Christopher Priest and George R. Stewart

The last few weeks have brought some interesting comments and communications from several places.  A student in Germany who’s doing a dissertation on science fiction and GRS, an academician who wants to translate one of GRS’s books into an Asian language, a professor in Philadelphia who sent his students’ reviews of Earth Abides, and the Keeper of one of the Disney blogs (THE Disney Blog, in fact), asking to mention the posting about GRS and Disney.  But the most interesting of all popped in just a few days ago – Christopher Priest, sending a link to his article about the influence George R. Stewart had on his work.

I knew Priest’s name, but went to the web to find more detail.

Christopher Priest is a distinguished, award-winning author of complex, literary science fiction written with a light touch.  One of his novels, The Prestige, was made into a film  by Christopher Nolan.  (The ending of the film differs from that of the book,  and seems to weaken the effect Priest so skilfully created in the novel.) Priest’s other novels get excellent ratings from readers and critics.  Here‘s a list.

Priest’s comment to the EA/GRS weblog was short, a link to a review of another author’s book.   “Standing On Shoulders” refers to Newton’s comment that he was merely standing on the shoulders of the great minds who preceded him.  In his case, Priest writes that he stands on the shoulders of filmmaker Ingmar Bergman and George R. Stewart.

As a young man, Priest saw four of Bergman’s films in two weeks – “Sawdust and Tinsel”, “Summer With Monika”, “Wild Strawberries”, and “The Seventh Seal” — and, he writes, the films transformed him.  Having seen three of those four myself, and at about the same age, I second his statements about their power.  (Years later, when I taught Film as Art in high school in San Francisco, I showed “The Seventh Seal”.  The students were so affected that they did not stir when the film – and the period – ended.  It was several minutes before anyone got up to leave, in complete silence, with none of the typical high school bantering back and forth as they left.)

At about the same time, Priest discovered Earth Abides; and, thus, George R. Stewart.  I”ll not go into detail here – read his article if you will – but I’ll say that in our brief conversations since his first comment to the web logwe’ve had some interesting talk about GRS and his brilliance.

Priest and I also had an interesting back-and-forth about the definition of “science fiction.”  Stewart’s best novels are all, in the purest sense, science fiction – that is, fiction based on and about solid science. But few readers would see Storm or Fire as conventional science fiction. Only Earth Abides qualifies.  Does that mean we need to come up with a new term to describe the type of fiction which is set in the future, or a parallel universe, or on an alien world?  Priest has proposed “visionary realism,” an excellent term but not yet popular with fans of the literature.  Maybe one of the readers of this post will have an idea?

If you’re on this page as a Stewart reader, I  strongly encourage you to pick up one of Christopher Priest ‘s novels. (I’m ordering a couple on payday.)  If you’re here as a Christopher Priest reader, welcome – and I suggest you read Earth Abides.

I also suggest GRS’s  Sheep Rock.  That novel has some of rich complexity and layers of truth which are the hallmarks of Christopher Field’s work.

It was a pleasure to learn that Christopher Priest found this weblog interesting, and I’m honored that he’s joined this conversation.   The circle of George R. Stewart is growing; and in the best sense of the STEAM movement, connecting art and science.  A small interdisciplinary fellowship of GRS followers is building, and that’s a good thing.

Buying a Beer For Cosmonaut Sali

George R. Stewart, as he often does for his readers, took me places I had only dreamed of when I was a lad.  Stewart’s emphasis on Earth and its ecosystems encouraged me to become a ranger; and I did that for both one state park system and the National Park Service.  Stewart’s Whole Earth vision, describing Earth from space in Ordeal By Hunger, Storm, and Earth Abides, encouraged me to seek work with NASA.  Fortunately – thanks to Mary Valleau of NASA who had also worked for the NPS, and her boss Garth Hull – I was hired as a NASA “Aerospace Education Specialist” – a traveling field educator who helped teachers, students, and communities learn about STEAM – the social and natural science, technology, engineering, art, and math required for spaceflight.  I worked at AESP for nearly ten years, first as State Representative for Southern California and Arizona; then as SR for Nevada and Montana.  (I have a Secondary Credential, BA and MA, and worked as a teacher on secondary and college levels.)

