What Is What Was

Richard Stern

I put this book on my to-read list over five years ago, and I’ve long since forgotten what recommendation or reference prompted me to put it there. I’ve never read Richard Stern before, and this is a book of “miscellany”: essays, stories, and poems grouped thematically across portraits, places, criticism, etc. Miscellany isn’t the best place to start with a writer, but I felt promise from the preface which ends with these lines:

The discrepancy between the truth of what one’s been, known, and felt and the historical, biographical, fictional, and even cosmological … reconstruction of it done years or even minutes later by oneself or someone else is a motif here. When the discrepancy is large, the reaction to it may be olympian indifference, anger, outrage, laughter, or litigation. Some gap is always there; from it issues the rumble under biography, history, and reporting which can never be completely silenced.

The first profiles on W. H. Auden, Ezra Pound, and Ralph Ellison gave particular insight into the lives of these well-known writers. In Pound’s case, his later years in Venice. But moving into Places, my attention drifted. When I got to the essay on Wimbledon, 1992, I was overcome with boredom. I skipped forward, skimming past other essays dated to the mid-1990s, and found this start to the essay “Over the Hill”:

Autobiography and memoir writing are senior precincts. The presumption is that having made it over the hill, you’ve had the good view and are willing to describe it for other climbers. No longer active, you have little to lose, less to conceal. Yeats called this “withering into truth.”

Skimming a little further, I found a Letter to the Editor from 1995, rejected from The New York Times. Stern introduces it by tallying the number of letters and unsolicited op-ed pieces he has sent to the Times and how few of them were ever published. The letter, responding to Mickey Kaus’s analysis of Republican welfare legislation, is not that interesting of a letter 25 years later.

At that point, I decided those two excerpts quoted above were enough for me to take from this book. Stern’s obituary in the Times says that he was a writer famous with other famous writers. Maybe if I were “famous” — and this definitely refers to older, whiter, straighter male writers — I would have found more to appreciate.