Richard G. Stern, with whom I had the privilege to study at the University of Chicago, died Jan. 24, 2013. He’s quoted well in the lovely New York Times obituary:

“It’s important at the University of Chicago, where the Great Works loom monumentally, to free students from the paralysis of intimidation by them,” he wrote. “I don’t hesitate to compare the best student work with the work of masters. This is not meant to cheapen the marvelous but to evoke it. The hope is to make students fall in love with sublimity and to show them it’s not out of reach.”

What Is What Was: Essays, Stories, Poems by Richard Stern

The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2002

Richard SternIn his excellent essay “Inside Narcissus,” Richard Stern writes that, “A modern life which is productive or peculiar is a kind of license to explain itself.” If any writer has such license, it’s Stern. He is the author of eight novels, four volumes of short stories, a memoir, and five “orderly miscellanies,” of which What Is What Was is the most recent. He is a recipient of the Medal of Merit from the American Academy and Institution for Arts and Letters, awarded to an American writer once every six years. His book jackets carry a profusion of praise from the likes of Flannery O’Connor, Alfred Kazin, Bernard Malamud, Norman Maclean, Richard Ellman, Anthony Burgess, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, and Norman Mailer—several of whom he has counted among his closest friends.

Yet Stern has been reluctant to avail himself of this license. “It’s a strange thing,” he says in a 1978 interview, “I just don’t feel intimate with myself….I don’t know myself and I don’t much wish to.” In an interview with Studs Terkel that appears in the current volume, Stern claims, “I’ve not been an introspective person. I don’t know whether I purposely moved away from that and tried to concentrate on other people, but that’s what I did, that’s what I do.”

This concentration may deprive us of a fascinating literary autobiography, but it is also what makes What Is What Was a rich and rewarding work. Stern brings his characteristic focus and economy to the nearly seventy pieces collected here, which include portraits, essays, reviews, elegies, and a small handful of stories and poems. The non-fictional works abound with insights that transcend their subjects. Stern writes perceptively about science, sports, and politics, as well as writers and writing. The range of his literary acquaintances is astonishing: the book contains personal reminiscences of W.H. Auden, Ezra Pound, and Ralph Ellison, and the eagle-eyed reader will notice that the cover photo of Jean-Paul Sartre is Stern’s own. The three works of short fiction included are excerpted from longer works. None of them is entirely satisfying in its truncated form, but they do serve as enticements to a larger experience of Stern’s fiction.

One of the chief pleasures of What Is What Was is the acquaintance it allows with the author, however indirect. Between the lines of Stern’s writing about others, one can discern a man who is thoroughly in love with the world of literature after half a century’s work in it, a man sustained by the community of writers and thinkers and eager to share with his readers “the feeling that you’re connected to those who’ve formed your mind and helped make your life comprehensible, moving, lighter, deeper.” In a note introducing the two personal essays that close the volume, Stern writes that, “Even when it’s dodging autobiography, explaining why its author doesn’t want to write one, the ‘I’ manages to get onstage.”

We can only be glad that it does.

Stephen Boykewich

Originally published in Meridian issue 10, Fall/Winter 2002