Memories of professor Richard Stern from a student and friend.
As the substantial obituary that appeared in the New York Times on January 24 indicated, Richard G. Stern was both a teacher of distinction at the University of Chicago and a notable author with a long and productive career. Though he never garnered a wide readership, he was highly praised by fellow writers. As his former colleague Philip Roth, AM’55, aptly told the Times, Stern was “an inspiring figure as a literature professor and an ace of great virtuosity as a novelist, short story writer, essayist and raconteur.”
I had the great privilege of being a student of Stern’s back in his early years on campus. I took a couple of literature courses with him and enrolled in his signature creative writing class, where I really got to see him in action. I remember an exercise Stern had us do in class to hone our ability to choose the right word by together translating Charles Baudelaire.
Stern clearly loved words himself. He loved language. He loved writing. And he loved teaching. He was a big man with a big laugh, a great smile, and a wonderful glint in his eye. I remember how he spent one entire class session reading Flannery O’Connor’s 1955 short story “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” to us. To this day I can hear the emphatic tone of his voice and can picture the energized gestures of his body as he came to the closing lines that describe how “fantastic raindrops, like tin-can tops, crashed over the rear of Mr. Shiftlet’s car.” And then, “Very quickly he stepped on the gas and with his stump sticking out the window he raced the gathering shower into Mobile.”
I also remember clearly the day Stern walked into class, overflowing with enthusiasm, to tell us that he had just finished reading the manuscript of a friend’s new novel. After giving us a sense of the novel’s structure and basic plot, he predicted with certainty that the book’s appearance would be the publishing event of the year, whenever that would be. The book was Saul Bellow’s (X’39) Herzog, and of course Stern was correct in his assessment.
Our final assignment for the course was to prepare our own pieces of creative writing, from which he would select a “winner” to be published in the student literary journal of the time, called, I believe, the Phoenix. In my case the submission was a short story, and of all of the submissions from the class, mine was the one he picked. The manuscript was misplaced in the journal’s offices and the story never appeared in print. But the fact that he had picked it remains a source of pride.
Stern’s first novel, Golk (1960), was published during my undergraduate years at the University, as was his second, Europe; or, Up and Down with Schreiber and Baggish (1961). (I still have the copies of those books that I purchased and read as soon as they came out.) Replicating but by no means imitating the peregrinations of the eponymous heroes of the latter book, in the summer following graduation, I traveled abroad, and who should I bump into on the streets of Rome but Dick Stern himself. He couldn’t have been friendlier. Whatever he was involved in at the moment, he said he would free himself up for the evening and invited me to join him at a well-known café.
It was a glorious evening, rich with conversation about books, writing, Rome, and life in general. I sensed it then, but as the years went by came to appreciate even more how gracious, warm, and forthcoming it was of him to spend that time with a wandering former student.
With a degree from the Committee on General Studies in the Humanities and a specialization in literature under my belt, thanks to the inspiration of Stern, Norman Maclean, and other U of C teachers, I headed off to the University of Minnesota to do graduate work in English. And I never forgot Stern’s infectious affection for the written word.
Nearly a dozen years after graduation from the U of C and back in Hyde Park during a sabbatical from my own teaching, I visited Stern on campus. A couple of decades after that, when I was back living in Chicago with a new career as a Jewish communal professional, we briefly reconnected by mail. And then, when my class held its 45th reunion, he gave an UnCommon Core session and afterward signed copies of his latest book, the short story collection Almonds to Zhoof (2005). After he inscribed mine “With Nostalgia,” he, my wife, and I chatted about current writers. It was clear that he had retained an almost boyish delight in the discovery of literary talent.
The last piece of correspondence I have from him is an e-mail in which he talked about Almonds to Zhoof and the pleasure he had derived from the notice it had received in the Forward, where the reviewer had talked about Jewish elements in the work—something, he said, that had engaged him more and more in later years.
I found that striking. Unlike, say, his literary compatriots Roth (a handful of years younger) and Bellow (a number of years older), Stern had not imbued his earlier fiction with Jewish content, nor had he been known to present himself as a Jewish writer. While one’s Jewishness was not as commonly worn on one’s sleeve in the campus environment during those years when I had him as a teacher as it is in many cases today, he projected even less of that identity than others. Indeed, had I been asked as an undergraduate if I thought he was Jewish, I don’t believe I would have said yes. Perhaps his absence of a public profile in this area had something to do with his upbringing—unlike those other writers, whose ancestors came from Eastern Europe, his parents, a bit of research now has told me, were both German Jews, generally more assimilated in behavior. But in what he called “his autumnal days,” he wrote me that he had “been thinking much about these matters.” And aware of my own interests and involvements, he wanted me to know about that.
His message was a reply to one of mine in which I told him that I had recently been in Rome for a conference on Catholic-Jewish relations and that I had thought of our evening together there with appreciation for the graciousness that he had shown a young former student. He replied that, despite his ailments of the moment, he wished he would be able to visit Rome again himself “one last time.”
I don’t know if that time ever came for him. But I do know that the words of praise that his passing evoked from others, including those who knew him far better than I, were surely well deserved.
Michael C. Kotzin is senior counselor to the president of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. Before beginning his second career in Jewish communal service, he was a member of the English Department at Tel Aviv University for a dozen years.