Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

In Memory of Richard Stern

Philip Roth


I met Dick in the fall of 1956, and thus was initiated a 57-year-long literary conversation and friendship. In 1956, Dick was just starting out in the University of Chicago English department while I was teaching freshman composition in the College. He was 27, I was 23. I had just returned from the army to Chicago, where I'd earlier received an MA in English. Dick and I started to talk immediately about writers and books and didn't stop until just a week or two before his death.

His assiduous engagement with everything literary never diminished. He was reading fiction, writing fiction, teaching fiction (over the phone to me, in bed with his wife, Alane), he was talking about fiction right down to the end. For me, as his friend and fellow writer, his appetite for literature, along with his knowledge and understanding of literature, was an inexhaustible treasure.

Dick played an important role, maybe the most important role, in straightening me out when I was just getting started back in the mid-fifties. One noon shortly after we'd first met as colleagues, we were having hamburgers together at a none-too-hygienic table at the old University Tavern and, for no purpose other than to amuse him over lunch, I recounted my adventures only a few summers back in Jewish suburbia with the dazzling daughter of a prosperous dealer in plate glass. Because Dick was such an eager listener and so enjoyed laughing, I was encouraged to tell the story in all its fullness, embellishing along the way, of course, for comic effect.

When lunch was over and we were walking back to campus, Dick said, “Write that, for God's sake. Write that story.” It hadn't occurred to me. “That?” I said. Write the story of an ephemeral summer romance in inconsequential Maplewood, New Jersey? I wanted to be morally serious like Joseph Conrad. I wanted to exhibit my dark knowledge like Faulkner. I wanted to be deep like Dostoyevsky. I wanted to write literature. Instead I took Dick's advice and wrote Goodbye, Columbus. I would remain responsive to his literary wisdom forever after and would put before him, for him to challenge with his considerable critical vigor, the final draft of virtually all that I wrote.

What did I prize most in him? What do I miss most about him? His titanic scrutinizing engrossment with every last vicissitude of existence, his raptness and his rapture, his lucidity, his being perpetually wide awake as if he were being stung by life, his childlike geniality, his gentle and not-so-gentle force, the swiftness of his perspicacity, his impulse to celebrate, his miniscule antipathies and his benevolent urges and his wide-ranging fellow feeling, his imaginative merging with other lives, the bonding of his vulnerability to his fortitude, a steely literary integrity—beyond everything, the way he was weighted down by love. Because the wellspring for his daemonic attentiveness was, in the widest sense, love.

Frequently, while listening to Dick speak of a new neighbor, colleague, project, sorrow, hardship, idea, improbability, of another blast of bad news from a fallen world—listening to his vivid, focused responses that were unfailingly unhackneyed—I would admiringly think the same three words: “You're so human.”

A large and excitable man, highly delighted and of marvelous intelligence, with his face pressed tight to the window.

A man for whom nearly every encounter was unforgettable and for whom fulfillment was no fantasy.

A man who could conceal little and from whom little could be concealed.

His mindful presence here, his joy in being among us, his absorption in everything both within and beyond his ken, seemed never to slacken. Living, for Dick, was an unceasing stimulant and the engagement with life never ceased to evolve. Everywhere this urbane and not entirely unwily man went, mankind flabbergasted and enkindled him. His direct apprehension of the real was amazing.

How on earth did we come to deserve from him a heedfulness so splendidly intense?

Dick wrote many wonderful books, beginning in 1960 with the comic gem Golk, a prophetic fable, as it now turns out more than fifty years later, of the tyranny of mass entertainment and the insidiousness of surveillance in our great country. To me his masterpiece is his sixth published novel, Other Men's Daughters. I've reread it twice since Dick's death. If I may, I'd like to repeat what I thought and wrote about Other Men's Daughters at the time, in 1973, in the first flush of delightful discovery.

“There's much to admire in this book—the precision, the tact, the humane feeling, the tremendous charm- -but what stands out particularly is the intelligent Harvard physiology professor who is (truly) its hero. A blend of restraint, decorum, rampant courtliness and atrophied eroticism, he is a perfect target for the wise and witty Cambridge student-beauty of the Sixties, coutured in jeans and armed with the Pill. And she is his text in the physiology of Love….The theme is Leaving Home, departing the familiar and the cherished for erotic renewal. Richard Stern's accomplishment (here, as in all his work) is to locate precisely the comedy and the pain of a particular contemporary phenomenon without exaggeration, animus, or operatic ideology....In all, it is as if Chekhov had written Lolita.”

Aside from being a novel shapely, penetrating, accessible without being simple in any way, perfect in all its parts and proportions, in its distribution of sympathy, in its graceful narrative jumps as in its artful bursts of shifting points of view, Other Men's Daughters belongs side by side with the best of the books that have been written about the historical upheavals and extreme transformations that made so astonishing to the Americans who lived through it the turbulent decade—to be exact, the eleven years—beginning with the shock of President Kennedy’s assassination, extending through the horrors of the Vietnam war, and concluding with the resignation of the most devious of all devious commanders-in-chief, President Richard Nixon.

In its modest way—precise and elegant at every turn, no page of prose that isn't unostentatiously bejeweled and intimately evocative while simultaneously dense with spot-on intelligence—Other Men's Daughters illuminates a decisive turning point in American mores. The novel reminds us of where we were, morally speaking, when a vast assault upon convention, propriety, and entrenched belief began to challenge authority, high and low, and of the wreckage that assault caused, the theatrics it fostered, the hope and euphoria it quickened, and the casualties taken by the generation of astonished adults who comprised the first wave to hit the beaches of protean American prudery.

I address you not as a eulogist but as a novelist: I would hold that in its own felicitous way, Other Men's Daughters is to the sixties what The Great Gatsby was to the twenties, The Grapes of Wrath to the thirties, and Rabbit Is Rich to the eighties: a microscope exactly focused upon a thinly sliced specimen of what was once the present moment.

Golk, Europe, In Any Case, Stitch, Other Men's Daughters, Natural Shocks, A Father's Words, Pacific Tremors, exquisitely imagined and surpassingly executed by one of our American era's most distinguished, if unheralded, novelists and men of letters, Richard Stern, who was born in Manhattan on February 25, 1928, and for decades, in the environs of the University of Chicago, lived the life of the mind and the imagination (tempered, as his biographical record will show, by the daily trials, the inescapable crises, the stunning losses and unavoidable conflicts that are engendered simply by going about one's business on this earth for 84 years) and who, after enduring everyman's thousand ups and downs, died beside his adoring, brilliant, devoted wife, Alane, far from the Hyde Park neighborhood and its renowned university, in his last home, on little Tybee Island, the easternmost point in Georgia, on January 24, 2013—a magnanimous friend, a formidable writer, an exceptional man.



Richard Stern is the author of the following essays published in Critical Inquiry:

A Poetic Exchange (1976)

Penned In (1986)

Some Members of the Congress (1988)

  • Richard Stern passed away on January 24, 2013.