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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1408

Robert Stone was born in Brooklyn, New York, on August 21, 1937, the son of Gladys Catherine Grant, an elementary school teacher of Scotch-Irish origins whose schizophrenia profoundly affected her son’s vision of himself and his world (he often mentions the fear of chaos his life with her instilled in...

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Robert Stone was born in Brooklyn, New York, on August 21, 1937, the son of Gladys Catherine Grant, an elementary school teacher of Scotch-Irish origins whose schizophrenia profoundly affected her son’s vision of himself and his world (he often mentions the fear of chaos his life with her instilled in him), and C. Homer Stone, a former railway detective who fled domestic responsibilities shortly after Robert’s birth. Because of his mother’s illness, young Robert spent time in an orphanage and in a series of Catholic boarding schools (including St. Ann’s Marist Academy in Manhattan), where physical punishment was commonplace.

After his mother’s release from the hospital, Stone lived with her on Manhattan’s West Side; joined a street gang; read with puzzlement and then appreciation the works of Thomas Carlyle, Fyodor Dostoevski, Franz Kafka, John Dos Passos, Joseph Conrad, and F. Scott Fitzgerald; and won a New York State Regents’ scholarship based on a story he wrote influenced by J. D. Salinger. However, he clashed with the Marist brothers over his drinking and his conversion of another student to atheism, and he left school before high school graduation.

In 1955, Stone joined the United States Navy and served with the amphibious force of the Atlantic Fleet. He passed his high-school equivalency test while in the military. The experiences of his childhood, captured in part in the opening to “Absence of Mercy,” one of the short stories in Bear and His Daughter (1997), clearly influenced his interest in the rootless, the psychotic, the irresponsible, and the hypocritical. His service as a radioman aboard an attack troop carrier in the Mediterranean during the Suez Crisis of 1956 and then as senior enlisted journalist on Operation Deep Freeze Three in Antarctica prepared him to write credibly of military life, language, and style and of ships and sailing (as he does in “Under the Pitons,” a story of drug smugglers who prove inept at sea, and in Outerbridge Reach (1992), with its transoceanic yachting competition). In the Triquarterly article “Me and the Universe” (1986), Stone reflected on the horrific spectacle of war that he experienced as a nineteen-year-old on Suez duty and his vision of everyday life as war.

While attending New York University from 1958 to 1960, he worked as a copy boy, caption writer, and then editorial assistant for the New York Daily News. On December 11, 1959, he married children’s protection service worker Janice G. Burr, whom he had met in a creative writing class. Early in 1960, the Stones dropped their conventional life and migrated to New Orleans, where Stone held menial jobs (in a coffee factory, on the docks, and as a radio actor, a merchant marine seaman, a door-to-door salesman, and a census taker) and where his daughter Deidre was born at Charity Hospital. Stone read his own poetry to jazz accompaniment in a French Quarter bar and moved with the beatnik crowd, including LeRoi Jones and Gregory Corso. His experiences in that city (including trumped-up arrests) and in the South during a time of sit-ins and struggles against segregation provided material for his first novel, A Hall of Mirrors (1967), a work begun after reading Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925).

After the birth of their son, Ian, the Stones returned to New York City, where they became friends with Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and others of the emerging bohemian scene (encountered at the Seven Arts Times Square coffee shop where Janice waitressed). She learned keypunch; he wrote advertising copy. They moved on to California when a thirty-page sample of A Hall of Mirrors won Stone a Stegner Fellowship in creative writing at Stanford University. While living in Menlo Park, California, he experimented with psychedelic drugs (particularly LSD) and struck up what proved to be a lifelong friendship with Ken Kesey, whom he joined on the Merry Pranksters’ 1964 cross-country bus trip. (Stone later referred to them as very much like a group of fraternity boys out for a good time.) Kesey’s La Honda hideaway provided a prototype for Dieter’s mountain fortress in Dog Soldiers (1974). Stone looks back on his California experiences as “sybaritic,” paradisical, life lived in “technicolor.” During this period of involvement with the drug culture, Stone evolved the values that became the moral heart of the books that followed: a sense of the ambiguity of motives and of the transitory nature of moral judgments. A 1964 Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship helped finance his writing.

He wrote for the National Mirror in New York City from 1965 to 1967, then freelanced between 1967 and 1971. Having sold the film rights for his first novel, he wrote the script for its film version, WUSA (1970). A Guggenheim Fellowship paid his way to London, but then, as correspondent for the London Ink and later the Manchester Guardian, he traveled to Saigon, South Vietnam, where he spent two months gathering material for his second novel. Of this experience he says, “I found myself witnessing a mistake ten thousand miles long, a mistake on the American scale.” He then moved on to Hollywood, where he unsuccessfully fought changes in the title and in the character of Marge in the film version of Dog Soldiers (the film was released as Who’ll Stop the Rain in 1978).

