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  • Pulling Pranks:James Stern's Reminiscences of an Edwardian Childhood
  • Kris Somerville and Speer Morgan

Escaping the yoke of his Edwardian parents, in 1929 James Stern sailed from Southampton, England, to New York City. When he entered the country, an immigration official asked him what he did, and he replied, "I write." The man asked him what he wrote. "Letters," he said.

At the time Stern was insecure about calling himself a writer since he had not published a single story. Yet his literary career would eventually be admired as much for his fiction as for an impressive body of correspondence with many of the most famous American and British authors of the first half of the twentieth century, including Katherine Anne Porter, Djuna Barnes, Christopher Isherwood, Nadine Gordimer, Malcolm Lowry, Henry Miller, Samuel Beckett and W. H. Auden. Van Wyck Brooks called him "the best letter writer living." [End Page 123]

Among his friends he was known as one of the most talented and underrated writers in England and America. The Heartless Land (1932), a short-story collection depicting British imperialist culture in Africa, and The Hidden Damage (1947), his nonfiction account of the physical and spiritual ruins of Germany after World War II, were considered to be among the finest books to come out of the '30s and '40s. Auden and Isherwood wrote in a joint review for Vogue of James's second story collection, Something Wrong (1938), "If the English public could recognize genuine, solid talent, undecorated by the tricks which make for notoriety, Stern's name would be famous in England today."

We have come to expect certain patterns in literary careers-the meteoric rise, the posthumous rediscovery, the vanishing recluse, the one-hit wonder or the eventually recognized workhorse-but no two are exactly alike. James Stern's resists categorization. The first third of his writing life was devoted to perfecting his craft in the short story, a form he mastered in the fifty stories he composed. Reviewing art and literature for The New York Times, The New Republic, The Nation and Partisan Review consumed the second third of his career. The last decades of his life were spent in collaboration with his wife, Tania, translating from German the work of Freud, Thomas Mann, Franz Kafka and Brecht. He also wrote considerably more letters (sometimes as many as eight a day), and the roster of famous friends increased.

Stern was born on December 26, 1904, at Kilcairne Park, a grand nineteenth-century home near the small market town of Navan in County Meath, Ireland, an area known as hunting country. When James was six, the growing family moved to a larger home, Bective House. He roamed the tranquil, lush gardens, explored the surrounding woods and heather fields and ran over the endless slopes of mown grass; still he was lonely amid the family's routines of hunting and shooting. His boredom was occasionally alleviated by pulling pranks with his brother, aunt and older cousins.

Despite the pastoral setting and growing up the eldest of five children in the midst of privilege and wealth, he had an unhappy childhood. He was never close to his parents, who showed little affection toward their children. His father's life centered on the military and his mother's on horses. Together they foxhunted, a sport that never interested James. Encouraged to be hearty and robust, he was frail and fearful. And he was no huntsman; he could rarely be coaxed into mounting a horse.

Like most upper-class Anglo-Irish children, he was educated by a governess at home. When he was nine and his brother Reggie eight, they were sent [End Page 124] off to boarding school. They made the complicated, multiday journey on their own to their prep school, Wixenford, in Berkshire. World War I was a constant shadow over their school days. Their father had joined his regiment in Limerick and from there moved to the battlefields of the Somme. Overcoming his childhood fears, James considered his travels an adventure despite the threats of German U-boats and the long stints without food. He was less excited about his school and the "sprigs of nobility" who...


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