This will certainly be my most spoilerific Butcher’s Crossing post, so, fair warning.
I mentioned earlier in the week that Will Andrews had gone out to Butcher’s Crossing because a family friend was based there, working in the hide trade. This man, McDonald, is a trader and outfitter of buffalo-hunting trips. Most of the hunters in the town work for him, and he pays them for their skins before sending them back East, where they are in demand.
McDonald makes another connection to Melville, and to the book cited in the epigraph—The Confidence-Man. My best overview of that novel is here, but I am most interested in a particular character: the Missouri bachelor, Pitch.
Seen in one light, the Missouri bachelor could be Miller. Possibly modelled on James Feminore Cooper, he is a man of the West (or at least the Midwest). He is cool and calculating, and recognizes that the forces of nature are more often arrayed against man than not. But these are, I think, superficial resemblances, and it is at the end of Butcher’s Crossing that McDonald comes to channel him most.
The Missouri bachelor enters the scene of Melville’s riverboat of the damned after witnessing the confidence-man, here and herb-doctor, sell an old man one of his remedies. “Yarbs and natur will cure your incurable cough, you think,” he sneers to the old man.
“Think it will cure me?” coughed the miser in echo;  “why shouldn’t it? The medicine is nat’ral yarbs, pure yarbs; yarbs must cure me.”
“Because a thing is nat’ral, as you call it, you think it must be good. But who gave you that cough? Was it, or was it not, nature?”
“Sure, you don’t think that natur, Dame Natur, will hurt a body, do you?”
“Natur is good Queen Bess; but who’s responsible for the cholera?”
“But yarbs, yarbs; yarbs are good?”
“What’s deadly-nightshade? Yarb, ain’t it?”
“Oh, that a Christian man should speak agin natur and yarbs—ugh, ugh, ugh!—ain’t sick men sent out into the country; sent out to natur and grass?”
“Aye, and poets send out the sick spirit to green pastures, like lame horses turned out unshod to the turf to renew their hoofs. A sort of yarb-doctors in their way, poets have it that for sore hearts, as for sore lungs, nature is the grand cure. But who froze to death my teamster on the prairie? And who made an idiot of Peter the Wild Boy?”
(That last paragraph is Butcher’s Crossing‘s second epigraph.)
In The Confidence-Man, the Missouri bacherlor is condemned for his cynical view—for his lack of confidence, in this case, in nature. It is McDonald who delivers this message to Andrews, after the hunting party returns to a devastated town: McDonald is bankrupt, the bottom has fallen out of the hide trade, nearly everyone has left Butcher’s Crossing, and the hunting party failed tragically on their way back to town, losing their wagon and all the hides on it. More hides than they could carry remain piled up in their hidden Colorado valley, but these too are worthless. McDonald is a bit of an “I told you so,” but the learning experience he tries to impart to Andrews is not wrong—though it may be wasted on a man who can no longer receive it.
“Young people,” McDonald said. “Always wanting to start fro mscratch. I know. You never figured that someone else knew what you was trying to do, did you?”
“I never thought about it,” Andrews said. “Maybe because I didn’t know what I was trying to do myself.”
“Do you know now?”
Andrews moved restlessly.
“Young people,” McDonald said contemptuously. “You always think there’s something to find out.”
“Yes, sir,” Andrews said.
“Well, there’s nothing,” McDonald said. “You get born, and you nurse on lies, and you get weaned on lies, and you learn fancier lies in school. You live all your life on lies, and then maybe when you’re ready to die, it comes to you—that there’s nothing, nothing but yourself and what you could have done. Only you ain’t done it, because the lies told you there was something else. Then you know you could of had the world, because you’re the only one that knows the secret; only then it’s too late. You’re too old.”
“No,” Andrews said. A vague terror crept from the darkness that surrounded them, and tighteend his voice. “That’s not the way it is.”
“You ain’t learned, then,” McDonald said.
If McDonald is hard on the young man, he is no less hard on himself. “I came out with nothing, too,” he says, but there’s a reason.
“Because I forgot what I learned a long time ago. I let the lies come back. I had a dream, too, and because it was different from yours and Miller’s, I let myself think it wasn’t a dream. But now I know, boy. And you don’t. And that makes all the difference.”
“What will you do now, Mr. McDonald?” Andrews asked; his voice was soft.
