Monday, August 08, 2005

Richard Stern

Be warned that I’m going back to my former context now and leaving the strictly Blackft focus, though I can’t help talking about those issues since here I am, as I wished to be, right in the middle of them. If you’ve forgotten, my idea was to be place-based -- the place being from Edmonton to Yellowstone and from the Rockies to the Dakotas.

But, right off, I’m going to jump to a topic that is technically not part of this place, though what is part of me is necessarily part of this place because I am here. This week’s New York Times Book Review includes a review of “Almonds to Zhoof: Collected Stories” by Richard Stern. (Tri-Quarterly Books, Northwestern University Press.)

Other connections:

1. Norman Maclean, acknowledged Montana author, was a Professor of Lyric Poetry for many years at the University of Chicago. He needed “someone who could be a mean son-of-a-bitch” to hold the line for quality in some undergrad program. He said, “I hired Stern and he has been very satisfactory.”

2. When Maclean himself began to write, he decided that he wanted an honest evaluation and took one of his early memoirs to Stern. Stern, who was telling the story, said he “marked it up” as though it were any classroom submission. Maclean never said anything about it but it was a while before he agreed to have anything published. Stern is an interesting “marker upper.” On the one hand, he puts all corrections in light pencil, respectfully. On the other hand, when he sees things are gone badly wrong, he rips and tears and writes exasperated expostulations up the margins that reveal whole new worlds to the writer. Until Stern I had no idea that a sentence could be written wrongside out or backwards, let alone that I was in the habit of doing it. (Still! Still!)

3. Stern was a big bulky guy, with a beak nose, a comb-across and one eye that wandered around on its own -- not an evil eye but a sort of dissenting viewpoint. (I see from photos that it’s been fixed. Not sure I’m glad.) He had a wide red-rubber mouth that could curl and stretch with enormous expressiveness. At the U of Chicago, where everyone is brilliant, NO one could put him down. But the lit crit world had just arrived at a turning point: post-modernism. Stern was a Modernist, and therefore suddenly OUT. He believed that there WAS a truth, that it was knowable and reportable in spite of the familiarly unreliable narrator, and that virtues like trust, honor, honesty, even gallantry and respect still mattered.

One of the early events while I was just getting to know him was what the campus paper famously called “the Derrida Corrida,” and he was in charge of it somehow. While the students in his class were doing some kind of milling-about business before we began, someone asked me if I were going. “It’s very expensive,” I said. “I might try to just sneak in.” Stern’s head came up out of a circle of students and he roared, “There will be NO SNEAKING! Pay the price!” I did.

Experts like Stephen Toulmin and Edward Said sat on a dais in the center of a very large room. The dais was assembled of individual platforms which at one point got pushed apart, causing Mrs. Toulmin to fall off the dais, a height of about three feet. She was not hurt. The other misadventure was that Edward Said went off to lunch with a beautiful woman and failed to reappear when we reconvened. People said, “Oh, his is a different culture where such an action would be the norm.”

I couldn’t unravel this. I was in love with the thought of Toulmin, though I could barely understand him and had never thought about the history of science before. It was like being ten years old and reading the historical novels of Anya Seton (daughter of Ernest Thompson Seton), so that I could “feel” that there was something important and passionate at stake, but not quite figure out what it was -- knowing that the only way to find out was to keep reading. Fortunately, there are a lot of Seton novels to read and the strategy worked, partly because I was getting older as I read.

But at the University of Chicago I was forty and at least a little bit an imposter -- I was registered at Meadville/Lombard Theological School which had an understanding with the U of Chicago. This meant I was really part of a world foreign to Stern, which he frankly said. He was hazy about Unitarians (which is what M/L is), knew nothing about the West, and couldn’t get out of me what my reading background was. (I told him I read paragraphs, not whole books. It was a punt.) Nevertheless, he allowed me to enter his creative writing class.

Alas, the post-crits had convinced all the handsome and angst-ridden young men who were his normal aspiring writers that Stern was old-fashioned. The potential class consisted of four women and ONE of the above described type. Stern advised him to drop the class, which he did. Stern was thinking of dropping the class himself. It was a terrible blow to his prestige to have only four sign-ups, but for them to be all female... almost intolerable.

One was me, one was an urban Jew like Stern but who had survived cancer as a child, one was normal person (not common on this campus) and one was the young second or third wife of a cosmic-level astronomer professor. Stern decided to go ahead and assigned us to write a story. They were awful. “What were you thinking?” he begged. “This is dreck!” But he was also kind to us, explained a lot of things, and read to us.

The second stories we wrote took a major leap in quality. From there on we were all bonded and working as hard as we could.

I took every Stern class I could. He kicked me out of all his classes when he saw from the telltale bookmark in my Proust that I was making no progress. If he hadn’t, I’d probably have bolted the ministry program. He didn’t hand me my head -- he handed me my heart.

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