Goin' to California 

After decades of teaching, Richard Stern opts for a change of scenery.

By Mark Swartz

A faculty member at the University of Chicago since 1955, Richard Stern has taught literature and creative writing continuously since then, except for the year he spent traveling the world after winning a Guggenheim fellowship a quarter century ago. He's accepted a fellowship for the coming school year to be humanist-in-residence at the Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences on the campus of Stanford University. "I'm not entirely sanguine," he says. "I'm not a great California lover."

Or maybe he's just going to miss teaching. Stern's not an easy or an easily likable teacher, but he knows how to pack a literary punch into a single quarter. Six years ago I took leave of the art history department long enough to participate in his creative writing workshop. At the time I bridled against what I considered to be his narrow view of what qualified as literature, objected to his insistence that students refer to one another as Mr. and Ms. ("Mr. Swartz's descriptive prose is lively, but the end of the story lacks closure"), and ridiculed his penchant for dropping names. Saul Bellow, Thomas Mann, Flannery O'Connor. He acted like he had just come from a tennis match with Ezra Pound.

At the same time, it was impossible to deny the thrill of working closely with an accomplished writer. Stern's novels, essays, and stories address a wide range of thematic and intellectual issues, but he's most effective when prying into the clockwork of family life, probing the real and imagined slights, oversights, and betrayals without neglecting the tenderness that underpins even the most strained relations. The novels Other Men's Daughters (1973) and A Father's Words (1986) and A Sistermony (1995), the memoir of his older sister Ruth's losing battle with cancer, form a loose trilogy of emotional nakedness that belies his reputation as a writer's writer.

When I look back at creative writing class, maybe what bothered me most was Stern's refusal to go easy on student work. In An Unsentimental Education (1995), Molly McQuade's collection of interviews with writers who have passed through Hyde Park over the years, the novelist Douglas Unger recalls, "I'd hand in turgid, nearly incomprehensible prose, and Stern would look at it and say, kindly enough, but in so many words, 'No, I don't like this at all.' Then I'd react by writing something even more far out." This is about as far as I myself got in Stern's class, but Unger--author of El Yanqui and Voices From Silence--persevered. "I finally just wanted so much to write something he liked. So I pushed through, got honest, and started writing something more real. That was when he let me know that he approved, that writing was what I should be doing, and he really pushed me along."

When Stern talks about his teaching style, he makes no apologies for the demands he puts on young writers, and for him the insistence on Mr. and Ms. encourages students to take themselves seriously enough to undertake real writing. "Very few teachers do it anymore. It's a question of making people feel older, more mature," he states. "It makes them feel they're writing work as good as the people they're reading in their classes." As for all the big names he mentions in class, Stern asserts, "I want my students to feel they're part of the world of living writers." Over the years he has brought such guests as Ralph Ellison, Lillian Hellman, Howard Nemerov, John Berryman, and Bellow to meet his students and discuss their stories. (In 1957, when Bellow workshopped Philip Roth's story "The Conversion of the Jews" in Stern's class with Roth present, the two stellar novelists crossed paths for the first time.) Margaret Drabble came by this past trimester, and Stern brags that she was terrifically impressed with his students' work.

Rather than growing tired of undergraduate stabs at profundity, Stern still gets a charge out of what he calls the "reflections of the world by sensitive, intelligent young people."

Isn't it hard to relate to the torments and tribulations of writers 50 years his junior? It's not easy. "As a teacher, you have to be open to everything," he says. "Your students keep you up." He recalls how a student with a ring in her nose introduced him to the world of zines and gay culture. When divorce first became big, he says, he noticed his "students writing about parents taking up second lives before they began their first." In a recent workshop, he facilitated a debate among Asian-American students over "how much ancestral material had been dealt with."

Ever since 1955, when Norman Maclean hired Stern fresh from the Iowa Writers' Workshop and set up a schedule where the young writer's course load was concentrated in the afternoon, Stern has balanced two vocations. "My life," he says, "has been formed on the basic rhythm of teaching and writing." The fellowship in California means a 12-month summer for Stern--that is, time to write without worrying about whether it's time to break off in midchapter and head for class.

Stern's looking forward to that. His next book, Pacific Tremors, a collection of interrelated short stories, took five years to complete. Two works in progress ought to go faster. He won't reveal much about them, except that one is a novel about a retired lawyer's "sometimes comic effort to understand and treasure the endgame."

Many of the stories in Pacific Tremors concern the movie industry, so California naturally serves as the setting. During a recent trip out west, he was able to correct a passage written earlier, containing a description of the Los Angeles skyline as seen from Westwood. "There's a satisfaction in getting things right," he says.

Of course, there's more to capturing a place than accurate descriptions, and Stern's knack for putting location at the service of character development is one distinctive attribute of his fiction. For most of his career, Chicago has served as backdrop, and more than backdrop, for his stories and novels.

In "Packages," the narrator wanders downtown thinking about the imminent death of his mother. The Sun-Times building is a "cube of flame." As he wanders into Daley Plaza, "a girl in leotards the color of papaya meat jumped around a stage in front of the big nothing of Picasso's metal gift--bloodless heart, brainless head." Those last four words come back to me every single time I set eyes on the Picasso. "Packages," first published in a collection of the same name in 1990, reappeared in his Noble Rot, a volume assembled from stories written between 1949 and 1988. This past spring it appeared yet again in Smokestacks & Skyscrapers, an anthology of Chicago writing edited by David Starkey and Richard Guzman.

The title character in "Riordan's Fiftieth," another story included in Noble Rot, is a bus driver trying to think straight while exhaust on State Street "makes hell in his lungs." He casts about for some reason not to despair, his thoughts briefly lighting on Chicago's famously disappointing sports franchises: "If the Cubs were warm in the race, at least there was something to look for; and in winter the Bulls and the Hawks, in the fall the Bears. All these animal teams he'd invested his heart in."

The next paragraph is only two words long: "Not enough."

As Stern recalls, Bellow hated that story. "He always insists on using the most intelligent narrator possible, but it comes easy to me to take on other voices." He adds that despite the apparent differences between Riordan and his creator, there are autobiographical elements to the story.

As he prepares for his sojourn in California, Stern is confident of maintaining his productivity despite the unfamiliar surroundings. "I'm able to write wherever." Still, he recognizes that Chicago, Hyde Park in particular, has steadily nourished him as a writer. "I know every tree and dog here. It's my instrument."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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