NEW YORK — Richard G. Stern, whose novels, short stories and essays were almost universally admired in the literary world but whose name remained stubbornly unrecognized in the wider world of readers, earning him a reputation for being, as one reviewer put it, ‘‘the best American author of whom you have never heard,’’ died Thursday at his home on Tybee Island, Ga. He was 84.
The cause was cancer, said his wife, Alane Rollings.
Mr. Stern wrote more than 20 books of fiction and nonfiction, mostly while teaching literature and creative writing at the University of Chicago. There he was at the center of a writerly cohort that included Philip Roth and Saul Bellow, and his classroom became a showcase for visiting literary eminences.
‘‘He was an inspiring figure as a literature professor and an ace of great virtuosity as a novelist, short story writer, essayist, and raconteur,’’ Roth said, adding, ‘‘I was faculty, but I used to go to his class and sit at the back. It was there I met Bellow. It was there I met Lowell and Berryman and Mailer.’’
Roth recalled an afternoon in the mid-1950s when he and Mr. Stern were having lunch.
“I began telling him the story of how I spent my previous summer in New Jersey,’’ Roth said. ‘‘And he said, ‘Write it down.’ I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘Write it down.’ And that was ‘Goodbye, Columbus’ ’’ — the title of Roth’s first book.
Perhaps Mr. Stern’s best known novel is ‘‘Other Men’s Daughters’’ (1973), a drama, drawn from his life, about an affair of a middle-aged married man and a younger woman. Recognizing the theme as well worn, critic Jonathan Yardley still wrote in Washington Post Book World, ‘‘I cannot recall its being treated elsewhere in recent fiction with more fidelity to and understanding of the truths of separation, divorce, and readjustment.’’
Generally, Mr. Stern’s subject was the inner life of educated people and his strength examining intrafamily relations. His prose was dense but not difficult, erudite but not pretentious; as an observer of human behavior he was both ruthless and generous, acknowledging characters’ finer attributes but homing in on their foibles. He could be seen as a comic novelist, if a dark one.
‘‘One of the reasons he never became famous — he was most famous among famous writers — was that his tone was hard to grasp, and some readers didn’t feel morally settled,’’ Roth said, ‘‘not because he was difficult or abstruse but because he was generous to all his characters. And that befuddled them.’’
In the 1986 novel ‘‘A Father’s Words,’’ for example, the narrator, Cy Riemer, the editor of a science newsletter and the divorced father of three, observes his daughter Livy in a passage that reveals both characters:
‘‘Self-knowledge is her line. It’s her problem as well. She doesn’t understand her own gifts, her charm, her decency. As for me, she overrates my knowledge and underrates my selfishness. What others consider a virtue, she dismisses. ‘Why are you so anxious to know about things?’ she asks. ‘You’re going to run across the street to gawk at some historical marker and be hit by a truck. What’s the difference where a treaty was signed? Or where some poet laid his cousin? You know more about Darwin and Rilke than you do about yourself.’ Riemers are athletes of the mouth. Gab is our sport. We’ll say anything to make a rhetorical point. (Witness this triple version of saying we talk a lot.)’’
Mr. Stern’s admirers have included Anthony Burgess, Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Berger, and Richard Ellmann.
In 1985, Mr. Stern received the Medal of Merit for the Novel, awarded every six years by the Academy of Arts and Letters.
Its winners have included Theodore Dreiser, Ernest Hemingway, and Vladimir Nabokov.
Richard Gustave Stern was born Feb. 25, 1928 in New York City. His father, Henry, was a dentist, and though not bookish he was an avid storyteller, whom Mr. Stern credited with fostering his own desire to tell tales.
Mr. Stern’s first marriage, to Gay Clark, ended in divorce. Besides Rollings, a poet, he leaves four children from the earlier marriage — Christopher, Andrew, Nicholas, and Kate — and five grandchildren.
Mr. Stern was well aware that he was more well-known in a small pool of writers than in the larger one of readers.
“I was a has-been before I’d been a been,’’ he often said.