There’s a book in that work.

It was wonderful to work with students and teachers.  And working with astronauts and scientists to help develop educational material to teach about their missions was a milestone of my teaching career.  There were many adventures – one thing we did was to go to Johnson Space Center to learn about upcoming missions, which included going through some small sample of astronaut training.  So I practiced docking the shuttle to MIR station; and road along on the high-fidelity shuttle lift-off, abort, and landing simulator.  That was an E ticket ride.  I also met many of the Astronauts, including Barbara Morgan who was the first Mission Specialist with a teaching background. Barbara opened the door to space for teachers; several others have since gone up, full astronauts; two were  spacewalkers.  (Later members of the program would be known as Educator Astronauts)

But one of the most memorable encounters happened in the summer of 1997 at a bar near Johnson Space Center.  The 40 or so of us in the program were at the Center to be educated about the upcoming International Space Station construction and missions.  There were many briefings by Astronauts and astronaut crews who were to be involved.  William “Shep” Shepard, who was to be Commander of Expedition I – the first manning of the ISS – spoke at JSC; then invited those of us who were interested to meet him at the legendary Outpost, an Astronaut and scientist watering hole for 30 years. (You’ve seen the place if you’ve seen Space Cowboys.)

Only a few of us went.  I sat next to a very quiet man, who I didn’t know, and who had come there with Shep Shepard. I asked him how he knew Shepard.  “I’m Sali,” he said, “The first Uzbekistani Cosmonaut.  I go up on the Shuttle in January.”  After I got over the surprise, I decided to try out some high school Russian on him.  But he insisted on English:  “Shep said if I want to learn English I should go to a bar.”

“Well, then – can I buy you a beer?”

“Yes.”

And so I did.

The rest of the evening we listened to Shepard, a former Navy Seal, explain why we will not get to Mars without the Russians.  “I used to fight these guys,” he said, “but when it comes to long-duration space exploration they’ve written the book.  We need to work with them.”  We went back to our hotel, they went back to the Astronaut quarters.  I’d like to think that evening, and that beer, put a small stone in the cathedral of mankind.

Later that summer, I had the chance to work with high school students from the former Soviet Union.  One of the girls was from Uzbekistan.  “Sure.  Sali.”  “You know Sali?” she asked, in a wondering voice.  “Bought him a beer.”  My stock went very high; hers went higher with her companions.

Sali went up the next January; then went again, to spend nearly six months on the International Space Station. Click on the photo for more information:

220px-SharipovSalizhan Shakirovich Sharipov Салижан Шакирович Шарипов

All that from doors George R. Stewart opened.

I sometimes think of Sali, and his space explorer colleagues, looking out at Earth from orbit, and seeing the state of Nevada from space looking just like GRS described in Ordeal By Hunger – long before anyone had seen or photographed it. In fact, I was later to send up that passage, and ask Astronaut Ed Lu to photograph it from space – a way of honoring my old mentor GRS.

The Outpost, in a way, also reflected GRS’s work.  In East of the Giants and Earth Abides, fires sweep through to provide closure to the tale.  And thus it was with the Outpost:  In 2010, after a landlord threatened the long-time owners, a mysterious fire burned it to the ground.  Like Pancho’s Happy Bottom Riding Club at Edwards Air Force Base, the mythical Judith Godoy’s ranch, and the post-apocalyptic University of California at Berkeley, the Outpost passed into legend.  But it had done its job well.  Certainly it did so, on the night that, inspired by George R. Stewart, I bought Cosmonaut Sali a beer.

outpost-tavern-fire

A Decade of Western History

After his foray to Gettysburg, Stewart returned to the country he loved, and knew best – Donner Pass, the Central Sierra Nevada, and the Bay Area.  During the 1960s he would write one short book and one long book about the Westward Movement:  Donner Pass And Those Who Crossed It; and The California Trail.

