What Is What Wasby Richard G. Stern
What Is What Was, Richard Stern's fifth "orderly miscellany," is the first to meaningfully combine his fiction and nonfiction. Stories, such as the already well-known "My Ex, the Moral Philosopher," appear among portraits (of the sort Hugh Kenner praised as "almost the invention of a new genre"): Auden, Pound, Ellison, Terkel, W. C. Fields, Bertrand/i>… See more details below
What Is What Was, Richard Stern's fifth "orderly miscellany," is the first to meaningfully combine his fiction and nonfiction. Stories, such as the already well-known "My Ex, the Moral Philosopher," appear among portraits (of the sort Hugh Kenner praised as "almost the invention of a new genre"): Auden, Pound, Ellison, Terkel, W. C. Fields, Bertrand Russell, Walter Benjamin (in both essay and story), Jung and Freud, Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger.
In the book's seven sections are analyses of the Wimbledon tennis tournament as an Anglification machine, of Silicon Valley at its shaky peak, of James and Dante as travel writers, a Lucretian look at today's cosmology, American fiction in detail and depth, a "thought experiment" for Clarence Thomas, a salvation scheme for Ross Perot, a semi-confession of the writer.
The book contains but isn't philosophy, criticism, opinion, reportage, or autobiography (although the author says it is as much of this as he plans to write). There is a recurrent theme, the ways in which actuality is made and remade in description, argument and narration, fictional and nonfictional, but above all, What Is What Was is a provocative entertainment by a writer who, as Philip Roth once said, "knows as much as anyone writing American prose about family mischief, intellectual shenanigans, love blunders—and about writing American prose."
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What Is What Was
By Richard Stern
University of Chicago Press
Copyright © 2003
University of Chicago
All right reserved.
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
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 andhad
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
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,
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
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
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.
Excerpted from What Is What Was
by Richard Stern
Copyright © 2003 by University of Chicago.
Excerpted by permission.
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