“Do?” McDonald straightened on the bed. “Why, I’m going to do what Miller said I should do; I’m going to get out of this country. I’m going back to St. Louis, maybe back to Boston, maybe even to New York. You can’t deal with this country as long as you’re in it; it’s too big, and empty, and it lets the lies come into you. You have to get away from it before you can handle it. And no more dreams; I take what I can get when I can get it, and worry about nothing else.”
Talk about a man with no confidence! The West did not freeze to death any teamsters on the prairie, at least not this time, but its very vastness and wildness can’t help but bring false ideas about nature. These ideas infected Andrews when he was young, before he ever got out there, and presumably they infected McDonald like that too—otherwise he wouldn’t likely be in Butcher’s Crossing to begin with. He may not be as steady as the Missouri bachelor; after all, he forgot the lesson he had learned from the country. But after his latest tragedy he knows the only way is to flee the seductive untamedness of nature; he can’t trust it, and he can’t trust himself while he’s still in it. This nature that is supposed to cure, supposed to help men discover themselves and do great things they felt impossible back home, can be as deadly as nightshade, as bad for clarity of mind as any drug.
“I have confidence in nature? I?,” asks the Missouri bachelor. “I say again there is nothing I am more suspicious of. I once lost ten thousand dollars by nature. Nature embezzled that amount from me; absconded with ten thousand dollars’ worth of my property; a plantation on this stream, swept clean away by one of those sudden shiftings of the banks in a freshet; ten thousand dollars’ worth of alluvion thrown broad off upon the waters.”
His interlocutor demands he have confidence that “by a reverse shifting that soil will come back after many days,” but the Missouri bachelor, like McDonald, believes no such foolishness. The confidence-man questions further: “Now, can you, who suspect nature, deny, that this same nature not only kindly brought you into being, but has faithfully nursed you to your present vigorous and independent condition? Is it not to nature that you are indebted for that robustness of mind which you so unhandsomely use to her scandal?” But is it not also just such a nature that drives men like Andrews into danger, that “robustness of mind” which is perhaps not robustness but a fantastic desire to find, at least in McDonald’s opinion, something that simply is not there?
Trevor’s podcast gave me one idea that truly—and somewhat shockingly—had not occurred to me before at all: the idea of Miller as Ahab. The signs are all there, and there is no question of Ahab’s same extreme monomania in Miller’s pursuit of the buffalo in the valley. But the parallels to Moby-Dick are rather extensive.
First, we can start with Andrews. He may not leave home with quite the level of ennui expressed by Ishmael in his opening chapters, but he certainly abandons what he sees as stagnation in favor of adventure and growth. The West is an excellent replacement for the sea, beautiful and terrible as they both are, subjecting man to the wonders and brutality of nature. The pacing of the novel is also similar. It takes a long time to reach the valley—nearly half the novel passes before they set up camp there. And this pacing is fast compared to the length of time Miller has spent obsessing about this particular herd, his “one that got away.”
And this time, he will not let it get away—not one scrap. The party initially intends to stay for just a few weeks, perhaps a month, and be back safe at Butcher’s Crossing before winter sets in. But even the best “stands” of his life are not enough for Miller. When the weather begins to turn, the buffalo sense it and try to make their way out of the valley, to their winter feeding grounds. Despite the dangers of staying longer, Miller cannot allow this, and enlists Andrews and Schneider to help him prevent it. The group spends a day turning back stampede after stampede when the unthinkable happens: it begins to snow.
This is everything short of complete disaster for Miller, Andrews, Schneider and Charley. The first snowflakes waste no time becoming a blizzard, blocking off their pass until spring is well under way. This is something of a break from direct Moby-Dick parallel, although it does provide the men with something whalers are familiar with: a long time with relatively little to do, stuck in a small group of people trying not to drive each other (and themselves) mad. (Sidenote: Charley as Pip. No further comment.)
The monomania-derived and Moby-Dickensian tragedy does not end there. The hunting party experiences its own version of the sinking of the Pequod, though all hands are not lost.
Will Andrews, the protagonist of Butcher’s Crossing, is a young man who heads West, leaving behind Harvard and everything else familiar to him to do so. He is one of the yarb-doctor’s “sick spirit[s],” sent “to green pastures, like lame horses turned out unshod to the turf to renew their hoofs.” Will the yarb-doctor make him an idiot?