Donner Pass, like his short book about Thomes, was a special limited-run book.  Printed by Bill Lane of Sunset Magazine for the California Historical Society, it was a kind of a Stewart potpourri about Donner Pass.  There were chapters about the first wagon train to get over the Pass – the Stevens Party – and the Donner Party.  Those chapters were a re-write of what he’d already put into his children’s book about Moses Schallenberger and his ground-breaking book Ordeal By Hunger.  There were chapters about the building and operating history of the transcontinental railroad, a new subject for GRS.  He included a short history of highways over the Pass.  At the end, there were brief essays about place names, geology, and local plants and animals.  The place name essay was classic GRS.  The natural history essays were atypical for him – he usually wove that information into his longer works – but they were much in keeping with the time.  1960 brought the beginning of the Environmental Movement, with its focus on protecting other species; and  California travelers on Highways like US 40 were beginning to carry guidebooks that described the natural and human history of what they were passing through.

That’s really what Donner Pass seems to be – a guidebook for the auto traveler.  It’s short enough so that the “navigator” in a vehicle can read the sections aloud for the driver and other passengers; and in the best environmental sense it is designed to increase awareness of history and the natural world.  The hardbound edition might not be carried along in a car, but the paper-back edition, with its eye-catching use of color on the cover, surely would be.

You can buy either version at a very reasonable price, and they’re still good guides if you drive old U.S. 40 over Donner Pass.  The old highway, when it’s open in spring, summer, and fall, is a pleasant alternative to I 80.

cover

For decades, Stewart had been fascinated by the westward movement to California.  His research for Ordeal By Hunger took him to many of the sites connected with the Donner Party’s trip from Michigan to California.  In the west, at least, he drove or even hiked many rough, isolated miles of the Trail. (One of those explorations, in the late 30’s, first brought him to the place he would immortalize in Sheep Rock.)  The Anna Evenson Stewart Family Photo Collection includes a color photo of Stewart and a colleague, miles from nowhere on an old section of wagon road, with Stewart leaning on his luxurious Citroen sedan – which he probably bought since a driver could easily adjust the ground clearance on the car.

Stewart also did literary research and interviews.  The Bancroft has one of the finest – if not the finest – collection of diaries and journals from those who made the overland trip before the railroads.  Stewart made good use of that resource.  He even had the chance to interview some of the elderly who had made the trip – notably, the legendary Ina Coolbrith.  Coolbrith was the first Poet Laureate of California, guided Jack London through the books of the Oakland Library, and otherwise helped create a literature of California.  The story of her entry into California, in the arms of Wagon Train Scout James Beckwourth, is one of the enduring and endearing stories of the Westward Movement.  Stewart interviewed her just before her death.

When all was said and done, George Stewart put his decades of research into a book.  The California Trial:  An Epic With Many Heroes  In its several hundred well-illustrated pages, Stewart presents a detailed but interesting history of that great American story, from the first crossings by foot, through the last year with good statistics, 1857. The California Trial is still considered the best book on the emigrant movement into California by overland wagon train.

He worked on his book at the same time his old friend and fellow author Wallace Stegner was writing a book about the Mormon Trail for the same series.  In a wonderful letter, Stegner, who was teaching at Stanford, suggested that since the two men were writing books about the trails on two sides of the Platte River (The Mormon Trail was on one side, the California Trail on the other) they should get together and discuss the books (presumably over drinks and  barbequed burgers).

The book has been reprinted, and is still widely-available.  I’d recommend you look for a first edition – sometimes cheaper than the paperback reprint.  The cover illustrated is for the paperback.

cal trail cover

The First Micro-History: Pickett’s Charge

Stewart had long been interested in Pickett’s Charge, which historians consider the turning point in the American Civil War.   Stewart’s uncle John was a soldier for the union army, who told stories of the Peninsular Campaign to his  nephew. During his army service, Stewart was in a bivouac on the battlefield of Gettysburg, where he began researching the site of Pickett’s Charge.  Finally, in the late 1950’s he decided to write about the Charge.

