News about George R. Stewart – and a new place to buy the GRS biography

“Changed Conditions Ahead”

As summer draws to a close, I’m in transition from a volunteer campground host position to wherever the road leads next. As things transition, George R. Stewart information is on the rise. Here’s some of the latest news:

Dr. Paul F. Starrs, Distinguished Professor of Geography at UNR, has submitted a review/essay about the biography to the national journal of geography reviews. Stewart has a following among geographers, so the article should be well-received. I had the chance to review it, and found it to be quite well-done.

Bill Cassady, who lives in the cabin that GRS used as a combination vacation retreat and “Scholar’s Roost,” has sent an email of interest to GRS scholars. His email included a copy of correspondence with Aldo Leopold’s granddaughter Sarah – Starker Leopold’s daughter – who is a personal friend of the Cassadys. Starker Leopold is highlighted in the GRS bio; he helped GRS in the research for SHEEP ROCK and other books. The information expands on the Leopold – Stewart friendships.

A local bookstore, Bigfoot Books, has become a place for weekly intellectual discussion and the discovery of good books, thanks to its owner, Steven. If you’re ever in the area, I highly recommend it.

Finally, a small independent bookstore, Zeisings, is actually selling the GRS books in a small but respectable quantity. If you want to buy, I’d urge you to consider buying through them. They offer free shipping. The price is list – a little higher than Amazon but not much – and for that small change I’d strongly recommend them.

Charter Day – George R. Stewart’s follow-up to the Year of the Oath

In one of the most egregious events of the time, the University actually granted an honorary degree to one of those who tried to destroy academic freedom in the University. Although Stewart was one of the most distinguished scholars at the University, and one of the best-known because of his histories and novels, he decided to boycott the Charter Day ceremonies as a protest against the granting of the degree to Sidney Ehrman. He also wrote a letter, sent to the University community, explaining his action.

Here is part of the letter.

I do not wish to walk in the same procession with the majority of those Regents,
whose beliefs and actions I abhor, and especially by walking behind them to
accept symbolically the position of inferiority….
I earned my doctorate by hard work and honest scholarship…. I do not believe
that the professors that once granted me that degree…. would wish me to wear
my academic regalia under such circumstances.

Those who think the purpose of a university is to field a football team would not understand his actions. But any good educator or scholar would.

George R. Stewart, THE YEAR OF THE OATH

After several months, the Earth Abides Project weblog is back. The long “vacation” was necessary as this writer wandered for a time, then settled in to a summer of volunteering as a Camp Host in an isolated Forest Service Campground. But the volunteer summer is ending, so there’s time to write more about George R. Stewart.

The last posts were about Stewart’s magnum opus, EARTH ABIDES. This time, we’ll look at the unplanned book which followed EA soon afterward. It’s a classic study of the battle for academic and personal freedom, entitled THE YEAR OF THE OATH.

EARTH ABIDES ends with a fire sweeping through the post-apocalyptic UC Berkeley campus. It was an unexpected but proper introduction to the events that would lead to Stewart’s oath book. A firestorm of an attack on academic freedom, led by three UC Regents – Bank of America’s Lawrence Giannini, the Hearst papers’ John Francis Neylan, and the Bechtel’s lawyer Sidney Ehrman – hit the campus just as EA was being published. In violation of University Regulation 5, the three demanded that all faculty members sign an anti-communist oath. The faculty successfully fought that requirement, but then the anti-communist oath was added to the employment contract. If faculty did not sign, they would be fired.

Several refused to sign, and were fired – most notably, the brilliant Dr. Edward C. Tolman – whose accomplishments were of great importance to science and education. But Stewart decided to join others in battling the oath. “Sign, stay, and fight!” was their motto. Each of those in opposition brought their particular strengths to the battle. Stewart, the distinguished author, wrote a book.

The book, in Stewart’s elegant prose, told the story of the oath and presented the reasons why it was illegal and therefore opposed by the faculty. Stewart had a widespread popularity with the reading public, so the book became a bestseller. It carried the day – Giannini resigned from the Regents threatening to take up vigilante action against freedom.

The oath was eventually ruled unconstitutional by the California State Supreme Court. Tolman and the others who had been fired were reinstated with back pay. As an act of apology, UC named a building for Tolman.

Stewart paid a price for his part in the battle. His publisher refused to publish OATH. Fortunately, a courageous editor at Doubleday, Howard Cady, convinced his company to publish the book….and, considering the massive sales of the book, that was a good investment by Doubleday.

