Richard Stern has died. Stern was a short story writer, novelist, and essayist. I’ve always been particularly fond of Stern’s short stories, which are as emotionally raw as they are comic. His story “Packages” about the death of the narrator’s parents is a compressed masterpiece, comparable, in some ways, to the best work of Amy Hempel. It’s unfortunate that the overarching story of Stern’s life remains – as told by today’s New York Times obituary – the fact that though he was a very good and well-respected writer, he failed to be famous. As if this is the only ultimate measure of a writer’s worth. Hasn’t the life of Melville taught us anything? Not that we need Melville, an example of greatness who only temporarily fell through the cracks. What about all the greatness that slips through the cracks for good, for all time?
In the case of Stern, I hadn’t heard of him up until just a few years ago. Here was this great Chicago writer and I’d never read a single word. I have Alana Newhouse, formally of The Jewish Daily Forward, to thank for bringing him to my attention. She thought I might connect with his work. But what if Newhouse hadn’t thought of me? What if that day she sent the book to someone else? You see what I’m getting at here, the crazy workings of fate our reading lives depend on? And I came across this particular writer in a pretty conventional way. It is almost dizzying to contemplate all the stories I will never read because, for whatever reason, a certain author’s work will never cross my path. Which is why I’m always searching for so-called neglected writers. What if what they have to tell is the essential thing I need to know?
In the case of Stern we are talking about a highly visible writer with a large and important body of work. Still, he was way under my radar. Maybe he’s under yours? Philip Roth says of his old friend that, in his day, he was known by writers but not by the general public. I wonder if Stern is, today, known by writers. I hope so. But again, it’s not the issue. The question is: how good is his work? What does it have to tell us about who we are as human beings? And – maybe more significantly – who we aren’t? (See: in addition to Stern’s short stories and novels, the essay collection, The Books in Fred Hampton’s Apartment. The title essay refers to Fred Hampton, a Black Panther leader murdered by Chicago Police in 1969. Stern was somehow able to enter the apartment after the assassination. The essay is about the books he found on Hampton’s shelves and what these books have to teach us about a society that had just killed one of its own bright lights.) Stern wrote brilliantly about the myriad ways we fail as human beings. I think of “Packages” today and I want to get down on my knees with guilt and sorrow – and laughter too.