Pickett’s Charge has long been debated by historians, both in terms of its strategy and its data.  If you go to Gettysburg, and follow the path of the charge, you’ll understand the questions about strategy:  The Virginians under Pickett lined up and walked up a hill with no cover into intense fire from Union soldiers who had the shelter of a stone fence at the hilltop – a classic example of Napoleonic tactics.  But those tactics were developed when ordnance – cannons and muskets – were much less accurate, so soldiers had some chance under such conditions.  By the time Pickett sent his men up the hill, 50 years later, highly accurate rifles and cannons meant there would be far more casualties if soldiers kept their straight line battle formation.

The battle was later seen as heroic by some, foolish by others.  Stewart didn’t want to get into that argument; but he did want to make sure that the statistics and research sources were accurate before he wrote his book.  He discovered that much of the data was off – the oft-stated number of troops in the fight, for example, was based on an off-hand remark by Confederate General Longstreet (who opposed the Charge).   And the times of events, reported in an era before Standard Time, varied wildly.

Once Stewart was certain that he had found the correct data, he began to write.  Again, he decided to invent a new form of literature – the micro-history, in which a small detailed section of historical time is the entire subject of a work.  (Stewart may in fact have co-invented the micro-history, since D-Day: The Sixth of June was written the same year.)  Entitled Pickett’s Charge, the micro history begins at 3:00 AM on July 3, 1863.  It ends, except for two short chapters which discuss later events and some of the controversies, 272 pages later, at sunset on the same day.  Stewart includes several appendices which discuss flags, artillery, battle orders, the battlefield and so on.

One of his comments about the battlefield is telling, spotlighting his role as an author of place, and his belief in the need to study places when writing about them:  “The battlefield itself is an important document…”

Another comment, in the beginning of the work, stresses his idea of microcosm.  Most of his works, although set in one place and concerned with one set of events there, were written with the idea that the place is a microcosm for all places, and its events are microcosms for all human or natural events.  In this case, Stewart writes “In a sense, even, the charge may stand for all of human life.  Some time in the years, if not daily, must not each of us hear the command to rise and go forward, and cross the field, and go up against the guns?”

When I visited Gettysburg, and walked the field of Pickett’s Charge, I must admit to tears in my eyes.  Even if I didn’t agree with their cause, I was moved by the thought of those men walking up that exposed hill into killing fire  – they were men of honor, a sense of duty and honor which we don’t understand, most of us, today.

The book, George R. Stewart’s Pickett’s Charge. A Microhistory of the Final Attack at Gettysburg, July 3, 1863, is one of three Stewart bookswhich still sell well.  (Earth Abides and Ordeal by Hunger are the others).  Civil War students, amateur and professional, consider the book a sine qua non for learning about the War, and especially Gettysburg.

It was the only book Stewart would write about an historical war.  But for the next decade he would leave fiction behind to write several more histories.

 

George R. Stewart, Radio Character

Although George R. Stewart did not make much use of electronic communication devices or media, he did, as reported earlier, find himself involved in the creation of Disney films.  At about the same time, in the late 1940s, Stewart – or an actor playing Stewart – made an appearance on a radio mystery program.

Television was on the horizon in 1946, but Americans still listened to their favorite programs on the radio.  Comedians like Fibber McGee and Molly or Jack Benny, western stars like Roy Rogers and Dale Evans or Bobby Benson of the B-Bar-B – and mysteries or detective programs.

Mystery programs, which used the mind of the listener to create suspense or terror, were particularly creative and effective, because we all fear the unknown that we imagine much more than the known we can see.   The rattlesnake in your mind is much more terrifying than the rattlesnake on the trail.  Even today, it can be hard to listen to one of the more dramatic mysteries, like The Shadow, especially if you’re alone and it’s a dark and stormy night.

Mystery programs usually had a key character like Lamont Cranston – the Shadow.  The main character was often an urbane, slightly eccentric city type – an antiques dealer or bon vivant or independently wealthy person,  who had a nose for solving mysteries.  Think of Poirot or Inspector Morse or the modern Sherlock, Benedict Cumberbatch.

Gregory Hood was such a detective  He lived in a penthouse in San Francisco, made his money in the collectible art import and export business, and even had a Chinese house servant – the ultimate mark of cool for the radio detective.  One of Hood’s creators was local writer Anthony Boucher.  Boucher was the  pen name of William Anthony Parker White, who lived in Berkeley and knew George R. Stewart.  To make the show especially “real,” Boucher used Richard Gump, of Gump’s Department Store, which specialized in the sale of art, as a consultant.

