To the literary world, Richard Stern was primarily a novelist, author of "Golk" (1960), "Stitch" (1965), "The Books in Fred Hampton's Apartment" (1973), "Other Men's Daughters" (1973) and "Natural Shocks" (1978) , among others, along with a host of superb short stories and essays. To the reading public at large, he was less well known, though he deserved better.
To me, Richard Stern has been an inspiring colleague, a deft raconteur, a writer immensely knowledgeable about the literary world of other writers and artists of all sorts, and a dear friend. He came to Hyde Park and the University of Chicago in 1955; I arrived in 1967. Together we experienced the heady days of the student occupation of the administration building in 1969. We shared an admiration for President Edward Levi's unruffled handling of what could have been a major crisis but wasn't.
Richard taught creative writing and modern literature. He read so voraciously and had so many friends and acquaintances among modern writers — André Malraux, Sinclair Lewis, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Joseph Heller, Anthony Burgess, Flannery O'Connor, Ezra Pound, Samuel Beckett, Jorge Luis Borges, Robert Lowell, Norman Mailer, John Berryman, Lillian Hellman, Howard Nemerov, Hugh Kenner and many others — that his conversation on literary and cultural matters was extraordinarily witty, insightful and encyclopedic. Some of these writers and intellectuals came to the University of Chicago under Richard's aegis. Bellow and Roth, along with Richard Ellmann, were colleagues at times during Richard's long tenure at the university, from 1955 until his retirement in 2002.
My wife, Peggy, and I remained good friends with Richard and his second wife, Alane Rollings, throughout these years and stayed in touch as they spent more and more time on Tybee Island, Ga., where Alane's family estate offered a comfortable life in retirement. We had known his first wife, Gay, and their four children, living on Blackstone Avenue; some of the kids of both families knew each other in the U. of C. Lab Schools. Richard's subsequent marriage to Alane proved to be rich and sustaining. Alane, a superb poet, has shared with Richard a passion for literature and writing that was mutual in every good way. They lived in a 19th century house in Hyde Park, just north of 55th Street. Hyde Park was as important to them as was the university situated in its midst.
As Richard's health deteriorated, he and Alane spent more time on Tybee Island. Prior to that, even after retirement, Richard continued to write indefatigably and attended lectures and other intellectual gatherings at the university, including weekly luncheons at the Franke Institute in the Regenstein Library, where faculty members in the humanities presented their work — and where Richard was a vigorous questioner. Richard kept up a blog in which I was able to admire his grasp of the political and social issues that visibly distressed him during the years of the Iraq war and George W. Bush's administration.
Richard was a tough teacher but wonderfully nourishing for the talented students who knew how to appreciate his exacting standards and his care in offering constructive criticism. Among those who worked with him and have gone on to become important poets, novelists and journalists are David Brooks, Mike Taibbi, Austin Wright, Seymour Hersh, Douglas Unger and Rollings.
As a writer, Richard is perhaps best known (though not known as well as he deserves) as a novelist. My own admiration for his work looks also to the short stories. Richard was passionately devoted to this literary form, speaking of himself in "Noble Rot" (1989) as a writer addressing himself to "a story lover looking forward to his nightly story fix." That pleasure, of savoring a beautifully crafted short story in and for itself, is what his collections so richly supply. Frederick Crews, in The New York Review of Books, singles out three particular stories published in "Almonds to Zhoof: Collected Stories" (2005): "'Teeth,' 'Wanderers,' and 'Dying' would be the envy of any contemporary writer." I wholeheartedly concur and would add to Crews' list a story called "Dr. Cahn's Visit," in which a 91-year-old doctor, his mind slipping its moorings, visits his dying 80-year-old wife in the hospital with their son Will.
The abundant testimonials to Richard's remarkable skill as a writer underscore how puzzling it is that he has not been more widely known. "Richard Stern has always had a wonderful way with short stories, and in his new collection is more wonderful than ever," wrote Saul Bellow in praise of "Almonds to Zhoof," a collection that derives its title from two of its stories and suggests how Richard's wry and compassionate survey of the human condition ranges over the entire alphabet of la comédie humaine. "Every once in a while some genius of a satirist gets the exact pungency of aconite emanating from professors: Mr. Stern can do it to perfection," wrote Guy Davenport in the National Review about this same anthology. "Often compared to his fellow Chicagoan Saul Bellow, Richard Stern is an almost equally masterly creator of brainy, complex characters hell-bent on self-exploration, imprisoned by the lures and delusions of sex, and riddled with primal familial guilts," declared Bruce Allen in the Philadelphia Inquirer. The list of tributes goes on, in admiration for Richard's "knack for compressing novels into inches," his "burnished style" and "burning imagination," his ability to be "as tightly packed and potentially explosive as the heart of an atom."
Richard Stern is a writer and intellectual whom I and many others will miss as colleague and friend, whom we can nonetheless keep with us always in his work to which we return and return.
David Bevington, Phyllis Fay Horton Distinguished Service Professor in the Humanities at the University of Chicago, editor of many editions of Shakespeare and author of many books about him, has taught at the U. of C. since 1967 and continues to teach there in retirement.
Richard Stern, a University of Chicago faculty member for 46 years, wrote more than 20 books and won several literary accolades, including the Chicago Tribune's Heartland Prize in 1995. Here are a few of his significant works.
→The Books in Fred Hampton's Apartment (1973)
→Natural Shocks (1978)
→Other Men's Daughters (1987)
→Noble Rot (1989)
→Almonds to Zhoof (2005)