What Is What Was

Praise for Richard Stern:

"[Stern's] skill gives vitality to everything he treats."—Edmund White, Los Angeles Times

"Stern is incapable of writing an unconsidered, lazy, or hackneyed line."—Peter Straub, New Statesman

"His control is extraordinary, his fastball is devastating, nobody walks, nobody steals a base."—Saul Bellow

by Richard Stern, author of What Is What Was

My parents had a big dictionary. Perhaps because they'd spent so much money on it, they felt it should be used. So I got in the habit of looking up words.

I would look up the word, then encounter it three or four times in the next days. I can remember looking the same word up so often that I began to doubt my ability to remember anything at all.

My father invented stories for us. My first memory is of sighting him through the slats of my crib as he told my sister and me stories.

He told us about a midget lady named Miss Demicapoulos, who had extraordinary adventures. He made up wonderful names, some of which I've used in my fiction. The stories were funny, tragic, enthralling.

He must have gotten a kick out of making them up, but he never wrote anything until he retired at seventy-eight, and I bought him a little notebook, suggesting that he write an autobiography. He did, and my sister and I had it printed. It's a brief, charming, heart-rending memoir about the family and his experiences as a dentist in New York.

At some point, one becomes this thing called a writer. It happened to me when I was twelve.

I had to write a story for class. Already I was reading a lot and had written sketches; my story was more or less pillaged from something I'd read. I had the gratification of laughter from the class and the approbation of the teacher. I'd never before had an audience of more than my father and mother.

As a boy, I went to summer camp and performed in plays. I was considered a pretty good actor. I enjoyed that, but it didn't bring the same sort of gratification writing did. The nicest thing about acting was the ensemble work. Part of that involves watching other people act.

Writing came from me, even when—as I've said—it was half-stolen. Then there's the pleasure of being by oneself, being able to think about anything, feeling that this is a justified part of life. Not being told, "You're daydreaming. Get with it."

Daydreaming is what you do.

Then of course you have to get it down. With luck, writing begets itself.

If I have a recognizable voice in fiction, it's a voice of parsimony, economy, omission—a certain obliquity and sharpness. I seldom get that in a first draft. The first draft is rather pompous, the syntax winding around as I'm trying to encompass the action.

I found a paper of mine that I'd written at seventeen at Chapel Hill. It was just two pages on Aristotle, and it was written in the same style I use now. I must have had a certain gift for concision. I've allied it to something I hated in my mother. After I'd read a Karen Horney book in 1947, I called it "anality." It was her obsession with cleanliness. I think that influenced my style.

What's easy for me—maybe it's connected to the old theatrical interest—is when I'm talking "for" other people. I can talk in different ways pretty easily. I enjoy it.

Then there's the question of breath. Isaac Babel said his sentences were short because he had asthma. Of course, Proust had asthma, too. Still, I think there's some relation between a person's physical being and his work.

I haven't analyzed it, but I know that after a certain time, I get tired, yet I know I'd be better off if I developed scenes more, let the characters bang each other around more than I do. I tend to edit sharply, narrowly, to keep the key signatures.

In the past ten years, my working method as a writer has been that of dictating to an assistant. His—or her—reaction is important. Does he laugh? Does he seem to tune out? The attentiveness is important. It means one person cares. At times, I've felt that nobody cared; sometimes I didn't care myself.

Writing doesn't get easier.

This year, I came out of a writing slump. I had been ready to throw in the towel. (I had begun to feel that way as well about some of my fellow writers. I thought they too should throw in the towel.) But I recovered from a hernia operation, went back to teaching, and started up again.

On the whole, the university has been a good place to be. I came here in 1955 after a year teaching at a small college for women in New London, Connecticut.

I had read about Chicago in a Life magazine article which called it "the greatest university that's ever been." (Henry Luce was a sort of PR man for Hutchins.) When I came here, I was impressed by it, and impressed with myself for being part of it. I was writing a novel, Europe, and stories at the time; I was writing a lot.

Norman Maclean was very helpful to me. He saw that I had mornings free to write; I taught in the afternoons.

Maclean was fascinating both for the power and the self-cancellation of power in him—for his authenticity and for his romantic elaboration of it. The clash between his complex feelings and his romantic, Hemingway-and-Western image puzzled him—baffled him.

Introspection worried him. He did not analyze his character, did not work out the clash between his nature and his romantic view of what a man should be. The sensitive "tough guy" is a tough role. There was much more to him than that. He believed in discipline but didn't know how to discipline or use his own feelings. His wonderful wife, Jessie, tightened that emotional knot; she was a purer "Westerner" than he.

An amazing thing happened after he was free of the theatrical tension of teaching. He'd been a part of a critical circle, the Chicago School, headed by R. S. Crane and Richard McKeon, the philosopher. What distinguished them was critical ferocity. I think Norman took a beating there. When he was free of that, too, he wrote down some family stories he had told for years, A River Runs Through It.

The great thing about the university is the remarkable people here in all fields. I've been lucky to know several hundred marvelous men and women who've been on the faculty. I've spent a lot of time listening to them, having all sorts of things explained.

