Europe: Or, Up and Down with Schreiber and Baggish, 1961
In Any Case, 1962 (also known as The Chaleur Network, 1981)
Other Men’s Daughters, 1973
Natural Shocks, 1978
A Father’s Words, 1986
Pacific Tremors, 2001
Teeth, Dying, and Other Matters, 1964
1968: A Short Novel, an Urban Idyll, Five Stories, and Two Trade Notes, 1970
Noble Rot: Stories, 1949-1988, 1989
Shares, and Other Fictions, 1992
The Gamesman’s Island, pb. 1964
One Person and Another: On Writers and Writing, 1993
A Sistermony, 1995
Honey and Wax: The Powers and Pleasures of Narrative, 1966
American Poetry of the Fifties, 1967
The Books in Fred Hampton’s Apartment, 1973
The Invention of the Real, 1982
The Position of the Body, 1986
What Is What Was, 2002
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.
Richard G. Stern
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.