After OATH, Stewart was wooed by Houghton Mifflin, and left Random House for good.

The book is considered a classic of civil liberties. It’s been reprinted several times, and is often used to encourage others who are fighting for freedom. Stewart had done his job well.

Of course, the attempts to politicize education, and thus weaken, continue unabated. Today there’s everything from “affirmative action” to “diversity” to “sexual harassment” to “terrorism” …. even the “footballization of the American University” … which are too often used to attack the freedom of a particular professor. Stewart would return to this theme in the Era of Movements, in a novel never published.

When THE YEAR OF THE OATH ended, Stewart could again turn to his theme of land and ecology. He began writing a unprecedented novel which readers still debate: Was SHEEP ROCK, Stewart’s attempt to “tell all the things that go to make up a place” a success? Or a brilliant failure?

EARTH ABIDES: the influence of a work

George R. Stewart’s great novel hit the ground running.  Since he already had a huge readership, the novel sold well.  It was quickly honored by others, winning the first International Fantasy Award in 1951.  That award was not a “popular” award, but one granted by masters of fantasy, science fiction, and futurist writing, to writers in those genres.  It was a special honor for Stewart from his peers.

Stewart’s novel is a work of true speculative science fiction.  It is not in any way the type of space opera popular in those days, but a work of fiction based on solid science and informed speculation.  Yet the book has always been considered “science fiction” and is usually shelved in the science fiction sections of bookstores.  That may seem to demean the high literary quality of Earth Abides, but it is one reason the book has never been out of print.  Science fiction readers are, in the literal sense, “fans” – that is “fanatics” – for their type of literature.  They deserve great credit for not only buying and reading the book, but for recommending it to others.

As Earth Abides captured the science fiction community, it also caught the attention of others, inspiring their comments and their own works. It could be said that Stewart’s novel was one of the most influential books of its time.

Consider the praise:

Carl Sandburg, the famous American poet, once wrote that he considered Earth Abides the best novel of its decade.

Robert Frost, another famous American poet, wrote to Stewart, Saying Stewart had “found a new type of thing to write.”

In “George R. Stewart and the American Land” Pulitzer Prize winner Wallace Stegner compared Earth Abides to Robinson Crusoe.

Stephen King called the book “Stewart’s fine novel.”

James Sallis, in the essay quoted in the previous post, compared Earth Abides to the paintings of Matisse, the music of Beethoven, and Homer’s Ulysses.

And consider the influences:

Philip Aaberg, Grammy-nominated composer and musician, considers the book one of the guiding lights that helped him through the angst of the Vietnam War era.  In part to say “thanks,” Aaberg composed a beautiful piano piece, Earth Abides.    Aaberg’s music was used in a National Geographic special, so millions have heard it – another large group of humans who have been enriched by Stewart’s novel, even if they don’t realize it.  (You can buy Aaberg’s Earth Abides here, if you’d like.)

Another musician, Jimi Hendrix, considered Earth Abides his favorite book.  Like Philip Aaberg, Hendrix wanted to honor its influence, so he apparently wrote at least one piece of music – Third Stone From the Sun – partly inspired by Stewart’s novel:

Stephen King based The Stand on Earth Abides.  In one of his essays, King acknowledges the influence of Stewart’s book on his own work.

When family reverses forced a move from the urban energy of the Los Angeles area to the near-wilderness of the high San Bernardino Mountains, future Scientist/Writer James D. Burke,like Philip Aaberg, found comfort and direction in Stewart’s work.  Dr. Burke would be the NASA-JPL Project Manager on the appropriately-named Ranger Mission, first successful US robotic mission to the moon.

Kim Stanley Robinson includes a reference to Earth Abides in The Wild Shore, the first novel of his fine Three Californias/Orange County Trilogy.   The Trilogy, an intellectual tour de force,  uses more or less the same settings, the same characters, and the same events in three alternative futures for Orange County, California.  (Available at Amazon, if you’d like a copy.)

Others may not have been so directly influenced by Earth Abides, but acknowledge it. Greg Bear and Poul Anderson, for example, told me of the respect they hold for the novel.

Finally: as far as this weblog is concerned, the most important influence of Earth Abides has been on this author.  After The Librarian placed the book in my hand, and high school friend Tom Vale and his family taught me the deeper meaning of the book, I found myself on a pilgrimage to seek the greatest and deepest truth of Earth Abides and Stewart’s other works.  (Tom and Geraldine Vale later wrote the first major work based on a George R. Stewart book, US 40 Today.)  That sauntering pilgrimage would lead to a life not unlike Stewart’s, encounters with others who felt as I did about Stewart and his work, and – eventually – to a meeting and friendship with Stewart and his family.

