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  • Herzog in Venice:Richard Stern's Stitch, Ezra Pound, and Jewish American Literary History
  • Michael Kalisch (bio)


The impression one gets reading Zachary Leader's two-volume biography is that Saul Bellow never made a friend he didn't manage to fall out with (Leader, Life, vols. 1 & 2). The novelist Richard Stern was no exception, although, by Bellow's standards, their near half-century relationship was relatively plain sailing—one reason, perhaps, why Leader spends little time discussing it. The pair met in early 1956, shortly after Stern joined the English department at the University of Chicago, where he became the unofficial writer-in-residence, establishing a long-running undergraduate course in creative writing. (He retired as Helen A. Regenstein Professor of English and American Literature in 2001.) Stern earned his PhD from the University of Iowa in 1954, becoming, D. G. Myers notes, part of the first surge of Writers' Workshop graduates who "fanned out across the country to institute at least twenty-five new [writing] programs" (165). In the fall of '56, Stern invited Bellow to address his writing class, and the pair kept up a regular, intimate correspondence while Bellow was at work on Henderson the Rain King (1959)—which Stern praised in a write-up for the Kenyon Review— and Herzog (1964).1 Along with their mutual friend Edward Shils, Stern lobbied to bring Bellow to UChicago on a permanent basis; eventually, in 1962, Bellow accepted a position on the Committee on Social Thought, "something of an academic salon des refuses," Leader writes, and therefore a "better fit for him than the English Department" (Life, vol. 1, 615). Another of Bellow's biographers, Mark Harris, observes that Stern was "sober, reliable, immensely learned," and became "a friend of Bellow's stable side" once they were both settled in Hyde Park (36–37). The two writers offered "each other criticism and counsel in their trials and dilemmas," Bellow telephoning "the Sterns' house four or five times a day" (40). [End Page 266]

On the afternoon that Bellow came to address Stern's writing class, in the fall of '56, the story to be discussed was not, as usual, that of a student, but of a young instructor on the English faculty, Philip Roth. Roth was just beginning to get his short stories published in university literary journals, but the piece Stern picked for the Bellow class had, Roth recalled, "been turned down by all the classy reviews" (qtd. in Pierpont 30). Roth sat quietly at the back of the room while Bellow, Stern, and the rest of the class workshopped "The Conversion of the Jews," which would appear in the Paris Review the following March before becoming part of Roth's National Book Award-winning first collection, Goodbye, Columbus (1959). Only after the class did Stern introduce the young writer to the famous novelist, a meeting that Roth would fictionalize in The Ghost Writer (1979).2 Bellow's support was a great boost to Roth's fledgling career—editions of Goodbye, Columbus still carry on their cover the opening line of Bellow's glowing and influential Commentary review—and the two gradually became friends.3 But it was Stern's early encouragement, and particularly his amusement at Roth's comic storytelling over their regular hamburger lunches together in Chicago, that may have been more important in guiding Roth's youthful ambition. "I wanted to be deep like Dostoyevsky. I wanted to write literature," Roth recalls, in a tribute to Stern after his death in 2013. "Instead I took Dick's advice and wrote Goodbye, Columbus. I would remain responsive to his literary wisdom forever after and would put before him, for him to challenge with his considerable critical vigor, the final draft of virtually all that I wrote" (Roth, "In Memory of Richard Stern"). The pair swapped manuscripts for forty years, commenting, often with ruthless honesty, upon each other's work; "we're so close that he reads my temperature from the progress of the manuscript," Stern said (Atlas 32). In their correspondence, Roth repeatedly quoted a favorite line from Blake that seemed to sum up their relationship: "Opposition is true friendship" (Roth, Letter to...