Robert Stone giving a talk in
Fayerweather Hall, May 22, 2005.
Photo by Robert Tobey
2005 Honorary Degree Recipients
Doctor of Humane Letters
“Robert Stone’s fiction,” writes one critic, “has always been preoccupied with the unlovely underside of American life.” It’s an American life that is likely to find itself almost anywhere on the globe—in wartime Vietnam, in unstable Central America or millennial Jerusalem, where soldiers, drug dealers, academics or assorted others find themselves in complex moral, political and physical situations.
Stone, the author of seven novels and a collection of stories, has always eluded easy classification. His books express a dark disillusionment, even as they are full of spiritual yearning. His characters behave in irrational and sometimes violent ways, while also expressing philosophical complexity and experiencing, at times, an almost religious peace. His novels are populated by a human parade that ranges from saints to sinners, with many ordinary achievers, strugglers and misfits in between. Stone is not mainly known as a humorist, yet there is always an undertow of wit pulling back against the tide of dark wildness. As that same critic notes: “Robert Stone’s blend of heroic aspiration and mordantly deflationary irony results in something like tragicomedy—maybe even something like Shakespeare, our best tragic comedian.”
Stone’s first novel, A Hall of Mirrors, 1967, won the William Faulkner Award for a notable first novel. Since then, several of his books have been nominated for National Book Awards, and one for a Pulitzer Prize. A Flag for Sunrise (1981) received the Los Angeles Times Book Award. Several of his novels have been made into films.
Born in Brooklyn in 1937, Stone lived for a time with his mentally ill mother. He attended Catholic schools, but left the church at about the same time he left school and joined the Navy. In 1958, he returned to New York, working nights at the Daily News and attending New York University during the day. It was there he met Janice Burr, to whom he has been married for 45 years. In 1972, the couple, with their two children, came to live in Amherst, where Stone became visiting writer for three years, then returned for another two years in 1977. He has held similar posts at, among other universities, Princeton, Harvard and Yale.