Richard G(ustave) Stern Biography
Nationality: American. Born: New York City, 1928. Education: Stuyvesant High School; University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, B.A. 1947 (Phi Beta Kappa); Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, M.A. 1949; University of Iowa, Iowa City, Ph.D. 1954. Military Service: Served as an educational adviser, United States Army, 1951-52. Career: Lecturer, Jules Ferry College, Versailles, France, 1949-50; Lektor, University of Heidelberg, 1950-51; instructor, Connecticut College, New London, 1954-55. Assistant professor, 1956-61, associate professor, 1962-64, professor of English, 1965-91, and since 1991, Helen Regenstein Professor of English, University of Chicago. Visiting Lecturer, University of Venice, 1962-63; University of California, Santa Barbara, 1964; State University of New York, Buffalo, 1966; Harvard University, 1969; University of Nice, 1970; University of Urbino, 1977. Awards: Longwood fellowship, 1960; Friends of Literature award, 1963; Rockefeller fellowship, 1965; American Academy grant, 1968, and Award of Merit for the Novel Medal, 1985; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1969; Guggenheim fellowship, 1977; Sandburg award, 1979; Chicago Sun-Times Book of the Year award, 1990; Heartland award, nonfiction book of year, 1995.
Golk. New York, Criterion, and London, MacGibbon and Kee, 1960.
Europe; or, Up and Down with Schreiber and Baggish. New York, McGraw Hill, 1961; as Europe; or, Up and Down with Baggish and Schreiber, London, MacGibbon and Kee, 1962.
In Any Case. New York, McGraw Hill, 1962; London, MacGibbon and Kee, 1963; as The Chaleur Network, Sagaponack, New York, Second Chance Press, and London, Sidgwick and Jackson, 1981.
Stitch. New York, Harper, 1965; London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1967.
Other Men's Daughters. New York, Dutton, 1973; London, Hamish Hamilton, 1974.
Natural Shocks. New York, Coward McCann, and London, Sidgwick and Jackson, 1978.
A Father's Words. New York, Arbor House, 1986.
Shares and Other Fictions. New York, Delphinium Books, 1992.
Teeth, Dying, and Other Matters, and The Gamesman's Island: A Play. New York, Harper, and London, MacGibbon and Kee, 1964.
1968: A Short Novel, An Urban Idyll, Five Stories, and Two Trade Notes. New York, Holt Rinehart, 1970; London, Gollancz, 1971.
Packages. New York, Coward McCann, and London, Sidgwick and Jackson, 1980.
Noble Rot: Stories 1949-1988. New York, Grove Press, 1989.
The Books in Fred Hampton's Apartment (essays). New York, Dutton, 1973; London, Hamish Hamilton, 1974.
The Invention of the Real. Athens, University of Georgia Press, 1982.
The Position of the Body (essays). Evanston, Illinois, Northwestern University Press, 1986.
One Person and Another: On Writers and Writing. Dallas, Baskerville, 1993.
Via Cracow and Beirut: A Survivor's Saga. London, Minerva Press, 1994.
A Sistermony. New York, Fine, 1995.
Editor, Honey and Wax: Pleasures and Powers of Narrative: An Anthology. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1966.
Regenstein Library, University of Chicago.
By Marcus Klein, in Reporter (Washington, D.C.), 1966; article by Hugh Kenner and interview with Robert Raeder, in Chicago Review, Summer 1966; "Conversation with Richard Stern" by Elliott Anderson and Milton Rosenberg, in Chicago Review, Winter 1980; "On Richard Stern's Fiction" by G. Murray and Mary Anne Tapp, in Story Quarterly (Northbrook, Illinois), Winter 1980; M. Harris, in New Republic (Washington, D.C.), March 1981; David Kubal, in Hudson Review (New York), Summer 1981; John Blades, in Washington Post Book World, November 1982; J. Spencer, in Chicago Tribune, 25 April 1985; James Schiffer, in Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1987, Detroit, Gale, 1988; Richard Stern by James Schiffer, Boston, Twayne, 1993.
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In a time when serious American fiction has tended towards extreme personal assertion and extravagance of manner, Richard G. Stern has been composing a body of work which is notable for its detailed craftsmanship, its intricacy, and its reticences. His novels and stories are neither lyrically confessional nor abstractly experimental. They are processes quite in the mode of an older tradition, in which character and event discover theme. In one and another incidental observation within his fiction, Stern has rejected both the idea of the novel as "a roller coaster of distress and sympathy, love and desire," and the idea of the novel as a deliberate attack on formal expectations (Europe); he has addressed qualification to the view that a story is fully autonomous (see the sketch called "Introductory" in 1968), but he has also rejected the idea of the author as solipsist (see "Story-Making" in 1968). His own fiction accepts no extremities of technique and form. Its characteristic tone as well as its strategy of development is created by ironic modulations.