Next he began a teaching career as a writer-in-residence at Princeton University from 1971 to 1972. Later, as an associate professor of English and a writer-in-residence, he taught at Amherst College, Massachusetts, between 1972 and 1978, taking time out in the mid-1970’s to travel to Central America three times, once by bus. There he went scuba diving, listened to all the stories he could about that area of the world, and began his third novel. He visited Honduras and Costa Rica, but he was particularly fascinated by Nicaragua under the Somozas and attended a party at the presidential palace in Managua—“just beyond the effective mortar distance from the nearest habitation.” The parallels with his Vietnam experiences made his next novel, A Flag for Sunrise (1981), a continuation of his saga of Americans abroad.

His teaching has been itinerant: at Stanford University in 1979; at the University of Hawaii, Manoa, from 1979 to 1980; at Harvard University in 1981; at the University of California, Irvine, in 1982; at New York University from 1983 to 1984; at the University of California, San Diego, in 1985; and at Princeton again thereafter. His fourth novel, Children of Light (1986), which helped win Stone a five-year, $250,000 Strauss Living Award, grew out of his experiences with the Hollywood motion-picture scene and his 1983 participation in the Santa Cruz Shakespeare Festival production of King Lear.

His next novel, Outerbridge Reach, in turn, drew on his knowledge of the sea gained as a member of the U.S. Navy’s Atlantic Fleet, a merchant marine seaman, and a yachtsman. Its protagonist, a graduate of Annapolis and a Vietnam War veteran turned advertising writer for a yacht brokerage, foolishly seeks to rediscover himself by participating in an around-the-world, single-handed yacht race in one of his own shoddy products and finds himself losing the battle of man against sea. In 1992, Stone traveled to the occupied territories of Israel, an experience that he used for Damascus Gate (1998). Though uneven in quality and criticized by European and Middle Eastern reviewers as too insular in its emphasis on expatriates abroad, Damascus Gate brings together a wealth of detail about Jerusalem, Israel, and world theologies past and present, with hair-raising vignettes of mindless hatreds expressed in very personal ways. A later trip to the Caribbean inspired Bay of Souls (2003) and Stone’s investigation of Voodoo practices and drug running in the region. In 2004, Stone launched into new territory by directing the Magnolia Pictures documentary film Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst.

Stone enjoys swimming, scuba diving, walking in the woods, and engaging in aerobic exercise. He continues to write short stories and articles for popular journals (as he has throughout his career), and reads widely, though Samuel Beckett and Jorge Luis Borges remain his favorites. Trips abroad continue to provide vivid settings in which to explore themes that have intrigued him throughout his life. He thinks of himself as essentially an entertainer, though he admits that he hopes his entertainments will make his readers (whom he considers people psychologically much like himself) to reflect on the world around them. Despite his focus on damaged individuals, Stone’s family is a strong stabilizing force in his life. His wife is his editorial assistant, sounding board, and first reader, one whose sensibility he trusts. The Stones have called Northhampton, Massachusetts, home for many years.


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Last Updated on January 20, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 149

Stone’s novels collectively have sustained a running commentary on modern American life and mores decade by decade. Stone believes that his culturally sophisticated but streetwise stories, with their literary and philosophical allusions, abet “the awareness of ironies and continuities” and show people that “being decent is really hard and that we carry within ourselves our own worst enemy.” His rootless characters, hooked on alcohol, drugs, greed, or egocentricity, become intertwined, usually in sets of three, and engage in various forms of sophistry, rationalization, equivocation, and indifference. Whether passionate or withdrawn, they are corrupt and vulnerable, their lives a juxtaposing of daily banality and exotic nightmare. His true villains are casual, feckless individuals who act without thinking or feeling, who use the loyalty and affection of others, and who survive at the cost of destruction and death. The cold and ruthless survive, and the sentimental perish; moral ambiguity prevails.


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Last Updated on January 20, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 157

Robert Stone’s life has mirrored the colorful life so frequently portrayed in his stories and novels. After Catholic school and a stint in the U.S. Navy (1955 to 1958), Stone and his wife (they married in 1959) traveled and supported themselves through various odd jobs. (Their daughter Deirdre was born in a charity hospital in New Orleans.) In New York, Stone supported his growing family—a son Ian was born in 1964—as an advertising copywriter, worked on his first novel, and soon won a Wallace Stegner writing fellowship at Stanford. Since his first novel, he has been able to support himself with his writing, supplemented by fellowships and teaching positions. (He has taught at Princeton and Harvard Universities, among other schools.) For someone who is largely self-educated (he spent less than a year at New York University), Stone has commented extensively on a wide range of political topics and has engaged in a number of public literary controversies.

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