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.
The cause was pneumonia, said his daughter Nancy Stade.
A specialist in 20th-century British and American literature, Dr. Stade studied modernists such as James Joyce, William Faulkner and E.E. Cummings and served as consulting editorial director of Barnes & Noble Classics as well 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 wussified state of “manist” literature in which male protagonists “retreat, admit defeat, take the heat, all with a sheepish grin.” He also attacked literary luminaries, including Iris Murdoch, whom he branded “a neo-Christian apologist” who “writes Harlequin romances for highbrows.”
“His literary tastes were, to say the least, of the big-tent variety,” said his former colleague Jean E. Howard, a Shakespeare scholar. Indeed, 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.’ ”
Dr. Stade said he was interested less in the aesthetic qualities of pulp literature than in its cultural and sociological aspects and 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 classics “Frankenstein” and “Dracula” 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, however, scores of undergraduates flocked to his popular-fiction course, where Dr. Stade 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 passing.
The Society of Columbia Graduates awarded him the Great Teachers Award in 1996, and he retired in 2000, after 36 years of teaching. By then, genre-fiction scholarship was in vogue, and the onetime 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, deconstructionism and post-colonialism.
Ideological disagreements within the department contributed to high turnover and understaffing, and in 2000, the English department was effectively placed in academic receivership. A classics professor served as acting chair before a permanent replacement was hired from the University of Pittsburgh.
“What has happened at Columbia represents an acute form of what has happened in the field as a whole,” Dr. Stade told the New York Observer in 2001. “There are those people who see literature in traditional ways, which includes historical circumstances, and there is a school that wants to see literature as a symptom of all the evils of society.”
While Dr. Stade was undoubtedly one of the former, 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 literary 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.”
The novel was centered on a psychopathic Columbia bookstore manager, Victor Grant, who describes himself as either a hero or a villain, “depending on whether you are a feminist or a human being.” He embarks on a murderous anti-feminist rampage after his wife leaves him for a woman and joins a feminist magazine titled Ms. Chief.
While “Confessions” drew praise for its wit and sparkling prose, which The Washington Post likened to that of Vladimir Nabokov, its handling of sexual violence garnered rebukes from feminist critics.
Gender studies scholar Jane Caputi wrote that Dr. Stade was “a mythographer and propagandist of sexual murder” and later said that his novel anticipated a 1989 mass killing in Montreal, in which a man ran into a college classroom, shouted, “You’re all . . . feminists!” and opened fire, killing 14 women before also killing himself.
Dr. Stade went on to write three more mostly comic novels, including “Sex and Violence: A Love Story” (2005), in which an English-professor narrator navigates university politics and sexual dysfunction, and “Love Is War” (2006), in which a professor strikes up an affair with a married 30-year-old student. Both lovers plot to kill their spouses.
George Gustave Comins was born in Manhattan on Nov. 25, 1933. His father, Greek-born George Comins, abandoned the family when George was young; his mother, the former Eva Aaronsen, was a hairdresser who took George to her native Sweden for several years when he was a child.
She and her friend Kurt Stade took him back to Manhattan in 1939 and opened a beauty parlor on the Upper West Side. They soon married, and George took his stepfather’s last name. He worked in construction as a teenager and, devouring more than three dozen works by Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs, fell under the spell of books.
Dr. Stade played football at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., and graduated in 1955. One year later, he married Dorothy Fletcher, a fellow St. Lawrence student. She died in 2013. Survivors include their four children, Bjorn Stade of Monsey, N.Y., Eric Stade of Lafayette, Colo., and Nancy and Kirsten Stade, both of Takoma Park, Md.; and three grandchildren.
At Columbia, Dr. Stade received a master’s degree in 1958 and a doctorate in 1965. He spent his entire career teaching at the school, and moved to Silver Spring after his wife’s death to be near his daughters.
In lectures, he often described great literature as “equipment for living,” borrowing a phrase from literary theorist Kenneth Burke. “It stimulates us to do in our imaginations what we can’t or won’t do in the flesh,” he said in one 1998 talk, “but that makes life worth living.”