When the saunter led to Stewart, it also pointed toward the writing of a book about his life, and the deepest truth of his work – although I did not realize it at the time.  Since then (and also I suppose before), I have lived like Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow :

If you could do it, I suppose, it would be a good idea to live your life in a straight line—starting, say, in the Dark Wood of Error, and proceeding by logical steps through Hell and Purgatory and into Heaven.  Or you could take the King’s Highway past appropriately named dangers, toils, and snares, and finally cross the River of Death and enter the Celestial City.  But that is not the way I have done it, so far.  I am a pilgrim, but my pilgrimage has been wandering and unmarked.  Often what has looked like a straight line to me has been a circle or a doubling back.  I have been in the Dark Wood of Error any number of times.  I have known something of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, but not always in that order.  The names of many snares and dangers have been made known to me, but I have seen them only in looking back.  Often I have not known where I was going until I was already there.  I have had my share of desires and goals, but my life has come to me or I have gone to it mainly by way of mistakes and surprises.  Often I have received better than I have deserved.  Often my fairest hopes have rested on bad mistakes.  I am an ignorant pilgrim, crossing a dark valley.  And yet for a long time, looking back, I have been unable to shake off the feeling that I have been led—make of that what you will.

                                                                   Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow

Earth Abides led me to the writing of a book about George R. Stewart, a literary agent who has become the book’s great champion, and publication by a fine independent publisher.  McFarland Publishing is, like the publishing houses of the Earth Abides era,  run by editors and lovers of good books.

It’s also led to some educational and research programs modeled on Stewart’s pioneering Whole Earth vision, programs which include  the space agencies, land management agencies, universities, and Independent Scholars.   If you should happen to visit Craters of the Moon National Monument in the near future, for example, ask to see the “Lunar Ranger” kit.  Or view this fine film, produced by the park under the guidance of Chief of Interpretation Ted Stout and his exceptional National Park Service staff (film link is at the bottom of the page.)Lunar_Ranger_small

Thanks to Earth Abides, and George R. Stewart, it has been a productive life.  The novel has guided, through thick and thin, to some educational and literary works which, I believe, will help make this world a better place.

Where will Stewart’s great novel lead the next reader?

“Each time I read it, I’m profoundly affected…” EARTH ABIDES

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James Sallis on EARTH ABIDES:

“…Each time I read it, I’m profoundly affected, affected in a way only the greatest art—Ulysses, Matisse or Beethoven symphonies, say—affects me….

“… Art’s mission is to make our lives large again, to dredge us out of this terrible dailyness. I begin each reading of Earth Abides knowing that, once the flight’s done, I’ll be meeting a new man there at the end of the concourse. The guy who got on the flight’s okay. I like the one who gets off a lot better.”         (Quoted with permission.)

James Sallis is a fine contemporary writer – poet, detective novelist, and the author of the recently filmed Drive.  Of all the accolades given to Stewart’s great novel – and there have been many – Sallis’s seems to me the best.  He captures the power, the magnificence, and the beauty.  He also honors the transcendent, life-changing nature of the novel.  For most, to read Earth Abides is to undergo an epiphany.    (Read Sallis’s essay here.)

Sallis is not the only one who reads and re-reads the book.  The Pilgrim, Steve Williams, who went to school in Liverpool with Lennon and McCartney, has read it so many times he’s lost count – but it’s in the hundreds.  A fellow blogger who goes by the name of teepee12 tells me she reads it every couple of years. I’ve read it many times since the summer in 1956, when it was placed in my hand by The Librarian.

She was one of the best teachers encountered during my life journey, and I don’t even know her name.  To this day, and in my biography of Stewart, that perceptive woman is only known as The Librarian – but when she handed me that book she handed me my life.

I don’t want to give the plot of Stewart’s novel away, but I’ll share enough to intrigue you – if you like adventurous, ecological, philosophical,  almost-religious works of literature. As in Storm and Fire, the ecosystem is the protagonist.  But in this case, it’s not an isolated ecological event; it’s the entire ecosystem, thanks to a small virus. The lives of the few human characters are defined by how they respond to the effects of the virus.  Ish, the male protagonist, is an intellectual who tries to find meaning in the events of the book. For him it’s a quest for a faith. His wife, Em, responds by bringing new life into the post-human world. For her, it’s a duty to carry the flame of human life and culture onward, no matter what the conditions.