He arrives in Butcher’s Crossing, a hide town in Kansas, looking for work—but not just any work. A family friend is ready to have him as a bookkeeper, but paperwork is just the sort of thing he has left the East to avoid. He wants nature; he wants to meet the hunters. Heedless of his friend’s warning, he does so, seeking out a man named Miller who is supposed to be the best of the bunch.
Miller easily convinces Andrews to fund and participate in, at best, a difficult trip. A decade earlier, Miller found in a high valley in Colorado and untouched herd of buffalo—one of the few remaining large herds, and still with luscious coats, which the plains buffalo now lack. It is a valley untouched by humans other than Miller, or at least it was ten years earlier, and Miller convinces Andrews, Miller’s companion Charley, and an experienced skinner, Schneider, to go along treasure-hunting. And thus begins Andrews strange experience of the West, and of work.
The work begins long before the party reaches the valley. Andrews discovers it is work simply to ride so long and so far—never has he spent more than a couple hours at a time before on horseback. He finds for the first time what it means to be bone-tired, and as they progress through Kansas to Colorado, what it means to be hungry, and viciously thirsty. The traveling alone is dangerous and physically gruelling, and the routine of it all begins to change Andrews.
The reality of their journey lay in the routine detail of bedding down at night, arising in the morning, drinking black coffee from hot tin ups, packing bedrolls upon gradually wearying horses, the monotonous and numbing movement over the prairie that never changed its aspect, the watering of the horses and oxen at noon, the eating of hard biscuit and dried fruit, the resumption of the journey, the fumbling setting up the camp in the darkness, the tasteless quantities of beans and bacon gulped savagely in the flickering darkness, the coffee again, and the bedding down. This came to be a ritual, more and more meaningless as it was repeated, but a ritual which nevertheless gave his life the only shape it now had.
Who does not recognize here the contemporary plight of the office worker, marking time with a new set of rituals, as Andrews heads into the deeper country and finds the West less beautiful, more terrible, and at least as numbing in its own way as bookkeeping might have been?
When they reach the valley, it gets worse. Miller’s buffalo are still there, and they are still as majestic as he remembered them. Of course, the very presence of the party there means that cannot last. Andrews is there as a skinner, with Schneider to teach him. Miller is the shooter, and a good one he is. In this herd relatively unexposed to the dangers of humans, he gets the biggest “stand” he’s ever had—that is, he kills the buffalo in such a way as to confuse the herd and prevent it from fleeing, shooting one animal after another, the dead dropping among the living, for an almost impossible length of time.
During the last hour of the stand [Andrews] came to see Miller as a mechanism, an automaton, moved by the moving herd; and he came to see Miller’s destruction of the buffalo, not as a lust for blood or a lust for the hides or a lust for what the hides would bring, or even at the last blind fury that toiled darkly within him—he came to see the destruction as a cold, mindless response to the life in which Miller had immersed himself. And he looked upon himself, crawling dumbly after Miller upon the flat bed of the valley, picking up the empty cartirdges that he spent, tugging the water keg, husbanding the rifle, cleaning it, offering it to Miller when he needed it—he looked upon himself, and did not know who he was, or where he went.
Has Andrews lost himself in work, or in bad work, or simply in the West? Has he lost himself simply by virtue of trying to “find himself,” when himself was with him all along? That first night after the first kill, Andrews is asked to dress a cow so the party can have fresh meat to eat, since he has shown himself not yet up to the task of skinning. The butchering too is too much, and he recoils. Reflecting on his disgust later that night, he decides that “he had turned away from the buffalo not because of a womanish nausea at blood and stench and spilling gut,” but “because of his shock at seeing the buffalo, a few moments more proud and noble and full of the dignity of life, now stark and helpless, a length of inert meat, divested of itself….That self was murdered; and in that murder he had felt the destruction of something within him, and he had not been able to face it.”
His hand, at this point, seeks out his own face, testing his features to see if he is still the same man he was. But the change is already there—it was there in the routine of the prairie, where he was already seeing himself an automaton or mechanism. The killing, and Miller’s approach to it, certainly heighten this feeling of change and distance from himself.
The last quoted passages are an example of why I think that perhaps Stoner is the “better” novel, despite my personal preference for Butcher’s Crossing. Andrews is on a journey of self-discovery, and his self-examination is often explicit. It would be absurd to say we have perfect access to what is “really” happening to Andrews, but there are many examinations of his Bildung through his own eyes—eyes that are half in, half out of the situation. He is able to recognize, at least in part, what is happening to him, and he does not like it. But as the automaton he believes he has become, his ability to change it is very limited.
