Academics and Research

Former English professor’s influential novel celebrates 50th anniversary

John Williams earned two English degrees from DU — his BA in 1949 and an MA in 1950. After earning a PhD from the University of Missouri, he returned to DU in 1954, teaching and directing the writing program until his retirement in 1985. Photo: DU Archives

John Williams earned two English degrees from DU — his BA in 1949 and an MA in 1950. After earning a PhD from the University of Missouri, he returned to DU in 1954, teaching and directing the writing program until his retirement in 1985. Photo: DU Archives

“He suspected that he was beginning, ten years late, to discover who he was; and the figure he saw was both more and less than he had once imagined it to be.” — “Stoner”

 John Williams’ “Stoner” is an honest and clear narrative of an unremarkable Midwestern English professor. The late Williams — a DU alumnus, a former director of the University’s creative writing program and a much-beloved mentor to literature-loving students — published “Stoner” in 1965. Disappointment and mediocrity characterize protagonist William Stoner’s life, but the book nonetheless inspired and enlightened many of its readers.

Initially, the book sold barely 2,000 copies. But, through a series of reviews in publications ranging from The New Yorker to Time and The Guardian, “Stoner” found new fans and emerged as a cult classic, leading to rereleases and additional printings domestically and internationally. In the Netherlands alone, the unapologetically American novel reached No. 1 in 2013, with 85,000 copies in print. Just recently, on Nov. 3, New York Review Books released a special 50th-anniversary hardback edition, complete with previously unpublished correspondence between Williams and his agent about the book’s writing and publication.

At DU, “Stoner” and Williams have had far-reaching impact. Williams earned two English degrees from DU — his BA in 1949 and an MA in 1950. After earning a PhD from the University of Missouri, he returned to DU in 1954, teaching and directing the writing program until his retirement in 1985.

“‘Stoner’ convinced me of the path I needed to take,” says John Arthur, a first-year master’s student in DU’s English department. “I felt deeply connected to the protagonist’s revelations about the beauty and depth possible in the study of literature.”

After reading “Stoner,” Arthur applied to graduate school and was accepted at DU. “I have begun my own journey of the literary marvel and wonder, tempered by the pleasant resignation of knowing that living, and study, are ends in themselves — just as Williams describes in ‘Stoner,’” he says.

The book had the opposite effect on alumna Leslie Petrovski (BA ’82, MA ’91), who took classes with Williams during her time at DU. “It convinced me never to get a PhD, with its dystopian view of professorial life,” she says. That said, the Denver-based writer adds, “it is a perfect novel, it breathes, it has real people … and it is dark and remains one of my all time favorite novels.”

As a professor, says Denver-based political consultant Arnold Grossman (BA ’59), Williams was uncompromising. “Once, I told him that I was not pleased with my last effort. He responded through cigarette smoke and with nearly closed eyes: ‘If you told me you liked the last thing you wrote, I’d have no hope for you as a writer.’”

Petrovski adds, “He was a very formal man, always dressed in a suit, and you would never think to call him by his first name.”

Williams published six books throughout his career, though he never achieved great sales success. He won the National Book Award in 1973 for “Augustus,” a novel released in 1972. He died in 1994 from respiratory failure.

“If I have succeeded at all as a writer for the past half-century, much of it was due to the kick in the butt John Williams was kind enough to bestow on me,” Gross concludes.

 

 

One Comment

  1. John Gudvangen says:

    Just read Stoner. It’s a wonderful novel. It has so many paragraphs that left me almost breathless with their depth, beauty, construction, insight. This was a great way to start the summer reading season. I wish I could participate in the Middletown, CT’s book club discussion of Stoner next year. Great pick and thanks for keeping me on the email list. And little did I know (or remember, since I read this article last fall) when I picked it up at City Stacks last week that John Williams was so closely affiliated with DU.

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