The greatest adventure happens in the early part of the novel, before Ish meets Em. Returning from an ecological research project in the Sierra he finds that he has returned to a post-human world. He must deal with what has happened – even questioning whether it is worth continuing to live.   But he finds his answer in the sciences of geography and ecology.  It is a remarkable opportunity for a scientist – he can study the effect of the removal of most humans from the ecosystem. (Note that this book was written a decade before the Environmental Movement and nearly two decades before the first Earth Day.)

He decides to travel the USA to see how others have fared.  (Stewart was a great wanderer of trail and road, and took the journeys he describes in the book.)  Ish begins by heading south from Berkeley, California, on US 99.  He heads east over Tehachapi Pass on California 58; then follows Route 66 until a tree blocks his way.  Eventually he reaches Manhattan; then returns on a more northerly route on US 40 until a forest fire near Emigrant Gap forces him to turn off on California 20.   Along the way, he finds a few survivors who seem to be almost stereotypes of diverse American subcultures.  Some, Ish believes, will prosper.  Others, like the couple in Manhattan who drink martinis in an apartment with no fireplace, probably won’t survive the first winter. Here, and later in the book’s sections on the evolving culture of The Tribe, Stewart is writing a wonderfully speculative anthropological work.

After the journey Ish meets Em.  As they grow closer, and begin a family, his quest changes to a search for faith – one that will help him, and his descendents, live in the changed world?  As the work evolves, he finds himself turning to the Old Testament, since it was the work of a small tribe like Ish and Em’s Tribe that had to survive and find meaning in an often hostile world.  (Stewart taught himself Hebrew so he could translate some of the Old Testament – notably Ecclesiastes – into English without losing the rhythm of the original.)

But the book is not a dreary religious tract by any means.  Much of the time, Ish and Em are building a small community in the Berkeley Hills.   Others join them and the “Tribe” begins to grow.  The “Americans” – those who lived before the event which begins the story – work hard to keep some of their culture alive.  But the youngsters, who will truly become a tribe, must live within the new world.  To them, a good method of hunting with bow and arrow is much more important than learning to read or going to church.

The book is an anthropological work in many ways.  The old culture tries to protect its great store of knowledge.  The younger members of the Tribe work to survive, and have little time for sitting and reading or listening to prayers.  They practice shooting their bows and arrows. Yet The Tribe will develop its own faith, as Ish is seeking his.  Both faiths, ironically, revolve around a simple American object.

During his research in the American River Canyon, Ish finds an old single-jack miner’s hammer.  It gives him a sense of security, so he carries it with him throughout the novel.  By the end of the book, the Hammer of Ish has become the most revered object the tribe possesses.  They insist that Ish must pass it on when he dies.  The person who receives the Hammer will become almost god-like – as Ish does, in the latter pages of the novel.

The Hammer of Ish is one of the great symbols in literature.  And it’s a quintessentially American symbol, designed for common tasks by the Common Man  – but it can also be used to find and mine gold.   I believe the Hammer is one of the reasons for the book’s strong effect on readers.  Like Ish, readers feel very comfortable with the Hammer; but readers feel its mythological power growing throughout the tale as it becomes a spiritual object.

Like the book, the Hammer haunts readers.  A casual mention of the Hammer in conversation often starts a discussion of the novel; and that happens more often than you might think.  One wealthy reader, the late Frank Sloss, even had a sculptor create a silver version, which sat at the center of Sloss’s vast Stewart collection.   Stewart Scholar and Artist Steve Williams was inspired to do a series of fine paintings of The Hammer:

Ish's Hammer(1)The Hammer of Ish.  (Painting Courtesy Steve Williams, Artist and Scholar.)

The book was based on solid research.  The Stewart Papers in the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley hold many letters from colleagues and companies responding to Stewart’s questions about a post-human world.  For example – how sheep and cattle would fare, how long auto batteries would last, and when rust would collapse the Bay Bridge. One of the letters is from Carl Sauer, the greatest geographer of his age and one of the greatest minds of any age, discussing the sheep/cattle question.  It, like all the letters, reveals how intrigued Stewart’s correspondents were with his questions.

