When I made it to the U of Chicago, I went looking for Norman Maclean as a fellow Montanan. Retired and in the early stages of Alzheimers (poorly understood in 1978), he was hard to track down but I finally managed to spend a little time with him. I asked him about Richard Stern. In his woods-crew foreman voice, Maclean said, “I hired him to run the undergraduate English program because the job demanded a mean sunnavabitch and he’s been very satisfactory.” What he meant was that this particular cohort of students is brilliant, tenacious, resourceful and determined, so he needed someone tough and smart enough to hold the line. Stern may have overachieved a bit.
A great believer in the grindstone theory of learning, I headed straight for his classes and took all that he would let me into. (Three.) When I signed up for his writing class, which in the past had been packed with eager young men -- a sign of high status -- he was at a low point because of a fracas over censorship of the student lit mag, which wanted to print the favorites of the Seventies: Ginsberg, Kerouac, Burroughs, et al. He was identified as on the side of the administration, a suppressor, though he protested that he was not, and he actually helped and contributed to a breakaway defiant alternative. He was, after all, a translator of Rimbaud and Baudelaire.
The result of the popularity drop was a class of four women. One young man had signed up but Stern warned him away on grounds that he would need more male company and also that there was a clear possibility that the class might simply be canceled for insufficient enrollment. It was not, probably partly because of feminist political pressure, but also I got the impression that it was a bit of a self-affliction on his part, acceptance of fate. We were a goofy bunch: two were around twenty, one was thirty, and I was forty -- very different in background and soon tightly bonded. He regarded us with exasperation and we saw him with considerable affection. I feel sure of this. He didn’t think we worked hard enough and he was undoubtedly right. One of his eyes went off on its own, but if he saw you weren’t relating to his good eye, he’d point to it so you could reorient.
Stern and I were a mismatch, but he gave me a lot anyway. He didn't understand the American West, he didn't understand women like me, but he understood words and his exasperation with mine was an honest and dependable compass I've used ever since. I’ll come back to this in a later post, but what I want to point out -- esp. in view of the rather bristly obit in the Chicago Trib -- was that he was essentially a tender and wary man capable of going to war if necessary. But maybe because he was so Jewish, so Manhattan, so conscious of the precariousness of prosperity, he was a little too cautious for the popular taste.
His major hero was Ezra Pound, whom he had sought out. Of all people to befriend, this cryptic, crazier-than-anyone-in-San Francisco poet, such an example of adult non-compliant defiance disorder that for a month he was kept in a 6’x6’ public outdoor steel cage, on display and spotlit at night, until his sanity broke. Pound’s entire biography is astonishing, but this is about Stern. For the latter’s military service, post-WWII, he was an interpreter and translator. I think that for him the world always had two versions at least; this awareness was suitable for the study of modernity but less so for the teaching of opinionated students. He was sexually circumspect and yet broke his first marriage for love of a student poet of talent. Never one to waste good material, he wrote “Other Men’s Daughters.” That second marriage lasted until his death.
In many ways his saving gift was recognition of the hilarious absurdity of being human. One episode of one of his characters had him enjoying an evening with a lady of the night and taking her back to his hotel. In the very early morning he is awakened by the woman breaking wind like a bassoon next to him. Her sleep is content; his wakefulness is not. This sort of thing makes the reader wonder how much is from real life, but you’re unlikely to find out when it comes to Stern. His novel “In Any Case” AKA “The Chaleur Network,” set in the post-WWII chaos, traces a man’s effort to refute accusations of treason against his son. Gradually he indicts himself.
Stern understood the political forces that stuck him with four women students more interested in studying him than actually writing. I think he came to enjoy it. But the first course I took from him was “narrativity” just as everyone was asking, to quote Banksey, the graffiti artist, “What the Foucault?” Stern had helped to organize a seminar with big guns to consider this post-narrative, post-modernity eruption. I walked into the classroom the first day to find a scrum of students around Stern’s desk getting scarce tickets to the seminar. Carelessly, I remarked, “Oh, a person can generally sneak in on such things if you wait until a while after they’ve started.”
