Richard Stern, whose novels, short stories and essays were almost universally admired in the literary world but whose name remained stubbornly unrecognized in the wider world of readers, earning him a reputation for being as one reviewer put it “the best American author of whom you have never heard," died Thursday at his home on Tybee Island, Ga. He was 84.
The cause was cancer, said his wife, Alane Rollings.
Stern wrote more than 20 books of fiction and nonfiction, mostly while teaching literature and creative writing at the University of Chicago. There he was at the center of a writerly cohort that included Philip Roth and Saul Bellow, and his classroom became a showcase for visiting literary eminences.
“He was an inspiring figure as a literature professor and an ace of great virtuosity as a novelist, short-story writer, essayist and raconteur," Roth said in a telephone interview Thursday. He added: “I was faculty, but I used to go to his class and sit at the back. It was there I met Bellow. It was there I met Lowell and Berryman and Mailer."
Roth recalled an afternoon in the mid-1950s when he and Stern were having lunch.
“I began telling him the story of how I spent my previous summer in New Jersey," Roth said. “And he said, ‘Write it down.’ I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘Write it down.’ And that was ‘Goodbye, Columbus’" — the title of Roth’s first book.
Perhaps Stern’s best known novel is “Other Men’s Daughters" (1973), a drama, drawn from his own life, about a love affair between a middle-aged married man and a younger woman. Recognizing the theme as well worn, the critic Jonathan Yardley nonetheless wrote in The Washington Post Book World, “I cannot recall its being treated elsewhere in recent fiction with more fidelity to and understanding of the truths of separation, divorce and readjustment."
Generally, Stern’s subject was the inner life of educated people and his strength examining intra-family relations. His prose was dense but not difficult, erudite but not pretentious; as an observer of human behavior he was both ruthless and generous, acknowledging characters’ finer attributes but homing in on their foibles. He could be seen as a comic novelist, if a dark one.
“One of the reasons he never became famous — he was most famous among famous writers — was that his tone was hard to grasp, and some readers didn’t feel morally settled," Roth said, “not because he was difficult or abstruse but because he was generous to all his characters. And that befuddled them."
Stern’s admirers have included Anthony Burgess, Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Berger and Richard Ellmann.
In 1985, Stern received the Medal of Merit for the Novel, awarded every six years by the Academy of Arts and Letters.
Its winners have included Theodore Dreiser, Ernest Hemingway and Vladimir Nabokov.
“I never understood his obscurity," Roth said. “Every writer in America read and admired him."
Richard Gustave Stern was born in New York City on Feb. 25, 1928. His father, Henry, was a dentist, and though not bookish he was an avid storyteller, whom Stern credited with fostering his own desire to tell tales.