The book was published in the fall of 1949.  After a few years of good sales, Random House decided to stop publication and return the rights to Stewart.  Almost immediately, one of the book’s strongest fans, Alan Ligda, contacted Stewart and asked to publish Earth Abides at his  Archive Press and Publications.  Stewart granted permission and the book quickly went into print.   Ligda’s publication sold out quickly.  Random House asked for the return of the rights, and the book returned to print with that major trade publishing house.

Thanks to Alan Ligda the novel has never been out of print.  Readers and scholars owe him a great debt.  Although he died poor and relatively young, Ligda played a major role in the story of Earth Abides.

Does Ish find his faith?  Does the Tribe survive?  Does Earth abide?  What adventures, literary and intellectual, are found along the way?  To find out, read the book.

Earth Abides has had an extraordinary literary and intellectual life.  Never out of print in the 65 years since publication, now in an audio version as well as a print version, and in 20 languages,  the book and its ideas have swept across the Earth.

The next post will discuss how the book has affected some of the finest literary minds, and how the book has influenced art, science, and thought.

The Hammer of Ish

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The Hammer of Ish

Stewart Scholar Steve William’s fine painting of Stewart’s most important literary symbol. In an interesting side note, Steve went to the Liverpool Art Institute with Lennon and McCartney.

Click on the copyrighted image to go to Steve’s site.

George R. Stewart, 1948: Taking Stock

By 1949, George R. Stewart was successful beyond any possible imaginings he might have had in the early 1930s.  In those days, early in his writing and professorial career, he seemed stuck in a low-level academic position, held there by a particularly unpleasant English Department Head who had taken a dislike to him.  His only books were the sort of composition books expected of English professors – one on the Technique of English Verse, another on English composition.  His marriage was a great success – Ted (Theodosia) Stewart supported him as his best friend, and encouraged him to keep at the writing.  Although he would not have won any awards as parent of the year, his children were doing acceptably.

The situation with the English Department Head turned out to be a blessing in disguise.  Since he was apparently not going anywhere in the Department, he turned to writing instead – the writing of books that appealed to both scholars and the general literate audience – books that would sell, and sell well.  Since he enjoyed wilderness and history and the strange beauty of American names, he decided to write about those things.  Since many of his favorite colleagues were in the geography, history, or science departments, he decided to write about those areas of knowledge.

His first best-selling book, Ordeal By Hunger, introduced the Whole Earth Perspective – the understanding of Earth as one place, and as a system of ecological systems.  His first novel, East of the Giants, was about California history and told from the viewpoint of an independent California woman.    Storm was the first ecological (or geographic) novel.  Names on the Land – a remarkable and never-equaled book – was the first in the history of the Earth to tell the tale of national place-naming.   And Fire carried the ecological, geographic, cross-discipline methods used in Storm to new heights.

His influence was beginning to be felt, and honored.  He became a character in a radio play.  Disney invited him to the studio to help develop new types of films (and later made Storm and Fire into Disney movies.)  Stewart’s influence on his friend Wallace Stegner encouraged Stegner to begin writing the environmental/history works that would define much of Stegner’s later creative life.  Stewart won awards – both the silver and gold medals of the California Commonwealth Club.

During his service in World War II, writing up the Submarine Sailing Directions for the Navy, he had an encounter which showed him the influence of his work.  During a flight to Hawaii, he met Vic Moitoret, a young Navy meteorologist who enthusiastically shook Stewart’s hand and then told him a war story.  Moitoret kept a small diary of the books he’d read which he felt most influenced his life and career.  One of those was Storm.   Moritoret survived two aircraft carrier sinkings, once in shark-infested waters.  But he never lost that diary, which he showed  Stewart.  It was, in a way, a talisman or charm.  Later, Moitoret, who had gone to UC Berkeley and then on to the Naval Academy, would become the Chief Hydrographer of the US Navy.

Moitoret’s story was a great honoring of Stewart’s work.  Stewart received a high professional honor as well – he was invited to join the faculty of Columbia University – a high honor indeed.

Stewart did not go to Columbia.  His nemesis was no longer the Department Head, and the University admired him.  Besides, he loved the wild nature of the West.  And at any rate, he didn’t have the time for a major career move.

He had begun work on a third ecological novel.  This one would expand the ideas and the literary devices developed in Fire and Storm. This time, the protagonist would not be an event of the ecosystem, nor human character revealed by how someone reacted to a fire or a storm.  This time, the protagonist would be the ecosystem itself.  And the characters of its primary human characters would be revealed over the span of lifetimes.

By 1948, Stewart had achieved great things.  Now, he would achieve a pinnacle of human thought and literature of the late third millennium.