Richard G. Stern, Prof. Emeritus of English and prolific author, 1928-2013
He published more than 20 books in his lifetime, but Richard Stern insisted he was never a driven writer.
“I’ve never needed to write,” he explained in 2010. “I wrote because I wanted to.”
Stern, the Helen A. Regenstein Professor Emeritus in English Language & Literature and the College, died Jan. 24 at age 84.
In his distinguished and prolific career as a writer, teacher and scholar, Stern crossed paths with many of the leading literary figures of his generation, including his friends Saul Bellow, X’39, and Philip Roth, AM’55.
Known as a writer’s writer, Stern was widely respected by his contemporaries. His fans not only included Bellow and Roth, but also Norman Mailer, Bernard Malamud and Flannery O’Connor.
“Every writer in America read and admired him,” Roth told the New York Times.
Stern was born Feb. 25, 1928, in New York, NY. He received his BA from the University of North Carolina in 1947, his AM from Harvard University in 1949, and his PhD from the University of Iowa in 1954.
He joined the University of Chicago faculty in 1955, where he quickly earned a reputation as a demanding but devoted teacher of American literature and creative writing.
“He was well-liked, admired and loved by the talented people he worked with,” said his longtime colleague David Bevington, the Phyllis Fay Horton Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in English Language and Literature.
Stern found an intellectual home at the University. “The great thing about the University is the remarkable people here in all fields,” he wrote in 2002. “I’ve spent a lot of time listening to them, having all sorts of things explained.”
At Chicago, he developed close friendships with Norman Maclean, PhD’40, and Roth, who credits Stern with giving him the idea for Roth’s novella, Goodbye, Columbus. Stern “got a kick out of the stories” of Roth’s New Jersey upbringing, Roth told the Chicago Tribune in 1983. “‘Why don’t you write that down?’ he said.”
Stern was instrumental in bringing numerous distinguished writers to campus to discuss their work and offer guidance to his students.
In his 2010 collection Still On Call, Stern recalled visits from Kingsley Amis, Ralph Ellison, Robert Lowell and Flannery O’Connor “whose blue eyes glared at me with bitterness, when I picked her up at 3 a.m. at the Greyhound Station after her plane had been iced down in Louisville.”
Over his 46-year career at the University, Stern forged a strong attachment to Hyde Park. “I know every house and if not every person, tree and dog, I know where they belong and what they probably do,” he said in an interview with the University of Chicago Chronicle in 2006. “Why live anywhere else?”
Both university life and the city of Chicago provided inspiration for Stern’s fiction. Many of his short stories and novels prominently featured professors and intellectuals; his best-known novel, Other Men’s Daughters (1973) describes the affair between a middle-aged professor and his young student. His 2005 short story collection Almonds to Zhoof was rich with references to the city where he spent most of his adult life.
Stern’s career was launched with his first novel, Golk (1960), a satirical portrait of a TV show similar to “Candid Camera.” That work drew comparisons to Nabokov and Bellow and praise from Joan Didion and Norman Mailer.
His other novels include Stitch (1965), Natural Shocks (1978), and A Father’s Words (1986). He also wrote the short story collections Packages (1980), Noble Rot (1988), and The Books in Fred Hampton’s Apartment (1973).
Stern received the Award of Merit from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1985. His other honors included a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Heartland Prize.
Stern was an avid tennis player and observer of the sport, and he loved to travel, keeping journals on his tours from the beaches of California and Rhode Island to distant outposts across his beloved Europe, Asia and elsewhere.
“I wanted to get around the world, to be at home everywhere,” he wrote.
Stern is survived by his wife Alane Rollings, BA’72, MA’75; four children from his first marriage, Christopher, Andrew, Nicholas and Kate; and five grandchildren.
Follow UChicago’s social media sites, news feeds and mobile suite.