Trevor of The Mookse and the Gripes has, along with his brother, begun a podcast on NYRB Classics with John Williams’ Butcher’s Crossing. The first episode was particularly timely for me, as I planned on writing about the novel this week. I will be cribbing some topic ideas from their excellent discussion, including this first one.
But before I get around to answering that question, I must recommend in the strongest possible terms that you read one of Tom’s posts on the book from last year. These epigrams—and it’s not just because one is from Melville—I do believe they tell the whole story. I said it then, not having read it, and I say it again now, after the fact. Okay, maybe not the whole story, but rarely have I seen epigrams so wisely chosen. (And good on John Williams for reading The Confidence-Man.)
On to answer the question in this post’s title. Trevor and Brian posit a few reasons why Butcher’s Crossing is not so widely read, specifically in comparison to John Williams’s other NYRB-published novel, Stoner. Trevor suggested, as I did when I wrote about that book, that Stoner probably carries especial appeal for the lit blog crowd, concerned as it is with literature—with “the tower of literature,” as he well puts it. And I don’t think it is a mistake to pay more attention to Stoner, which I suspect is the “better” book, but it does give me pause that that is the reason.
The other answer has to do with Butcher’s Crossing itself. Trevor and Brian wonder whether it’s relatively neglected because it’s a Western, a genre in decline since the 1960s. I’m not sure that Butcher’s Crossing is a “Western” so much as “a novel of the West”—and please, don’t ask me to explain the difference between the two before I’ve read more Westerns. They mention that it has been described as a “revisionist Western,” and that could mean the same thing.
I think it has more to do with the specifics of the content of Butcher’s Crossing, and Americans’ continued trouble relationship with the realities of settling the West. Westerns, in a certain way, don’t face this reality. That is perhaps too strong; there is certainly ugliness in The Virginian. But the very jacket copy of the NYRB Classics edition of Butcher’s Crossing describes “an orgy of slaughter,” with men “so caught up in killing buffalo that they lose all sense of time.” This in particular seems like a fair bet at a turnoff for many readers, and for me too these passages were difficult to read.
That is not to say, by a long shot, that such an orgy is celebrated in the book; quite the contrary. But the orgy is there, and it’s brutal and gruesome. The Western may be dismissed as “genre,” but the revisionist Western, or novel of the West, is beautiful and terrible. Less dismissed than, I would postulate, avoided. That is pure speculation, of course, but if any of that is holding you back, I urge you onward. For the rest of the week, I’ll explain why.
I hoped to squeeze in a fifth Stoner post on Friday, but you know what Fridays are like—not super motivational. So you get one on Monday instead! On Thursday I discussed Stoner’s class mobility and status as a class protector. Rise pointed, in a comment, to his review of the novel, where he notes the elliptical nature of Stoner’s feelings about these matters: by the end of his affair with Katherine Driscoll, he admits to her that as it turns out, they are of this world: “[W]e should have known that. We did know it, I believe; but we had to withdraw a little, pretend a little…” But that is not to say that everyone is the same, and there are no boundaries and divisions—that Stoner isn’t still separated from his parents and his upbringing, and that he isn’t separated from the way Edith lived, and so forth.
All that is a winding preamble to the real question of my post: why doesn’t William Stoner have a harder time than he does entering his new class? When he first arrives in Columbia, where he has never been before, and the bus driver points out the university, the narrator says that “[h]e had never before seen anything so imposing.” But “[b]eneath his awe, he had a sudden sense of security and serenity he had never felt before.” Hi is immediately home, in some sense of the word.
At first I thought this was simply a relic of his rural upbringing. A man brought up to wrestle with something as difficult as the earth itself, the seasons, the sun, and all the wild creatures—what could intimidate him? But I don’t think that’s right, especially in light of the lines quoted above. There is simply never any question of Stoner’s not fitting in—and I don’t mean with Hollis Lomax, his nemesis in the department—refusing to play the game isn’t the same thing as not knowing anything about how the game is played.
The only time Stoner seems to feel truly inadequate to a situation (and I mean that in the sense of out of place, not in the way he realizes the imperfections in his own work) is when he first meets Edith. He
paused in the doorway, caught by his vision of the young woman. Her long, delicately featured face smiled at those around her, and her slender, almost fragile fingers deftly manipulated urn and cup; looking at her, Stoner was assailed by a consciousness of his own heavy clumsiness.