The tone and the technique are, moreover, exact functions of Stern's characteristic subject. The broad theme is the adjustment of private lives with public events. Typically, Stern's protagonist has been a passive, sensitive fellow, who is a little too old for adventuring, or a little too fat, or a little too fine-grained, but nonetheless possessing romantic inclinations. His latent disposition is tested when public event of one sort and another seeks him out. He is now forced to regard his own actions and the actions of others as moral events. And, typically, this protagonist has found himself engaged in a drama of betrayals, which have the effect of chastening his new ambitions as a public man. The end is his rather baffled, nonetheless scrupulous assessment of personal adventure. Between the beginning and the end, his motives are subjected to more and more contingencies. He has been lured from his innocent privacy into life, defined as public action which by its nature is dangerous and ambiguous. At the end he has sacrificed the self-protectedness with which he began, and he has also failed to discover an easy ground of general participation in life. His modest success is that he has become potentially moral.
Stern's first novel, Golk, is somewhat more spare and blatant in its actions than the fictions which follow, but it is otherwise exemplary. The hero is a thirty-seven-year-old boy, Herbert Hondorp, who lives with his widowed father in New York City. As he has done for most of the days of his life, he now spends his days wandering in and near Central Park, until on an occasion, abruptly, he is snared into public view and public occupation. The agent is a television program—"Golk"—which is created, precisely, by making public revelation of privacy. Ordinary, unwary people are caught by the television camera in prearranged, embarrassing situations. Stern's hero discovers that he likes not only the being caught, as do most of the Golk victims, but he also likes the catching. He takes a job with the television program, and not fortuitously at the same time he secures his first romance. Within this new situation there are moral implications, of course, but both "Golk" and Hondorp's romance are tentative and jesting. The novel then proceeds to raise the stakes of involvement: the program is transformed by its ambitious director into a device for political exposé, and Hondorp's romance becomes a marriage. This newer situation beckons and perhaps necessitates treacheries, which make it morally imperative that public involvement be terminated. Hondorp betrays the director of the program, in order to save the program—so he believes—from the fury of the political powers, and he thereby reduces it to vapidity. In a consequent narrative movement, his wife leaves him. Hondorp goes home at the end, "all trace of his ambition, and all desire for change gone absolutely and forever."
In his subsequent fictions, Stern has avoided such metaphorical ingenuity as the television program in Golk, and the lure to public action has been carefully limited to a matter of background or accident, but the area of his concerns has remained constant. In Europe; or, Up and Down with Schreiber and Baggish, the two protagonists are American civil employees in post-war occupied Germany. The pattern of their adventuring—despite the comic suggestion in the title of the novel—allows nothing implausible, and there are no sudden reversals. Realization is to be achieved, rather, through implied contrasts and comparisons. Schreiber is an aging sensitive gentleman who tries for intimate understanding of the ancient, bitter, guilty, and conquered people. Baggish is a shrewd young opportunist, who exploits the populace. Baggish succeeds, and Schreiber fails. In Any Case is the story of another aging American in post-war Europe, who is innocent for the reason that he has never sufficiently risked anything, his affections included. His testing comes when he is told that his son, dead in the war, was a traitor. In a belated and ironic act of love, he tries to prove that his son was really innocent, and he discovers that treachery is a vital ingredient of all social living. Although his son was indeed not guilty in the way supposed, everyone is a double agent.
His acceptance of that discovery provides the hero with the possibility of a modest participation in other people's lives. In his more recent fiction, Stern has apparently wanted to make that possibility more emphatic, by bringing historical and aesthetic confirmations to it. Stitch is in large part a roman à clef about one of the great modern traitors, Ezra Pound. The would-be disciple in the novel receives from the aged master, Stitch, lessons in the fusion of personality with civilization, and the consequence of expression in art. The background of the novel is Venice, which, from the muck of its history, raises its beauties. In the short novel Veni, Vidi … Wendt (included in 1968), the protagonist is a composer who is writing an opera about modern love. The opera will extend backwards to include great love affairs of the past, which are founded on adulteries. The composer himself, meanwhile, realizes both his composition and his domestic love for wife and children only after experiments in romantic duplicity. The chief adventurer in Other Men's Daughters is a middle-aged professor of biology at Harvard. His life heretofore has been completely defined by such seeming ineluctabilities as filial ties, domestic habits, and the concretion of compromises, and the stern decencies of his New England ancestry. He betrays everything when he falls in love with a girl not much older than the eldest of his own children, and hopefully discovers, in nature, the justification for this treachery to nurture. In Natural Shocks Stern writes about a talented and successful journalist, which in this case is to say a man who with all decent goodwill has made a career of transforming private lives into public knowledge. The protagonist is now forced to confront the fact of death, alternately as a subject for journalism and as a domestic event, and he is thereby invited to learn the necessary treachery that is involved in his calling and also its ethical insufficiency. A true participation in life will require more strenuous sympathies, which he may or may not achieve.
The endings of Stern's fictions record an acquiescence at the most, and always something less than the assertion of a principle. The kind of realization that is in the novels makes it necessary that they be probationary and open-ended. They are by that, as well as by their detailed, persistent, and moderate account of human motives, in the great tradition of moral realism.