In Memoriam

Richard Stern | 1928–2013

He published more than 20 books in his lifetime, but Richard Stern—author of novels, short stories, and essays—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 and Literature, died January 24 at his home on Tybee Island, Georgia. He was 84.

Over his career Stern crossed paths with many 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 contemporaries but less known outside literary and academic circles.

His fans included Bellow and Roth as well as Norman Mailer, Bernard Malamud, and Flannery O’Connor. “Every writer in America read and admired him,” Roth told the New York Times. Yet a reviewer once called Stern “the best American author of whom you have never heard.”

Born in 1928 in New York City, Stern earned degrees at the University of North Carolina, Harvard, and the University of Iowa. In 1955 he joined the UChicago faculty, where he 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 David Bevington, the Phyllis Fay Horton Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in English. Stern developed a close friendship with Norman Maclean, PhD’40, and with Roth, who credits Stern with giving him the idea for the 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 brought distinguished writers to campus to discuss their work and offer guidance to his students. In his 2010 collection Still On Call, he recalled visits from Kingsley Amis, Ralph Ellison, Robert Lowell, and 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 46 years at the University, Stern forged an attachment to Hyde Park and Chicago. “There’s something great and complicated about this city that’s different from any place I’ve ever lived,” he said in a 2006 interview. “The University is in the bloodstream of this city and vice versa.”

Stern’s fiction often featured professors and intellectuals; his best-known novel, Other Men’s Daughters (1973), describes an affair between a middle-aged professor and his young student. His 2005 short story collection Almonds to Zhoof was rich with references to Chicago.

Stern launched his career with the novel Golk (1960), a satirical portrait of a TV series similar to Candid Camera. His debut drew comparisons to Nabokov and Bellow and praise from Joan Didion and Mailer. Other novels include Stitch (1965), Natural Shocks (1978), and A Father’s Words (1986). He wrote the short story collections The Books in Fred Hampton’s Apartment (1973), Packages (1980), and Noble Rot (1988).

Stern received the Award of Merit from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1985 as well as a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Heartland Prize.

He is survived by his wife, poet Alane Rollings, AB’72, AM’75; four children from his first marriage, Christopher, Andrew, Nicholas, and Kate; and five grandchildren.

—Susie Allen, AB’09

Read More

Obituaries from the University’s news site, the New York Times, the Chicago Tribuneand the Paris Review

Tributes in the University of Chicago Magazine (by Michael C. Kotzin, AB’62) and Chicago Tribune (by David Bevington, the Phyllis Fay Horton Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus
 in English)

Stern’s 2006 interview with the University of Chicago Chronicle

An excerpt from Stern’s 2002 book, What Is What Was