The Hematologist

September-October 2018, Volume 15, Issue 5

Off the Shelf: Stoner by John Williams

David P. Steensma, MD Associate Professor of Medicine
Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA

Published on: August 22, 2018

In a 2013 New Yorker article, essayist Tim Kreider called Stoner, “the greatest American novel you’ve never heard of.” A New York Times book reviewer claimed Stoner is “a perfect novel, so well told and beautifully written, so deeply moving, that it takes your breath away.” A half-century following its initial 1965 publication by a University of Denver English professor, Stoner became a bestseller in Europe after a popular French novelist translated and promoted it, The New York Review of Books issued a new edition, and The Guardian championed it as a “must-read book.”

So why is Stoner not better known by the literate general public, and why is it worthwhile for hematologists to read? Perhaps the main reason Stoner never became “the great American novel” is that Americans like winners. The protagonist of Stoner, in contrast, never advances beyond the upper echelons of mediocrity, despite talent and the best of intentions.

William Stoner was born on a hardscrabble farm in 1891 and left home in 1910 to study at the University of Missouri. While at school, he fell in love with literature, beginning with Shakespeare’s 73rd sonnet, which prompted an “epiphany of knowing something through words that could not be put in words.” He became an assistant English professor at the university, much to the disappointment of his parents, who had naively hoped he would return to the family farm.

Professor Stoner worked hard but married badly — not quite as disastrous a match as Tertius Lydgate’s Rosamund in Middlemarch, but rotten enough that his spiteful wife conspired to estrange him from their daughter, the one person Stoner loved unreservedly. He never learned to play academic politics; at the university, was thwarted at every step by a departmental rival, Hollis Lomax, who bore a grudge after Stoner refused to pass Lomax’s pet graduate student whose ignorance was exposed in an oral examination.

In middle age, Stoner found love with a bright graduate student who shared his passion for language, but his academic enemies managed to drive her off and end their relationship. His academic focus turned out to be a dead end, his few publications were rarely cited, and after his death from cancer, he was quickly forgotten, memorialized only by a medieval manuscript that a few of his more sympathetic colleagues quietly donated in his name to the campus library. 

The novel is unflinching in its portrait of life as it is usually lived, with all its shabbiness and frustration, which makes for painful reading at times. Let’s face it: For most of us, our careers will not turn out quite how we envisioned at age 21. There will be disappointments, rejections, and failures, much of which will be out of our control.

As Cornell economist Robert Frank wrote in Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy, being talented and hardworking is never enough to guarantee success. Luck, or what the ancients might call fate, karma, or destiny, plays an essential role. In a 2010 Time cover story, Tom Hanks praised Stoner as one of his five favorite books — perhaps not a surprise for the actor who played Forrest Gump. Lefty Gomez’s famous quote, “I’d rather be lucky than good,” applies to medical doctors just as much as baseball pitchers.

Despite his lack of external validation, Professor Stoner’s passion for literature and for teaching English were ends in themselves. In the same way, our own devotion to our field — to caring for the sick, teaching the next generation of hematologists, and discovering how blood behaves in health and disease  — can keep us going through lean times when the world seems indifferent or even hostile. Stoner is ruthless but also tender, and shows that there can be value even in a life that seems unfulfilled.

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