Obituaries

George Stade, pop-minded literary scholar and satirical novelist, dies at 85

WASHINGTON — George Stade, a Columbia University literary scholar who became an early champion of ‘‘popular’’ fiction within the academy and worked as a critic, editor, and novelist, most notably with the grisly satire ‘‘Confessions of a Lady-Killer,’’ died Feb. 26 at a hospital in Silver Spring, Md. He was 85.

A specialist in 20th-century British and American literature, Dr. Stade served as editor in chief of two literary series for Scribner. But he was probably best known for helping to spearhead the study of popular fiction in the classroom, and for his frequent — and frequently acerbic — reviews and essays on contemporary literature.

Writing for publications including Partisan Review, Harper’s magazine, and especially The New York Times, he championed horror writers such as Stephen King (“few writers around are better . . . at giving readers what they want”) and decried the soft state of ‘‘manist’’ literature in which male protagonists ‘‘retreat, admit defeat, take the heat, all with a sheepish grin.’’

Advertisement

‘‘His literary tastes were, to say the least, of the big-tent variety,’’ said his former colleague Jean Howard, a Shakespeare scholar. Dr. Stade once offered a catalogue of popular fiction that included works few teachers traditionally assigned for classroom reading: ‘‘Westerns, whodunits, science fiction, adventure yarns, romances, ‘spookeroos,’ pornography, and the kind of melodramas known in the trade as ‘blockbusters.’ ’’

Get Fast Forward in your inbox:
A look at the news and events shaping the day ahead, delivered every weekday.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Dr. Stade said he was interested less in the aesthetic qualities of pulp literature than in its cultural and sociological aspects, and he focused on the way a novel’s plot reflected the values of its time. He taught his first course on the history of the popular novel in 1971, tracing its development from the 18th-century erotic work ‘‘Fanny Hill’’ to the gothic horror classic ‘‘Frankenstein’’ to Mario Puzo’s gangster epic ‘‘The Godfather.’’

Students were initially flummoxed. On the second day of class, according to the Columbia Daily Spectator, ‘‘many seemed bewildered and bemused as Professor Stade discussed the Marxist, Freudian, and Christian interpretations of old ‘Tom and Jerry’ cartoons.’’

In time, scores of undergraduates flocked to his popular-fiction course, where he was known to preside over the classroom in boots and jeans, sometimes holding a lit cigarette.

‘‘Though he spent his career teaching some of the great literary achievements of Western civilization, in his way, Stade distrusted Western civilization and he wanted you to know it,’’ Columbia’s English department wrote in a notice on his death.

Advertisement

He retired in 2000, after 36 years of teaching. By then, genre-fiction scholarship was in vogue, and the former literary rebel was considered part of the school’s old guard.

With other colleagues, he resisted diversifying the English department’s faculty and curriculum, according to the Columbia notice, and generally opposed emerging literary schools such as feminism and post-colonialism.

Yet, he served as a doctoral adviser to feminist writer Kate Millett, whose dissertation was adapted into her 1970 tract ‘‘Sexual Politics.’’ (“Reading the book is like sitting with your testicles in a nutcracker,’’ Dr. Stade told Time magazine.)

His skepticism toward feminist literary theory informed his 1979 debut, ‘‘Confessions of a Lady-Killer,’’ which New York Times reviewer Mark Shechner described as an irony-laced ‘‘study of feminism from the point of view of Jack the Ripper.’’