He remains similarly uncomfortable as he courts her. But all the while, it seems much more about the courting than about Edith’s wealth. Even when he meets her parents, in “the largest and most elegant house that Stoner had ever been in,” he is not really intimidated. He expected their “cool formality,” and while the fragility of his chair makes him a bit nervous to move in it, there is little more to his nervousness than would be expected around the “talk” with a woman’s father before marrying her. And when Mr. Bostwick brings up the difference in Edith’s circumstances and Stoner’s own,
Stoner felt a sickness rise within him, and an anger. He waited a few moments before he replied, and he made his voice as flat and expressionless as he could.
“I must tell you, sir, that I had not considered these material matters before. Edith’s happiness is, of course, my— If you believe that Edith would be unhappy, then I must…” He paused, searching for words. He wanted to tell Edith’s father of his love for his daughter, of his certainty of their happiness together, of the kind of life they could have. But he did not go on. He caught on Horace Bostwick’s face such an expression of concern, dismay, and something like fear that he was surprised into silence.”
Bostwick doesn’t want to talk about it, and seems to take Stoner to mean that he and Edie have already discussed this anyhow. But if Stoner is telling the truth here, that he had not “considered these material matters before,” that strikes me as very odd. And there is little reason to think he is lying—he almost never does. The “sickness” and “anger” are, I think, the closest we ever come to Stoner feeling uncomfortable because of his class—and that’s with him already considering himself a professional.
This is the one thing that makes me question the realism of the novel, of the characterization of William Stoner. He is never embarrassed about his clothes, even though “[i]n every season he wore the same black broadcloth suit, white shirt, and string tie; his wrists protruded from the sleeves of the jacket, and the trousers rode awkwardly about his legs, as if it were a uniform that had once belonged to someone else”—no, instead of being embarrassed, even in his second year of school he already sees it as someone else’s uniform, and it doesn’t matter that he happens to be wearing it. He never wonders how you’re supposed to act in class, let alone how you’re supposed to act teaching a class. He doesn’t ask himself whether all the people he knows aren’t secretly thinking he belongs back at the farm—or whether the people he doesn’t know so well can guess that’s where he came from. He is not remotely haunted by his past.
Perhaps Stoner is just supremely self-confident. Or self-contained. I think more the latter. But this struggle is something I was hoping to find portrayed in Stoner, and it’s not there at all. Have I missed it?
One of the things that interested me most about Stoner—at least, potentially—was its being about a child of farmers, raised to be a farmer himself, who goes on instead to perform a serious feat of class mobility and turns up an English professor.
Rohan Maitzen described Stoner’s parents in her post on the novel last year as people who “notably” “misunderstand and thus inhibit him.” I would agree that they fail to understand him, but I see in fact a surprisingly small amount of inhibition here. In fact, none. Much more notable to me is how quickly Stoner moves on and away from his parents and their lives. When he decides to change his major, he doesn’t tell them. This is understandable, given the fact that they will probably disapprove, and in some sense they are only giving him up as a farmhand to send him away to become a better one. Still, his failure to inform them at all of his change in plans—which is a drastic change, as he will not be returning to the farm at all—until his after commencement seems unduly harsh. They are, in fact, expecting him to return home with them then and there, and he lets them know that not only will he not be coming, he will be staying at school for several more years, and that everything is very different. Their reaction is stoical:
Finally his father moved in his chair. Stoner looked up. His parents’ faces confronted him; he almost cried out to them.
“I don’t know,” his father said. His voice was husky and tired. “I didn’t figure it would turn out like this. I thought I was doing the best for you I could, sending you here. Your ma and me has always done the best we could for you.”
“I know,” Stoner said. He could not look at them longer. “Will you be all right? I could come back for a while this summer and help. I could—”
“If you think you ought to stay here and study your books, then that’s what you ought to do. Your ma and me can manage.”
Stoner’s guilt here is evident, but he doesn’t seem to feel much of it for most of his life. He almost never visits his parents, beginning to do so only after his father dies, and doesn’t seem to devote much thought to them either.
