A biography of a nearly forgotten mid-20th-century American writer.
A notable literary sensation of recent years is the belated success of the 1965 novel Stoner. This quietly intense story of an English professor at a small Midwestern college was the third of only four published novels by author John Williams (1922-1994). Though the book was favorably reviewed, it sold poorly. But thanks to the efforts of devoted readers and fellow writers, the book has slowly gained a cult following, which led to a reprint in 2006. The larger success was established first through foreign editions before gaining recognition in the U.S. Literary biographer Shields (Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee: From Scout to Go Set a Watchman, 2016, etc.) provides a respectful and well-documented yet occasionally lackluster overview of Williams’ life and career. Beginning with his subject’s humble origins in northeast Texas, Shields tracks his experiences in the Army during World War II, early academic and writing pursuits, and then his 30-year tenure as a professor at the University of Denver, where he also served as the director of their creative writing program. Along the way, we see glimpses of Williams’ personal life, but what ultimately emerges is a fairly predictable portrait of yet another heavy-drinking, chain-smoking postwar American white male writer. He sustained a focused eye on his craft but apparently had limited interest in his students or family, and his continual and often desperate ambition for fame somewhat diminished his reputation within his department. His disdain for modernist and experimental writing and his reluctance to reflect directly on his times also left him out of sync with reading interests of that period, including the more provocative work of contemporaries ranging from Norman Mailer to John Barth.
Though Stoner has proven to be a novel whose compassionate themes have timeless appeal, this portrait of the irksome Williams, though brisk and readable, may do little to further advance the book’s cause.