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What It Was Like to Study Under Robert Stone

Rest in peace, merry prankster

Dustin Cohen

Robert Stone, my teacher, has died. I took two semesters of writing classes from him in the latter half of the ’90s. Memorable at a glance, he looked like a writer, a kind of hippie Hemingway. Like Hemingway, he had a pointed white beard and haggard affect. Unlike Hemingway, I attributed his fatigue not to macho exertion but a surfeit of compassion. He spoke softly, in an aristocratic New York accent preternaturally poised, like the voice of a public intellectual appearing on a TV talk show at some hazy point in the 70s. Mostly he seemed gentle—a literary lion, semi-domesticated. 

I stayed in touch intermittently in the decade that followed; his effect on me, though, lasted far longer. It wasn’t just his work as a novelist that stuck with me. For a decade after college, I made my living as a writer, profiling musicians and other cultural figures—extreme video gamers, backyard wrestlers—but a more rewarding career came later, publishing and promoting music poised between the avant garde and the merely alternative. One group, The National, took off only after years of trying. In the final equation, my writing hardly aligned with Stone’s grand lineage—Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene—but his example stayed relevant to my work in the cultural sector. (And yes, I’m still telling stories, albeit mostly with real people and less with made up words.) What I took from Stone was a point of view.

On one level, Stone could be seen as a living connection to a lost world of hip. Born in 1937, he was in his twenties by the late ’50s: too young to be a Beat, too old to be a hippie. Stone belonged to neither generation, but was fully present when each made contact with popular culture and created what we think of as “The Sixties.” He had fond memories of listening to poets like Allen Ginsberg read at New York City's Seven Arts Café, where he met a waitress named Janice who would become his wife. But Stone’s bohemian bona fides did not end there. In the early ’60s, after receiving a fellowship to study creative writing at Stanford, he went west to a California that hadn’t yet grabbed the nation’s full attention. He described it is as a kind of Eden—“a garden without snakes”—and there he met and befriended Ken Kesey, author of the revered 1962 novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a figure whose real significance lay in how he took that book's anti-authoritarian posture into the world. Kesey’s “Acid Test” parties and cross-country trips on the "magic bus" further helped popularize psychedelic drugs and culture. Kesey’s clique, the Merry Pranksters, was soon mythologized in Tom Wolfe's 1968 book of reportage, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

For Baby Boomers, the question, "Were you on the bus?" became shorthand for determining if you had really participated in the ’60s cultural ferment. But here's the thing: Though Stone was a kind of proto-Prankster and included in accounts of their glory years, he was literally and metaphorically not fully on board.

Why not? His autobiographical 1987 story “Absence of Mercy” provides clues. It presents a series of episodes drawn from Stone’s own life. At age six, his stand-in is sent to an orphanage, a feral world one part Dickens, one part Lord of the Flies. In his teen years, he’s subject to beatings and knife fights, and then enlists in the Navy. He conflates those developmental years into “a single continuous process of being found out in transgression and punished…a physical and moral chaos of all against all,” and so Stone’s proxy develops “an instinctive cringe” that a particularly harsh sergeant drills out of him. In a sense, by the time the Pranksters came along, Stone already had doubts about their Dionysian project and its echoes of his chaotic childhood: Its excesses had an attractive familiarity, but he was also repelled by an awareness of the ways these things can go horribly wrong.

And so, Stone’s final feeling on hip America was circumspect. Yes, he partook in the revels of the time—he'd readily admit to the good times, as well as subsequent issues with alcohol and drugs—but he also kept his distance. While the Pranksters drove cross-country, Stone “waited, with the wine-stained manuscript of my first novel, for the rendezvous in New York.” In 1968, when his clique broke into the mainstream, he expatriated with his young family to London for four years to establish his literary career, returning only for a spell in Hollywood to adapt that first book into a film for Paul Newman. When his peers’ ambitions expanded into politics, Stone did not join them in their stateside protests against Vietnam; instead, he visited that country as a loosely credentialed freelance reporter. While his contemporaries sought attention for what they were doing, Stone chased new experiences, banking what he saw. If he’d had a credo, I think it would be this: Play the long game; don’t sweat the zeitgeist.

I like to think the energy he preserved by keeping a low profile went into his work. As the hippies were winding down, Stone was just getting started. His first three novels were spread over three decades—A Hall of Mirrors in ’67 (a kind of bildungsroman about drift in New Orleans); the National Book Award-winning Dog Soldiers in ’74 (drug running and Vietnam); and A Flag for Sunrise in ’81 (American corruption in Central America). Publishing at such a leisurely pace is hard to imagine in this accelerated age. Indeed, in interviews, he would refer to himself as a "lazy perfectionist." More charitably: He treated his artistic practice with the patience and persistence that won him high esteem. One gauge of his literary achievement is the sheer number of tributes that appeared upon his passing, different writers taking their turn at the podium. (There were three remembrances in The New Yorker alone and two in the New York Times.)