He is in a new class now: the academic one. The chapter that immediately follows the quote above describes Stoner’s relationship with his two best friends, Gordon Finch and Dave Masters, for the first time. They are fellow instructors and PhD candidates. Masters is brilliant and Stoner admires him very much. He asks, one day, whether “you gentlemen have ever considered the question of the true nature of the University?” Masters tells them each what he assumes they think (and he has them pegged). In Stoner’s case, the University is “a great repository, like a library or a whorehouse, where men come of their free will and select that which will complete them, where all work together like little bees in a common hive. The True, the Good, the Beautiful. They’re just around the corner, in the next corridor….” Stoner’s views are colored by his upbringing and his very new entry into the wider world, especially into that of academia. Masters has a different idea, one that Stoner will come to adopt:
“But you’re both wrong,” he said. “It is an asylum or—what do they call them now?—a rest home, for the infirm, the aged, the discontent, and the otherwise incompetent. Look at the three of us—we are the University. The stranger would not know that we have so much in common, but we know, don’t we? We know well.”
On Stoner in particular:
“Nor do you escape, my friend. No indeed. Who are you? A simple son of the soil, as you pretend to yourself? Oh, no. You, too, are among the infirm—you are the dreamer, the madman in a madder world, our own midwestern Don Quixote without his Sancho, gamboling under the blue sky. You’re bright enough—brighter anyhow than our mutual friend. But you have the taint, the old infirmity. You think there’s something here, something to find. Well, in the world you’d learn soon enough. …[Y]ou’d always expect the world to be something it wasn’t, something it had no wish to be. …You couldn’t face them, and you couldn’t fight them; because you’re too weak, and you’re too strong. And you have no place to go in the world.”
Don’t take this for a second as any sort of anti-intellecutal indictment of the academy; and Masters sees himself just as infirm as the rest. He recognizes that they don’t fit into the normal social structure, and with many others like themselves, they have created a refuge where they can thrive—and where they can work, and lead lives that they find relatively meaningful. Where “[w]e do no harm, we say what we want, and we get paid for it; and that’s a triumph of natural virtue, or pretty damn close to it.”
This is why Charles Walker is such a threat. Walker is, in the words of the novel, “a cripple,” but he is not infirm in the way that Stoner, or Finch, or Masters are infirm. When oral exams come around, he proves himself to be exactly the kind of son-of-a-bitch Finch isn’t (in Masters’s words), and one of Stoner’s principal reasons for wanting to fail him is just that. He recalls to Finch the words of their long-dead friend:
Stoner looked across the room, out of the window, trying to remember. “The three of us were together, and he said—something about the University being an asylum, a refuge from the world, for the dispossessed, the crippled. But he didn’t mean Walker. Dave would have thought of Walker as—as the world. And we can’t let him in. For if we do, we become like the world, just as unreal, just as…The only hope we have is to keep him out.
Rise described this, in a comment to my first post on Stoner, as Stoner’s being “now the high priest of literature intent on safeguarding his church from heretics.” This is not wrong, but class raised its head here much higher than religion for me. Not that it makes much difference. Stoner is a class-protector, and his class is a particularly small and rarefied one.
His wife comes from a similarly small and rarefied class, but still a different one—the monied one. And in many ways Stoner has this same battle with her, among all their other battles. She wants to live in the style to which she is accustomed. He does not, in fact, want to live in the style he grew up in, but he does want to live a third way—the way of the unassuming academic. As she passive-aggressively destroys their marriage, a recurring theme is the way that she tries to find her place in and around that world, or refuses to. For all her flaws, she is trying out different ways to live, and one by one rejecting them, at least in part because she can never accept the actual lifestyle that Stoner had already chosen for them both before they ever met.
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.
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.
I don’t know if any statistical analysis would bear this out, but Stoner, by John Williams, originally published in 1965 and reprinted by NYRB Classics in 2006, seems to be one of the more popular titles from that imprint around the litblogosphere. I have always assumed that was, at least to some extent, because it’s a novel about an English professor (and therefore about books and reading), and I avoided it a bit in part for this reason and also because I don’t care for the title.
But it’s not just the blog world that loves Stoner—it’s got some serious blurbs as well. Morris Dickstein of the New York Times Book Review calls it “something rarer than a great novel—…a perfect novel;” The Dallas Morning News calls it “one of the most extraordinarily fine novels published in the past fifty years.” It is very, very good. Perfect? I would not have used the word myself—Stoner does not seem small enough for it, somehow—I am not sure anything so fully about the entirety of a life could seem “perfect” to me. Still, it’s hard to find a false note. If there is anything to complain of here, for me, it’s a failure to convey the conversion of Stoner from farmer to literature student.
