Philip Van Doren Stern was born in Wyalusing, Pennsylvania into a family of humble means. His Pennsylvania-born father, Isadore Ullman, was a traveling merchant of Bavarian Jewish descent, who came to Wyalusing from West Virginia with his New Jersey-born wife, the former Anne Van Doren. Stern grew up in Jersey City, New Jersey and attended Lincoln High School in Jersey City before graduating from Rutgers University.
After graduating from Rutgers in 1924, Stern worked in advertising before switching to a career as a designer and editor in publishing.
He was a historian and author of some 40 works, and was best known for his books on the Civil War that a New York Times obituary called “authoritative” and “widely respected by scholars”. As an editor, he worked at Pocket Books, Simon & Schuster, and Alfred A. Knopf. He compiled and annotated short story collections by and the writings and letters of Abraham Lincoln, Edgar Allan Poe, and Henry David Thoreau.
During World War II, he was a member of the planning board of the United States Office of War Information. He was the general manager of the Armed Services Editions, which resized popular books to fit in the pockets of military uniforms. He compiled and edited many collections and anthologies of short stories, pictorial books, annotations, and books on historical subjects.
Stern edited, compiled, and introduced The Viking Portable Poe in 1945, a compact collection of letters, short stories, poems, and essays by Edgar Allan Poe. Stern wrote the biographical introduction to the collection, selected the contents included, and wrote introductory essays on the varying genres. The collection became a standard single-volume anthology of Poe’s works for almost fifty years.
Stern died on July 31, 1984 at the age of 83.