The danger of teaching is that knowing things students don't yet know evokes their gratitude and amazement. You can get drunk on that. As a writer, you have to address an audience that can't be so easily amazed and delighted. You're not in a cozy apartment, but on the frontier.

It's been important for me to get out of the university from time to time. I wanted to get around the world, be at home everywhere. I've managed to see quite a bit. Maybe too much. I've loved the charged anonymity of travel.

One way in which I came to know Chicago involved a controversy surrounding the Chicago Review in about 1958 or 1959. 1 had been made chairman of its faculty committee.

The Review had an editor who was a friend of the San Francisco writers, Ginsberg, Burroughs, et al. He started publishing them, quite a coup. Naked Lunch appeared in it. Meanwhile, some of the kids on the magazine were telling me that other manuscripts were coming in and weren't being considered for publication, just rejected out of hand.

Such complaints were made before an obscenity controversy erupted. A columnist named Jack Mabley published a piece in the Chicago Daily News which said that the Review was publishing obscene material. (He, and the paper, were on an obscenity kick.) That in itself didn't create much of a stir, but as I was to learn from the university's president, Lawrence Kimpton, Mayor Daley was being pressured by certain prominent Catholics in the city about the matter.

Daley told Kimpton—he told me—"I've been trying to get the City Council to pass such and such an ordinance to save the university in Hyde Park." Hyde Park was in decay. If it continued, the university was endangered. Daley believed the university was essential to a great Chicago.

The ordinances had to do with squeezing the criminal and slum landlord element out. Cardinal Stritch had recently died, and there was a power fight in the church. Many of the people who were squeezed out of Hyde Park moved Back of the Yards. The priest there used the Review's supposed obscenity to attack the university in his diocesan paper. Daley told Kimpton that the church was putting pressure on Catholic council members, whose votes he needed. Kimpton's initial reaction was, suppress the Review; cancel it. We committee members met with him in his office, and when he told us this, we said, "Are you kidding? Censor the Chicago Review? You'd degrade the university. You can't do it." Kimpton saw it immediately and drew back.

Meanwhile, a couple of the Review editors saw an opportunity in the situation. They wrote about it to John Ciardi at the Saturday Review, who wrote a column, most of it wrong. It became a great debate, some of which is recorded in many issues of the Chicago Maroon. My position was that everything accepted by the editors had to be printed by the Review. Instead, the editors took the pieces to start another magazine, Big Table. They staged a benefit to raise money for it. (I appeared at the benefit and read a story which Big Table printed.)

There are still people who think the Chicago Review was "suppressed." It's a myth, but a useful one to remind people that literature can easily become the casualty of other interests.

I learned a lot from the whole experience. It was amazing to me that a power fight in the church could reach the city council, and that in turn could affect the university. I also learned a bit about publicity and the distortions of claims along such sensational lines as "literary martyrdom." By chance, I was reading then a book called The Montesi Affair by Wayland Young. It was about what happened in Italy after someone misheard a conversation in a restaurant about the drowning of a girl named Montesi. The misunderstanding became a rumor which nearly overthrew the Italian government. The Chicago Review was my Montesi affair.

I had just started work on my Ph.D. at Iowa in 1952 when John Crowe Ransom wrote that he'd accepted a story of mine for the Kenyon Review. That wonderful moment when you're suddenly part of the makers of literature. I suppose the pleasure is connected to the pleasure I've had meeting Thomas Mann, Ezra Pound, and Samuel Beckett, the feeling that you're connected to those who've formed your mind and helped make your life comprehensible, moving, lighter, deeper.

I differentiate this acquaintance from friendships with such friends as Bellow and Roth. Their work has meant even more to me, but they are part of what Roth called "my life as a man." Actually Beckett, too, I regarded as a friend (though I saw him only eight or nine times). I spoke personally to him and I think he did to me. Yet when he spoke about Joyce, I felt the mental marble dissolve. When he praised Bellow's work and something of mine, I felt the literary earth shake, as if Sophocles or Chaucer had acknowledged me and my friends.

I try to tell my students, particularly my writing students, that they can be part of this linkage, that, in a way, through this minor connection in front of them, they're already part of it. It's important at the University of Chicago, where the Great Works loom monumentally, to free students from the paralysis of intimidation by them. 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.

There's a lot of brilliance, even genius, around, but between flashes of genius and careers of accomplishment are pitfalls of life and character. To be an artist you need luck and tenacity, terrific tenacity. Maybe the obstacles to art exist to warn off those who can't bear the pain of creative exhaustion, misunderstanding, devaluation or devastatingly accurate evaluation, self-exposure, critical wounds, many other things. It's a long trip from the stories coming through the slats of a crib to those you have to get down on paper sixty-odd years later.

Copyright notice: ©2002 by Richard Stern. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of Richard Stern.

Richard Stern
What Is What Was
©2002, 328 pages
Cloth $50.00 ISBN: 0-226-77325-6
Paper $18.00 ISBN: 0-226-77326-4

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