It’s a religious experience, basically, and it’s rare that I’m convinced by such things in fiction. I’m not sure it’s anyone’s fault; it seems like it would be terribly hard to do. Stoner, taking a required survey of English literature, is “troubled and disquieted” by the course in a new way. He is touched somehow by the instructor, Archer Sloane, whom he daydreams about; he does poorly on his examinations, no matter how much time he spends with the materials; and one day, when Sloane asks him what Shakespeare’s seventy-third sonnet means, it hits him.
William Stoner realized that for several moments he had been holding his breath. He expelled it gently, minutely aware of his clothing moving upon his body as his breath went out of his lungs. He looked away from Sloane about the room. Light slanted from the windows and settled upon the faces of his fellow students, so that the illumination seemed to come from within them and go out against a dimness; a student blinked, and a thin shadow fell upon a cheek whose down had caught the sunlight. Stoner became aware that his fingers were unclenching their hard grip on his desk-top. He turned his hands about under his gaze, marveling at their brownness, at the intricate way the nails fit into his blunt finger-ends; he thought he could feel the blood flowing invisibly through the tiny veins and arteries, throbbing delicately and precariously from his fingertips through his body.
Soon he drops out of the agricultural program at the college and switches to English literature. He begins studying Greek and Latin, and Archer Sloane suggests that he go on with graduate work in English. A similar conversion occurs:
“But don’t you know, Mr. Stoner?” Sloane asked. “Don’t you understand about yourself yet? You’re going to be a teacher.”
Suddenly Sloane seemed very distant, and the walls of the office receded. Stoner felt himself suspended in the wide air, and he heard his voice ask, “Are you sure?”
“I’m sure,” Sloane said softly.
It was as simple as that. He was aware that he nodded to Sloane and said something inconsequential. Then he was walking out of the office. His lips were tingling and his fingertips were numb; he walked as if he were asleep, yet he was intensely aware of his surroundings.
And so on and so forth—he feels all tingly and all woozy in the head and his whole life changes. It’s the first conversion that troubles me more, I think. Does Stoner like the sonnet? Does he find Shakespeare beautiful? Is his revelation less specific than any of this—is it just that there’s is something more to literature than had been previously been accounted for in his philosophy of learning?
Even I can’t complain too loudly about these questions, because I think the conversion scene, in concept, must be almost impossible to write. Perhaps I was more accepting of Sophie Wilder’s conversion because she said she couldn’t really say what happened, but basically the Holy Spirit had entered her—if the conversion is a mystery, might as well leave it that way; the tingling and sensory overload does not really tell me more about it than that does. In any case, I suspect many other readers forgive this even more because it is something they sympathize with: this moment where they fell in love with reading, when they realized they loved literature, when they realized they loved something they would probably always have trouble explaining about.
But there’s a bit of the rub for me. Though he isn’t often, in his own eyes, a great teacher, Stoner believes good teaching is possible, and he believes he can do it. What does his conversion say about that? Is it a pointer to the result of good English teaching—he won’t so much communicate with students successfully, as commune with them (or get them to commune with themselves)? Or is it an indication that, in fact, such “good teaching” is not really possible—that such self-communion, possibly sparked by an instructor, is the most to be expected? And that such a description as the one above, of tingling and numbness, is the closest we can come to really talking about what literature means to us?
I’ve got lots more on Stoner; this is just the beginning, and don’t think I didn’t like it. The good stuff is going to take up the rest of the week!
I don’t like to say that “the work project is under way,” or that it’s gotten under way, since my last week’s post on it, because really the work project was always under way—or at least, it has been for several years. It’s just one of those things that I notice when I read, which is probably, of course, why I thought about doing a “project” on it to begin with. But I have dug in. To some work, you could say.
Anthony suggested the anthology of short stories edited by Richard Ford Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar, a volume that had been on my shelf for several months, making me feel rather guilty for not working on this project in earnest sooner. I hoped it would give me some ideas for further reading at the very least*, so I started in on it shortly after writing my description of the project. I have read the first six stories: “Business Talk,” by Max Apple; “The Gully,” by Russell Banks; “Me and Miss Mandible,” by Donald Barthelme; “Unjust,” by Richard Bausch; “The Working Girl,” by Ann Beattie; and “Zapatos,” by T.C. Boyle.