By the time of the radio show, August of 1946, Stewart had become a well-known author.  Names on the Land had just been released; impressed with the book, Boucher decided to build an episode of the radio show around it.

Several episodes of The Casebook of Gregory Hood are available; unfortunately, “The Ghost Town Mortuary,” the episode with George R. Stewart, has not yet been found.  Fortunately, Stewart kept a copy of the script, and donated that to the Bancroft.  Here’s a portion:

…GREGORY: This place is handy for the one person who I think can help us on this case.
SANDY: And who is that person?
GREGORY: Professor George Stewart, of the University English Department.
MARY: Oh yes! He wrote “Storm”—a wonderful book.
GREGORY: True, but what is more to our immediate point is the fact that Random House recently published his new book: “Names on the Land.” It’s a classic and definitive study of American place-naming. His virtues are many. (with a chuckle) Including a fine sense of entering on cue. Here he is. (Raising his voice) Hello, George.
GEORGE R. STEWART: (clearance arranged) (straight and charming ) How are you, Gregory?
GREGORY: Fine. …

Stewart is able to identify the location where a kidnap victim is being held by one word on a note – the word is the name of a ghost town.  The town is real, and the name is discussed in Stewart’s place-naming book; but Boucher moves the town west for dramatic purposes.

You can learn more about the series here.  

You can listen to an episode here.

This was not Stewart’s only exposure on radio.  A few years after this episode, the classic radio drama series Escape broadcast a version of Earth Abides.  In order to capture its epic sweep, Escape broadcast the story in two half hour segments.  And in the days before high quality recording, it was broadcast in an East Coast and a West Coast version.  The star was the well-known character actor John Dehner.

Download here.  Listen here.

Note the use of the term “ecology” at the beginning of the broadcast.  This is one of the first uses of the term, or concept, in mass media.

A Significant Error Discovered

For those who’ve bought The Life and Truth of George R. Stewart, I am sorry to say that I found a significant error in the text.  Here’s the information, which you might want to note in your copy:

Page 120, 8th line up from the bottom:

“…beautiful limited edition books at his Archive Press and Publications…”

Should be “ …beautiful limited edition books at his Hermes Press…”

Page 120, 5th and 6th line up from the bottom: “… an Archive Press edition. …”

Should be “… a Hermes Press edition…”

 

In the rush to get the index and proofreading done in the two weeks allowed by the publisher, I confused Alan Ligda’s press with that of the Bentleys.

 

 

A Small Collectible Book by George R. Stewart

Take Your Bible in One Hand… was a special, limited edition book published by the Colt Press in 1939.  Stewart was interested in the life of William Thomes, who wrote about Mexican California (sometimes factually, sometimes with imagination), but it’s not clear why this short but oversized finely printed book was published by Colt.  Reading about Colt Press in the online archive of the Bancroft Library’s Regional Oral History Office’s oral history of Jane Grabhorn, conducted by Ruth Teiser, however, it’s easy to see that Stewart knew several of the people who were involved with the Press.  William Wheat, James D. Hart, Joseph Bransten, and Joseph Henry Jackson were all friends of Stewart’s and they may have suggested the printing of the book.

Only 750 copies were published.  They’re still available, at reasonable prices, if you’re interested in collecting.  Jane Grabhorn was also connected with the better-known Grabhorn Press; some of the Grabhorn  books go for substantially more than this one (and some for less).  So if you’re a true Stewart fan, or a fan of fine small presses and their books, this is a good way to begin a collection.

It’s also an interesting book about Mexican California – so interesting that you can also buy a new reprint of the book from Amazon or Barnes & Noble!

Small presses, like the Colt Press, played another role in the work of George R. Stewart, as you may remember from an earlier post.  When the big publishers dropped Earth Abides, Hermes Publications,  Alan Ligda’s small fine press, bought the rights and kept the book in print.  When the big publishers saw how well it sold, they bought the rights back.  It’s still in print; thanks to Alan Ligda  the book has never been out of print.