“He spoke more confidently and felt a warm hard severity gather within him.”

William Stoner’s seminar on the Latin Tradition and Renaissance Literature in the fall semester of 1931 is important both to the novel and to my own purposeful reading of it. On the one hand, it is critical to the plot (I feel like I should say, critical to the trajectory of Stoner’s life), and on the other, it provides a twofold example of Stoner at work: both succeeding and failing spectacularly in the same class.

The seminar is one that has grown increasingly popular, and it’s full. A student Stoner has not met before, a Mr. Walker, comes to his office to beg special permission to be enrolled—without this seminar, he will not graduate on time. Quizzing him about his own specialization (Romantic poets), Stoner is disinclined to let him into the course, but relents. The first session has already met; Mr. Walker will begin with the second session.

On that second Wednesday of the seminar William Stoner came into the room a few minutes late; he spoke to the students and began to arrange his books and papers on the small stained-oak desk that stood squatly before the center of a blackboard wall. He glanced at the small group scattered about the room. Some of them he knew…. Charles Walker was not among the group. Stoner waited a few minutes more, shuffling his papers; then he cleared his throat and began the class.

“During our first meeting we discussed the scope of this seminar, and we decided that we should limit our study of the medieval Latin tradition to the first three of the seven liberal arts—that is, to grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic.” He paused and watched the faces—tentative, curious, and masklike—focus upon him and what he said.

“Such a limiting may seem foolishly rigorous to some of you; but I have no doubt that we shall find enough to keep us occupied even if we trace only superficially the course of the trivium upward into the sixteenth century. It is importatn that we realize that these arts of rhetoric, grammar, and dialectic meant something to a late medieval and early Renaissance man that we, today, can only dimly sense without an exercise of the historical imagination. To such a scholar, the art of grammar, for example, was not merely a mechanical disposition of the parts of speech. From late Hellestinstic times through the Middle Ages, the study and practice of grammar included not only the ‘skill of letters’ mentioned by Plato and Aristotle; it included also, and this became very important, a study of poetry in its technical felicities, an exegesis of poetry both in form and substance, and nicety of style, insofar as that can be distinguished from rhetoric.”

He felt himself warming to his subject, and he was aware that several of the students had leaned forward and had stopped taking notes. …

A loud noise interrupted him.

That noise was Charles Walker, showing up late and making rather a stir as he does so. But let me pause before I get to him. Forgive the extended quote above, but I wanted to show how specific we have begun to get in terms of Stoner’s work. We are actually listening to part of his lecture! And basically following along as his seminar progresses. It should be noted that, at this point in his career, Stoner finally feels like he is becoming a good teacher. Something has “taken,” somehow, and Williams doesn’t waste time showing it to us. We get this seminar and this lecture shortly after Stoner really finds himself as a teacher.

But Walker is in a position to tear a lot of that down. Whether or not his emotional or humanistic handicap is a result of his physical one, as his own dissertation adviser (himself a hunchback) implies, it takes only a few minutes for him to be filled with disdain for Stoner.

As he continued, elaborating upon the categories of grammar he had named, Stoner’s eyes flitted over the class; he realized that he had lost them during Walker’s entrance and knew that it would be some time before he could once more persuade them out of themselves. Again and again his glance fell curiously upon Walker, who, after having taken notes furiously for a few moments, gradually let his pencil rest on his notebook, while he gazed at Stoner with a puzzled frown. Finally Walker’s hand shot up; Stoner finished the sentence he had begun and nodded to him.

“Sir,” Walker said, “pardon me, but I don’t understand. What can”—he paused and let his mouth curl around the word—“grammar have to do with poetry? Fundamentally, I mean. Real poetry.”

Stoner begins going over the part of the lecture Walker had missed, but soon sees this is losing the other students even further. Walker interrupts several more times, but “Stoner managed to get through his lecture without serious difficulty, and he was able to make assignments for the first reports.” Even that, I should note, even that is more than we might get from a book that is about a professor but not about him working. He doesn’t just go to class; he doesn’t just deliver a lecture; he notes his students’ engagement and gives them assignments. In another novel, Stoner would simply be “at work,” someplace he disappears to for 8 or 10 or 12 hours a day and then returns from, later, to his “real life.” But I digress.

Walker’s problem, by contrast, is that he doesn’t work. He skates through the seminar. He keeps pushing off his due date on his seminar paper. When he finally delivers that paper, on the last day of class, he is clearly giving an extemporaneous speech—and any claim that his paper was in fact researched and written out is belied by the fact that it responds almost entirely to the report another student gave just a week before. When he refuses to turn over a written version of the assignment, Stoner is firm: he fails him.

A later scene, when Stoner is unfortunately chosen to hear Walker’s oral examination, leaves Stoner further disgusted with Walker’s work ethic—and the ethics of Hollis Lomax, department chair and Walker’s dissertation adviser, who is clearly helping him coast along while doing even less than the bare minimum. The oral exam erupts into a full-blown departmental war, with Stoner refusing even a conditional pass. The entire scene is excellent as well as embarrassing, and it does well to show yet another type of work that Stoner is confronted with in his role as professor. And its aftermath highlights still another type of work—that of getting along with colleagues.

I haven’t gone very far here into Stoner’s real reason, his deeper reason, the reason he gives his best friend Gordon Finch for flunking Walker on his orals. I need to save that tomorrow, for a discussion about Stoner, his parents, his wife, his colleagues, and class.

3 comments to “He spoke more confidently and felt a warm hard severity gather within him.”

  • “Walker’s problem, by contrast, is that he doesn’t work.”

    Yep, and the seminar scene in Stoner nicely illustrates a common problem in the work of being a teacher: how humoring a know-it-all can alienate the rest of the class.

    I do wish, though, that we’d seen more of Stoner as a grad student so we could better contrast him with Walker. Despite Stoner’s early epiphany as an undergraduate, we don’t really see him deliberately and systematically acquiring the basic knowledge he insists Walker ought to possess, from foreign languages to Anglo-Saxon versification. I hate to nitpick such a good novel, but I wanted much more about the work of graduate school through Stoner’s eyes.

  • Jeff—Yes, a very good point, and I think that’s probably at least part of Prof. Maitzen’s complaint about the novel as well. We don’t see much specific about Stoner’s work until after he has his realization that he can be a good teacher (while Edith is away visiting her mother). So we miss him in grad school and in his early years of teaching.

  • Stoner’s early academic life must be one of those elements to be concealed under the tip of the iceberg. That John Williams withheld that aspect makes Stoner’s diligence already a given. Williams opted to just provide highlights instead of going through all the (uninteresting) motions of a teacher’s life. I quite like the tight selection of details as they were. The rest can be imagined.
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