Stern came up out of the bent-over students like a buffalo heaving up from a river crossing. “You will NOT behave improperly at this conference,” he bellowed. He was big, his comb-over had come loose (again), and his blade of a nose was flaring. I was impressed. This was the sort of authority figure I had expected in the Divinity School where everyone had turned out to be disappointing mild-mannered.
I was so delighted to see the photo of Stern as a young man in the Chicago Trib, but I knew him as a fully-grown, highly-productive and long-suffering prophet. My life merely grazed his: from my bedroom I could see the tennis courts of the Faculty Club where he pursued the ball without benefit of binocular vision, on a second side I could see the playground of the daycare supervised by his first wife, and on my desk was a growing stack of his books and my writing.
Richard G. Stern, 1928-2013
Award-winning novelist taught at U. of C. for 46 years
By Bridget Doyle, Chicago Tribune reporter
January 27, 2013
Richard G. Stern taught literature and creative writing at the University of Chicago for 46 years while establishing himself as a writer of novels and essays that won a devoted if never especially wide following.
Mr. Stern, 84, died of cancer Thursday, Jan. 24, at his home in Tybee Island, Ga., his son Andrew said.
Mr. Stern, a "breakfast table conversationalist," spent much of his time in Hyde Park cultivating students and engaging with those who "enjoyed the life of the mind," said David Bevington, a professor emeritus at U. of C. and longtime colleague. Mr. Stern's circle of friends included Pulitzer Prize-winning authors Saul Bellow and Philip Roth.
Students in the writing classes Mr. Stern taught were held to very high standards, Bevington said.
"You had to be a pretty skillful writer to be in his classes," Bevington said. "They were mainly the serious pursuit of writing fiction. Students would say he's a very knowledgeable but exacting teacher."
In his long literary career, Mr. Stern wrote more than 20 books. Among the best-known, according to Bevington, was "Other Men's Daughters," published in 1973. Though highly regarded in the literary field, Mr. Stern never achieved the wider popular following many thought he deserved, Bevington said.
"He was very aware he was in the shadow that way, but intellectuals regarded him as important," Bevington said. "His writing is somewhat dense, although clear. Perhaps he was writing for a more tough body of intellectuals."
Mr. Stern was born Feb. 25, 1928, in New York City. He received his bachelor's degree from the University of North Carolina in 1947, his master's from Harvard University in 1949 and his doctorate from the University of Iowa in 1954.
With his first wife, Gay Clark, he had four children, Christopher, Andrew, Nicholas and Kate. After they divorced, he married the poet Alane Rollings.
Andrew Stern said that growing up in Hyde Park, he and his siblings regularly met authors and academics his father brought to their home. Mr. Stern also worked very hard, his son said.
"He spent his career writing like mad," his son said.
Mr. Stern's first novel, "Golk," was published in 1960. His other novels include "Stitch," "Natural Shocks" and "A Father's Words."
He received the Award of Merit from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1985. Mr. Stern also was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1973 and the Chicago Tribune's Heartland Award in 1995.
In 2001 he retired from the university as Helen A. Regenstein professor emeritus in English language and literature.
Andrew Stern said his father traveled widely, once moving the entire family to Venice, Italy, while he was on a yearlong sabbatical.
"He loved soaking up the world to try and come up with characters," his son said.
Mr. Stern also loved playing tennis. "He was intense about the sport," his son said. "We'd go play for hours in the withering-hot sun on courts where the Regenstein (Library) is now."
Mr. Stern continued to write in his later years, publishing a collection of essays, lectures and other writings called "Still on Call." He also tried his hand at blogging.
"He didn't much appreciate (blogging)," his son said. "He'd ask, 'When do I get paid for my words?'"
In addition to his wife and children, Mr. Stern is survived by five grandchildren.
Services have not been scheduled.