By 2007, when Stone published his memoir of the ’60s, Prime Green, he reflected on those countercultural times with a sense of apprehension, contrasting America at the decade’s end with his time in England, where “Life was sane, sort of, and relatively predictable.” When I interviewed him for an article about the book, Stone described one group of legendary hippies with an unimpressed smirk. "When I first knew the guys who were the Grateful Dead they were students at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and they used to wear their suits to the train," he said. He was equally dubious of his elders. In the memoir, Stone recounts a party at the end of one of Kesey's cross-country journeys where he met a "drunk, angry" Jack Kerouac, a man who "out of rage at health and youth and mindlessness…despised us.” He saw, up close, how members of the vanguard could be behind the curve or destroyed by the spotlight.

I remember speaking to him in 2001, soon after September 11. An esteemed publication had asked for his thoughts about global jihad and “the end of the age of irony.” (For the life of me, I can’t recall if anything was ever published.) Stone’s take: “Radical Islam can’t win. It wants to make the world retreat to an earlier, pre-modern time.” To understand Stone is to realize this wasn’t exactly optimism. He didn’t think terrorism would go away, but he did believe that all dogma was eventually diverted, perverted, or corrupted, that it is always watered down and subsides. 

I found this persuasive, and a reflection of the grand subject in Stone’s fiction: The course of idealism and ideology in the modern age. Be it hippie idealism or Islamic jihad, there is a moment when such romantic beliefs sour into cant or something more sinister. In some ways, his was skepticism straight out of Ecclesiastes—i.e., that the lives of the wise and foolish both end in death. But Stone’s version somehow had a warmer heart. After terror and adulation, drama and great events, life goes on, so remember to take your bitterness with a dose of something sweet.

Stone’s novels were read more widely than most literary fiction, but he was never exactly a literary celebrity—just adjacent. It was an under-the-radar presence he turned into an asset. It’s probably why his actual output far outpaced his friend Kesey’s and most of the other figures in the underground artistic scene that spawned him. Even a great writer like Ginsberg devoted himself to little but self-canonization in his last decades. Hagiography is one of the demands of widespread popularity.

Stone’s career, on the other hand, proceeded slowly and steadily. He finished eleven books in his lifetime—not notably prolific, but remarkable because he produced relevant, serious, and critically acclaimed work in each of the six decades he published. And those books covered a wide range of settings. He wrote of Hollywood (Children of Light), of a boat race circumnavigating the globe (Outerbridge Reach), and of conspiratorial intrigue in Jerusalem (Damascus Gate). Later in his career, he published two novels (Bay of Souls and Death of the Black-Haired Girl) set, in part, in the academic milieu where I first encountered him. 

It’s worth documenting those classrooms, so lightly chronicled in last month’s encomiums, perhaps because Stone-as-professor is a bit hard to square with Stone-as-countercultural symbol. His last two novels were curiously received; I suspect this is in part because they depicted the world he embraced in his extended, self-proclaimed “embourgeoisement.” From 1971 until the end of his life—far longer than he spent with Kesey and the Pranksters—Stone, who never completed an undergraduate degree, became an itinerant presence at prestigious Ivy League institutions like Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, as well as at well-respected writing programs at Johns Hopkins and UT San Marcos.

Both my experience and anecdotes from friends agree: He was not a great teacher in the traditional sense or the Hollywood one, as depicted in movies like Dead Poets Society or Stand and Deliver. Stone did not inspire any pupils to stand on desktops. He addressed a classroom not with rhetorical flourish, but with quiet humility. His former students—The New Republic’s editor-in-chief is one of them—would discuss their final marks with a degree of puzzlement, because he was the sort of teacher for whom grades were more a character evaluation than a reflection of the work you turned in. For the grade-conscious this could cause great consternation, but I found it excellent preparation for the real world, for job interviews, and for a life in the arts. (To strike a last, hippieish note, these are all situations where success or failure is not about As, Bs, or Cs, but “your overall vibe.”)

I found my time with him unforgettable. There was a slow confidence in Stone’s pronouncements, which I took for wisdom. What's the point of producing culture? It’s not about popular reception, just making good work. What’s the purpose of all fiction? It's an essentially moral medium. What’s the point of life? Brief and hard-won moments of grace. 

To this day, much of what Stone said still strikes me as true. Usually it was a variation on resisting someone else’s sexy gospel. My favorite, though, came years after I graduated, when I visited his office looking for the broadest, most ridiculous kind of advice. “How should one go about living a creative life?” I asked him. 

Do whatever the hell you want, he replied. A much better compass, I guess, than subscribing to another’s philosophy.  For that—as well as for his work and words—Robert Stone, my teacher, should be remembered.