One question that never fails to come up in discussion of the writing about work I’m searching for is whether it’s not just too boring to write about. For some people, the answer is clearly yes—which, again, are the chapters everyone hates in Moby-Dick? I don’t think those people will care much for Kipling’s tales of the cod fishery either. But there is no objective “boring,” and they are sure not boring for me.
It was not too boring for John Williams to write about work in Stoner. At the second link above, I quoted some early descriptions of Stoner working on his parents’ farm. There is more of that, and there is also something I’d like to get into later this week: as John McGahern notes in his introduction to the novel, “living” is just as much work for Stoner than the actual work he does. The novel, in some sense, is simply work-oriented. For now, just a taste of that, along with his teaching.
Though he was to teach only the fundamentals of grammar and composition to a group of unselected freshmen, he looked forward to his task with enthusiasm and with a strong sense of its significance. He planned the course during the week before the opening of the autumn semester, and saw the kinds of possibilty that one sees as one struggles with the materials and subjects of an endeavor; he felt the logic of grammar, and he thought he perceived how it spread out from itself, permeating the language and supporting human thought. In the simple compositional exercises he made for his students he saw the potentialities of prose and its beauties, and he looked forward to animating his students with the sense of what he perceived.
But in the first classes he met, after the opening routines of rolls and study plans, when he began to address himself to his subject and his students, he found that his sense of wonder remained hidden within him. Sometimes, as he spoke to his students, it was as if he stood outside himself and observed a stranger speaking to a group assembled unwillingly; he heard his own flat voice reciting the materials he had prepared, and nothing of his own excitement came through that recitation.
His worked is outlined enough that we can see Stoner’s tasks: he makes lesson plans, he considers how he will present the lessons, he creates exercises to test the students, and then he gets up in front of the classroom and speaks—in a “flat voice reciting the materials.” This does not bode terribly well for his teaching career, but we’ll hold that thought. As the story continues, Stoner goes from a new instructor to a newly minted PhD to a new husband and finally a new father, and his work follows him throughout. He’s always reading, or grading papers, or reading papers, or going to class, or having classes assigned to him, or having students over for discussions—the thread is never forgotten. And there is, of course, always departmental politics to think of as well, and his relations with his fellow professors and their students. But it’s simple things like the following paragraph, which takes place shortly after the birth of his daughter Grace, that make me say above that the novel is somehow work-oriented—task-oriented, action-oriented—something:
Thus for more than a year [during his wife's post-partum illness] William kept the house and cared for two helpless people. He was up before dawn, grading papers and preparing lectures; before going to the University he fed Grace, prepared breakfast for himself and Edith, and fixed a lunch for himself, which he took to school in his briefcase. After his classes he came back to the apartment, which he swept, dusted, and cleaned.
As difficult as it might seem to marry this kind of writing with the life of the mind, which is where Stoner really lives most of the time, Williams doesn’t seem to have any trouble. You don’t need to be writing about whaling or cod-fishing to describe what someone does when he works:
Within a few moments he was immersed in his work. The evening before, he had caught up with the routine of his classwork; papers had been graded and lectures prepared for the whole week that was to follow. He saw the evening before him, and several evenings more, in which he would be free to work on his book. What he wanted to do in this new book was not yet precisely clear to him; in general, he wished to extend himself beyond his first study, in both time and scope. He wanted to work in the period of the English Renaissance and to extend his study of classical and medieval Latin influences into that area. He was in the stage of planning his study, and it was that stage which gave him the most pleasure—the selection among alternative approaches, the rejection of certain strategies, the mysteries and uncertainties that lay in unexplored possibilities, the consequences of choice…. The possibilities he could see so exhilarated him that he could not keep still. He got up from his desk, paced a little, and in a kind of frustrated joy spoke to his daughter, who looked up from her book and answered him.
Thinking and doing, brought together seamlessly, as they must be for knowledge workers such as Stoner.
The best single example in the novel of Stoner working is the close-up we get into a single seminar he gives, and, later, the oral exam he helps administer to one of the students in that seminar. But that’s such a long story in and of itself—and tied with so many others—it will have to wait another day.