Novelist, celebrated short story writer and retired Johns Hopkins University writing professor, dies at 83
Stephen Dixon, a novelist who taught for decades at Johns Hopkins University, died Wednesday of Parkinson’s disease and pneumonia complications at Gilchrist Center Towson. The Ruxton resident was 83.
“Mr. Dixon was the most prolific short story writer of his generation, publishing well over 600 short stories in a remarkable career that spanned six decades and included multiple O. Henry Awards, Pushcart Prizes, and appearances in Best American Short Stories,” said a family friend Matthew Petti, an English professor at the University of the District of Columbia who is writing a biography of Mr. Dixon.
Mr. Petti also said that Mr. Dixon was twice nominated for the National Book Award and once for the PEN/Faulkner Award.
He also said, “He was the kindest man you would ever want to meet. He was the kind of person who would spot an elderly woman from a block away, sprint to her and help her cross a street. He took care of his wife for many years and gave his father shots for his diabetes. He said, ‘There was a job to do and I did it.’”
He recalled the help Mr. Dixon gave his students, “He would write pages of comments on their stories. There was always a line of students at his door.”
He was born June 6, 1936 on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the fifth of seven children whose grandparents emigrated from the Pale of Settlement in Poland, according to a family biography. He was the son of Abraham Ditchik, a dentist, and his wife, Florence Leder, a Broadway dancer who became an interior decorator.
He earned a degree at the City University of New York and had a fellowship at Stanford University.
In his 20s he was a radio reporter who eventually worked for CBS.
“When Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev made his famous visit to Washington in 1959, Dixon was among the pack of reporters cordoned off to one side of the Lincoln Memorial,” said the Sun’s 2007 story.
“I ducked under the rope and ran up the steps after him, ” he said. “I could have been shot. I was calling,P`remier Khrushchev! Premier Khrushchev!
“He turned and said, through a translator: ‘Such a nice boy; such a nice boy. What do you want to ask me?’
“So I got a short interview. When I got back, all the other reporters wanted to know what he said, but I had to go back to my office and drop off the tape.”
Mr. Dixon had been a professor for 27 years in the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars. He moved to Baltimore in the early 1980s and lived in Charles Village, Mount Washington and later on Boyce Avenue in Ruxton.
Jean McGarry, a Johns Hopkins professor and writer, said her colleague was a “force of nature.”
“His love of writing was only exceeded by his love of family,” she said. “Steve was fiery and impulsive. Widely read, he was a fierce critic…And yet, he was generous and encouraging to young writers and seemed to believe that he could teach anyone to write well.”
Ms. McGarry also said, “Absent of even a glimmer of vanity, Steve, according to his wife, had two outfits: in summer, shorts and a tee shirt; in winter, sweat pants and sweat shirt. Getting to his desk, and his typewriter, was the object of every single day.”
Baltimore Sun writer Ernest F. Imhoff described Mr. Dixon in a 1998 story: “The most prolific author in Baltimore, divides his 40 years of writing into three periods: The Olivetti Period. The Royal Period. The Hermes Period,” a reference to the brands of manual typewriters he used.
Mr. Dixon disliked digital keyboards. “This feels awful,” he said, when, on one occasion, he used a computer.
“He was revolted by the wishy-washy ease of the touch and never hit another key,” the 1998 Sun story said.
“There was nothing to it. Too easy. So ticky-tacky. I don’t like to work on anything electric. I feel creative on a manual. I love the keyboard action. It’s like playing the piano,” Mr. Dixon said.
“He wrote [his works] on manual typewriters, his fingers flying fast and hitting hard. Composition time is usually 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., … Dixon blamed automatic text checks in word processors for a decline in his students’ writing sophistication. ‘My students are becoming worse and worse in spelling and grammar every year. They’re just as creative, but less technical,’” the 1998 story said.
M. Dixon had no use for voice mail. “Students talk for eight minutes and say nothing and then garble the return phone number.”
When he retired in 2007, the Hopkins Eisenhower Library exhibited Mr. Dixon’s manuscript drafts and other artifacts from his 45 years as a writer.
A 2016 Kirkus review characterized his writing as “plainspoken and deceptively straightforward…the sort that sticks with you, because it cuts to the uncertainty of life.”
The review also said, “Dixon is a master of the minor moments, the dreams and the disappointments, that transfigure every one of us.”
He worked out daily at the Towson YMCA and jogged around Ruxton. He was a voracious reader and a vegetarian. He made his own soups and ate a salad every night.
His wife, Anne Frydman, a John Hopkins Russian studies scholar, translator and poet, died in 2009.
Survivors include two daughters, Sophia Dixon Frydman and Antonia Dixon Frydman, both of Brooklyn, N.Y.; two sisters, Marguerite Franco of New York City and Pat Dixon of Los Angeles; and a grandson.
Plans for a memorial service were incomplete.
Stephen Dixon, shown here in 2007, was the winner of multiple O. Henry Awards.