Richard Stern is often referred to as a writer’s writer, much honored by his peers but relatively neglected by the critics and (with one or two exceptions) by the reading public. He was born Richard Gustave Stern on February 25, 1928, in New York City, the son of a dentist; both his parents were of German Jewish descent. A brilliant and precocious student, Stern entered the University of North Carolina at the age of sixteen; he graduated in 1947. He received an M.A. from Harvard University in 1949 and a Ph.D. from the University of Iowa in 1954. In 1955 he began teaching at the University of Chicago, where he would remain, with visiting stints at other universities. In 1950 Stern and Gay Clark were married; they had four children. The marriage ended in divorce; in 1985 Stern married the poet Alane Rollings.
With Golk, Stern made a strong debut as a novelist. Centering on a fictitious television program based on the then-popular Candid Camera, the 1960 work came at a time when television, though already all-pervasive in American life, had received little serious attention. The program, called You’re On Camera, catches people unawares, exposing them to the laughter of viewers all over the country. The novel’s protagonist, Herbert Hondorp, becomes involved in the program, but when he himself is trapped in embarrassing behavior, he decides to betray his employer. Involved in the plot is Hondorp’s marriage, in which fidelity and betrayal become equally entwined—as in the television program. Fidelity and betrayal are recurring themes in Stern’s fiction. In Any Case, his third novel, is based on a historical incident during World War II. The protagonist seeks to prove that his son, who was killed during the war and who has been branded as a traitor, was in fact innocent. As a “spy novel,” In Any Case is above the usual run of thrills-and-secrets fiction; its main intent is to focus on the father’s unswerving loyalty to his son’s memory. Ultimately, the father manages to prove that his son indeed was not a traitor; this discovery brings a modicum of fulfillment.
Fidelity and betrayal are also central to the autobiographical novel Other Men’s Daughters, Stern’s greatest popular success, which enjoyed a brief run on the best-seller list. The protagonist, a professor of biology at Harvard, is deeply unhappy in his marriage yet reluctant to leave his family. His hesitations are overcome when he forms a relationship with a student. Other Men’s Daughters illustrates another defining characteristic of Stern’s fiction: his intellectual curiosity. In Other Men’s Daughters, one sees the world as a biologist sees it; the protagonist’s profession is not mere window-dressing. Similarly, in Natural Shocks both style and theme are related to the profession of the protagonist, a globe-trotting journalist accustomed to the company of people who make things happen. In the course of the novel he must confront the unyielding reality of death.
After a long hiatus, Stern published Pacific Tremors in 2001. It is the story of two aging friends, but it is set in the milieu of the youth-obsessed film industry. The tremors of the title refer both to the constantly shifting earth in Southern California and the tremors running through each man’s life as he accommodates to growing older and losing touch with his creativity and profession.
The range and variousness of Stern’s fiction—and his relative lack of self-absorption (compare his friend and fellow novelist Philip Roth)—have no doubt cost him readers, yet these are the very qualities that make his work stand out. His achievements have been recognized with Fulbright, Guggenheim, and Rockefeller fellowships; in addition, he has been honored by the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Richard Gustave Stern was born in New York City on February 25, 1928, the son of German-Jewish immigrants. He married Gay Clark in 1950 and was divorced in 1972. He married Alane Rollings in 1985. He has four children. Stern received his B.A. degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1947, where he became a member of Phi Beta Kappa. After graduating, he worked in a department store in Indiana, in a Florida radio station, and at Paramount International Films in New York. He earned his M.A. degree from Harvard University in 1949, writing the Bowdoin Prize essay on the poet John Crowe Ransom. He was a lecturer at Collège Jules Ferry in Versailles, France, from 1949 to 1950; a lecturer at the University of Heidelberg in Germany from 1950 to 1951; and an educational adviser for the U.S. Army from 1951 to 1952. While teaching at the University of Heidelberg, he worked nights as a cable clerk with the American occupation army. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Iowa in 1954. From 1954 to 1955, he was an instructor at Connecticut College in New London, Connecticut.
In 1956, Stern became an assistant professor of English at the University of Chicago, where he continued to teach. He became an associate professor in 1962 and a full professor in 1965. In 1991, he was named Helen A. Regenstein Professor of English. He has been a visiting lecturer at the University of Venice (1962-1963); the University of California, Santa Barbara (1964, 1968); the State University of New York at Buffalo (1966); Harvard University (1969); the University of Nice (1970); and the University of Urbino (1977).
In one of his autobiographical sketches, he describes his elation at having his first important story accepted in 1952 for The Kenyon Review by Ransom, who was the subject of Stern’s prizewinning essay. This acceptance occurred in the same year that he went to Iowa to begin work on his Ph.D. Following this first publication, he contributed numerous stories and essays to literary magazines, including The Kenyon Review, The Antioch Review, Commentary, The Atlantic, Harper’s, The Hudson Review, Partisan Review, The Paris Review, Encounter, Transatlantic Review, TriQuarterly, and Western Review.
In 1957, he met Saul Bellow, a former colleague at the University of Chicago, who became his friend and who greatly influenced his ideas about writing and about the writer’s life. Bellow, Stern has said, showed him that one could be a Jew and still be a great American novelist. Stern continued to live in the Chicago area, to write, and to teach at the University of Chicago.
Richard Gustave Stern was born in New York City on February 25, 1928. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, in 1947, and he received an M.A. from Harvard University in 1949 and a Ph.D. from the University of Iowa in 1954. From 1955 to 2004, when he retired as Helen A. Regenstein Professor of English and American Literature, he was a member of the faculty at the University of Chicago. In addition, he has been a visiting lecturer at such institutions as the University of Venice, Harvard University, and the University of Nice.