject, John Williams’ novel Stoner (1965), is familiar. Only to a few other works of fiction – much of Chekhov and James, Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children, Bellow's Seize the Day – am I so emotionally attached. Livatino writes:
“In nearly fifty years of reading fiction, I have never encountered a more powerful novel—and not a syllable of it sentimental. Williams performs this feat by attending carefully to the soul of William Stoner and the tragic circumstances of his life.”
I wish Livatino’s essay were available online. His reading of Stoner is unabashedly emotional, albeit critically rigorous, though I can’t imagine a rigorous reading of Williams’ novel that isn’t emotional. What distinguishes Stoner from a sob story is that its emotional impact is earned. Like his protagonist, William never cheats. Livatino rightly calls the title character, who is born to a poor farm family in Missouri and becomes an assistant professor of English at the University of Missouri, a “hero.” He adds:
“The novel is unspeakably sad, but it is also happy in the sense the Stoics would have understood that word, for, against all the harm that comes his way, Stoner prevails in his integrity as a man, a teacher, a scholar, a husband, and finally as a human being of noble dimensions. Stoner’s name and accomplishments may be erased, but we who have known his life will be forever moved and inspired by it.”
No doubt such sentiments are unfashionable and will be scorned by readers whose attention can be riveted by the unplumbed depths of Donald Barthelme, but the loss is theirs. In his introduction to the Ade collection, Shepherd says “the Midwest has been swimming in a turgid sea of Futility,” and that note almost captures Stoner’s plight. But as Livatino points out, though Stoner may have known futility, he possessed the rarer stuff of nobility. It’s Elberry, of all people, who comes closer to the mark. Several weeks ago, while reading the poems of Helen Pinkerton, he wrote to me:
“i was searching for a word, for the voice, and settled on `noble’. i think Wallace Stevens, in a strange prose work, the name of which escapes me, talks about `nobility’ as a quality lacking in modern literature. It is, however, strong in Pinkerton - the sense of an unstrenuous gravity, a purpose. It's somehow at the opposite end of the spectrum to the very strenuous & mannered purpose of politically-motivated `writers’, who are as it were all light & noise and no heat. i suppose the difference is the noble are usually content to be obscure or read by only a few, knowing that after death the two-handed engine will sort the wheat from the chaff.”
Precisely what Livatino has done for us.