Of these six, two show absolutely no work—in “Unjust,” a sheriff is accused of sexual harassment and the story follows his difficulties at home while he’s on administrative leave, and “Working Girl” gallops away from work as quickly as it can and into what one might call “the rest of life.”
In a third story, “Me and Miss Mandible,” Miss Mandible is at work during most of the present action of the story, but she’s teaching the narrator, which is at the very least an unusual depiction of work.** There is also some reference to the work the narrator used to do, though only in very general terms.
“The Gully” is a little bit more work-oriented, though the focus is more on building a business. The work that actually begins this process takes up only a small physical amount of the story. In other words, I’d say this is more a story of business than of work.
That leaves two out of six stories that I would say are pretty work-focused, though in neither case entirely so. “Zapatos” is both my favorite so far in general and also the best example for these purposes. I’d like to write about it at greater length tomorrow. “Business Talk,” meanwhile, is about a housewife who wants to start her own business, and settles, with a friend, on a frozen yogurt franchise. Like “The Gully,” the story leans a bit in the “business or work?” direction, but Apple does much more description of the basic activities of working:
We decide to gather as much information as possible and talk to a lawyer before we sign a lease. Jeannie wants us to be a corporation with stationery and a logo. I spend the early morning calling long distance until I find out that there is a distributor right here in Houston. I leave my name.
He even describes some of these activities for people other than the protagonist:
David wrings his hands. He is always worried. Two gay cooks and a waiter run his restaurant. They are constantly arguing. They buy their ingredients fresh every day. David drives across town to the Farmers’ Market for the vegetables. He has already had three minor accidents on the freeway. When he returns they stop arguing and cook whatever he buys. The staff all hate David for his inefficiency.
On the other hand, this is simply a part of Apple’s style (at least in this story): we get all sorts of descriptions of mundane details, not just of work. We find out when the narrator shaves her legs, the fact that “[w]e all have spinach salad and eggplant Parmesan” at a business lunch.
So what does it mean when an anthology purporting to collect “stories of work” is, thus far, at best only halfway telling stories of work? That is not to say there is anything wrong with any of these stories, or even that the Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar title is inappropriate. It does seem to highlight, however, the fact that this isn’t, let’s say, an attractive subject for many writers—the actual work stuff, that is. Compare even the passages above from “Business Talk” with this, from John Williams’s novel Stoner, much-loved around the blogosphere and finally being read by yours truly:
So for nine months’ room and board he fed and watered the livestock, slopped pigs, gathered eggs, milked cows, and chopped firewood. He also plowed and harrowed fields, dug stumps (in the winter breaking through three inches of frozen soil), and churned butter for Mrs. Foote, who watched him with her head bobbing in grim approval as the wooden churner splashed up and down through the milk.
And that’s from pages 8 and 9—and isn’t the first description of work! And compare again with Captains Courageous, the book that finally got me do the work of writing that post last week:
Penn and Manuel stood knee deep among cod in the pen, flourishing drawn knives. Long Jack, a basket at his feet and mittens on his hands, faced Uncle Salters at the table, and Harvey stared at the pitchfork and the tub.
“Hi!” shouted Manuel, stooping to the fish, and bringing one up with a finger under its gill and a finger in its eyes. He laid it on the edge of the pen; the knife-blade glimmered with a sound of tearing, and the fish, slit from throat to vent, with a nick on either side of the neck, dropped at Long Jack’s feet.
“Hi!” said Long Jack, with a scoop of his mittened hand. The cod’s liver dropped in the basket. Another wrench and scoop sent the head and offal flying, and the empty fish slid across to Uncle Salters, who snorted fiercely. There was another sound of tearing, the backbone flew over the bulwarks, and the fish, headless, gutted, and open, splashed in the tub, sending the salt water into Harvey’s astonished mouth. After the first yell, the men were silent. The cod moved along as though they were alive, and long ere Harvey had ceased wondering at the miraculous dexterity of it all, his tub was full.
*It has given me quite different ideas for further reading as well, I should note: I have already read short stories by four very well-known writers I had never read before, and am feeling like I “need to get out more.”
**Surely this is a thing, too though—some sort of “inverse of work” novel, about children with teachers, or people with servants, or something.