In the last few weeks I have read Andersonville, a story about the notorious Confederate prisoner-of-war camp; Augustus, a historical narrative exploring the life of the founder of the Roman Empire; and Stoner, a novel about a man whose life, measured by modern-day metrics, was an abject failure. These works have reminded me how grateful I am to be ordinary.
So much of our life is dependent on contingency that I feel privileged not to have suffered like the prisoners in Andersonville, but I’m also grateful that fate never selected me, as it did Augustus, to play a significant role on the world stage, nor for that matter, an insignificant one. I would not have wanted to banish my daughter to an isolated island, never to see her again, even if was for the greater good. Neither would I have wanted to be responsible for the deaths of close friends and men of the caliber of Cicero, even if the political necessity was plain. The toll of taking up a great cause, a vast project or the reins of power, is all too often the destruction of our own personal happiness.
But, if it’s good to be ordinary where does heroism fit into this world? We crave wisdom but only find ignorance and the worship of moguls, morons, and movie stars. However, in his novel, Stoner, John Williams gives us a portrait of a much older, classical vision of heroism, based on private character. Character, of course, is out of fashion, but it wasn’t always this way. The 20th century shift from small rural communities to large anonymous cities marked the transition from a culture of character to one of self-promotion. Instead of learning someone’s virtues and vices first-hand or by reputation, over their lifetime, city life placed a premium on first impressions and the manipulation of image. Advertising, television and more recently social media, have exacerbated this trend. Today, the summation of a course in self-marketing would be to “make a noise”, and the number of likes, friends and followers has become the measure of our success.
John Williams’s novel follows the life of an obscure academic named William Stoner, a man forgotten by his students and colleagues, by history itself. Stoner makes all the right choices when confronted with difficult decisions, but pays a steep price for his integrity, eventually losing his wife, his daughter, his career and even his mistress, the one true love of his life. However, John Williams didn’t see Stoner as a failure. In an interview he gave a few years before his death, he remarked that he thought Stoner was “a real hero”:
“A lot of people who have read the novel think that Stoner had such a sad and bad life. I think he had a very good life….He was doing what he wanted to do, he had some feeling for what he was doing, he had some sense of the importance of the job he was doing. He was a witness to values that are important…You’ve got to keep the faith.”
In a world which appears almost designed to distract us from the anguish of our inner lives, the lesson of Stoner is that ultimately we are measured by our capacity to face the truth of who we are in private moments, not by the public image we have crafted for ourselves.
“There was a softness around him, and a languor crept upon his limbs. A sense of his own identity came upon him with a sudden force, and he felt the power of it. He was himself, and he knew what he had been.” John Williams, Stoner