The Value of a Small-Town Bookstore

For years, I kept my house in Deer Lodge, Montana, hoping to be able to move back some day.  Whenever the roads permitted, I spent time there, catching up with friends, fixing up the house, and seeing the changes that were taking place.

One of the best changes was the opening of a small, independent bookstore, Browsing Bison Books.  There are two owners; the one I’ve worked with is Cris.

When I told Cris that I was working on the George R. Stewart biography, she invited me to join the next meeting of the BBB Writers’ Group.  I agreed; and it was well worth the time.  In that small town in southwestern Montana, there was a vigorous small group of writers, some published, all interested in what other writers were doing.  I learned about their work, and experience writing.  One was a postman; others were students or local residents of various types.  They were interested in GRS,and his classic work Earth Abides  I was interested in what they were publishing.

BBB also has active book clubs, which gives local readers a place to meet and share their literary adventures with each other.

The juggernauts on the internet, like Amazon, seem to be destroying independent bookstores.  Yet, ironically, it is the ability of bookstores like BBB to sell through internet companies like ABE  that is helping keep them alive, even prospering.  As BBB tells readers on its Indie web page, they’ve sold books on six continents – something not possible before the internet gave the small bookstores that pathway to a global market.  It opens up a new world for independent bookstores, one were they can be intimate and neighborly parts of their communities, but also part of the larger community of readers on the Earth.

And it is through such sharing of literate knowledge across borders that enlightenments are born. It’s a practical, business-like version of the slogan “Think locally, act globally.”

George R. Stewart would be happy with this new model for selling books.  He’d also be pleased to learn that Browsing Bison Books, for a time at least, had new copies of Earth Abides for sale in the bookstore, in Deer Lodge, Montana.

Here’s a photo of the bookstore’s front window, from their facebook page.  (The building reflected in the window is the historic Deer Lodge post office, across Main Street.)

browsing bison books

George R. Stewart joins the Twenty-Mile Museum

In a recent post, I described the Twenty-Mile Museum – the interpretive signs that line the historic route of U.S. 40 over Donner Summit – placed by the Donner Summit Historical Society.  Next spring, a sign for George R. Stewart will join the Twenty-Mile Museum.

Looking over the various pages on the Historical Society’s website, a few weeks ago,  I found a link to their Newsletters.  Since there was none with an article about GRS, I contacted the Editor, Bill Oudegeest,to volunteer to write one.

After receiving the first draft, Bill suggested the Society would be interested in placing a GRS interpretive sign along the old highway, if financial sponsorship and help with the sign’s research and writing were available.  I sent in some photos and text, posted a message to the GRS group, and soon the design was underway, the cost fully sponsored.  Thanks to Brian and Beth, Steve and Carol, Bob and Sandra, Paul F., Denise and Barney, John and Angela, Willie, Joyce, and Alan, the sign will be installed next spring. Caltrans has approved the sign’s location; Bill has done a fine layout.   The sign will be installed very near the Historic U.S. 40 access point for the Pacific Crest Trail – which is also the closest access to George R. Stewart Peak.  This means that hundreds of hikers on the PCT, day hikers in the Donner Summit area, drivers sauntering over Historic U.S. 40 (the subject of a legendary book by GRS), or anyone who visits the Society’s small museum in Soda Springs will learn about George R. Stewart and his remarkable books.  Hopefully, many of those people will take the short side-trail and scramble to the top of George R. Stewart Peak (named in honor of GRS by the Board of Geographic Names).  The round trip from Historic U.S. 40 is only about 3 miles.

Those interested in George R. Stewart and the Donner Summit area owe thanks to all those involved in this successful project.  The Donner Summit Historical Society is always looking for members; one way to show your thanks is to join!

Below is the current draft of the GRS Interpretive Sign.  It will be placed next spring, after the old road reopens.  Some of us are already dreaming about a dedication celebration.  Stay tuned.

 

GRS sign latest

 

THE DEPARTMENT OF ENGLISH OF THE UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA ON THE BERKELEY CAMPUS -or, George R. Stewart gets the last word

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, George R. Stewart found himself at the mercy of a new Head of the English Department.  Department Head Montague and Stewart did not get along; and Montague refused to give Stewart a promotion he’d earned.  In hindsight, it was a gift – Stewart turned to writing outside the traditional field of English because he needed the extra income.  (It took an underground effort by several of Stewart’s colleagues to get him his promotion; GRS did not know of their efforts until Oral Historian Suzanne Riess told him about it decades later.)

Stewart  went on to become the star of the Department, writing bestseller after bestseller, inventing new kinds of literature, teaching well, and helping with Department and Library work.  He had an independent, somewhat crotchety view of Department and University affairs; so he was surprised when the Department of English asked him to write its history,for the University’s Centennial in 1968.

The Department of English of the University of California on the Berkeley Campus is a remarkable consideration of what makes an English Department good, or not good, based in large part on a discussion of the personalities of the Berkeley Department.   It is thus part history, part biography, part educational philosophy, part poetry.  As expected, the history is beautifully written, in Stewart’s usual fine style – which itself, with its restrained tone, reflects the methods of earlier days in the Department.

He writes at some length about the curriculum which an English Department should follow.  This may have been partly inspired by ongoing attempts by the University’s upper management to insist that the job of the English Department was to teach composition, not literature.  Stewart insists that the teaching of literature is key, and core to the mission.  The deep meanings of words, for him, carry the history of the values and the experiences of Mankind; literature, also, preserves the values of its time.  So to teach literature is to teach the history of human values over the millennia.  Thus, literature is as important as composition in an English Department.

The ideal English professor, Stewart once wrote, is a political liberal and an educational conservative.  The professor must have a ‘generous and tolerant’ – that is, “liberal” –  attitude toward books, and work  to conserve the literature of the past as a repository of the values of history.  He viewed the curriculum as a hearth – lovely image – around which faculty members gather.

One wonders how he’d feel about the current Berkeley English curriculum, which seems to downplay the work of 20th century American authors, like himself – there is no course at Berkeley which considers his work or that of his Berkeley colleagues.  But as he points out in his book, the Department goes through periods of greatness and mediocrity, times when composition for employment takes precedence and times when the idea of literature as the conservator of values comes to the forefront.  And as his own life shows the Department sometimes enters a Golden Age when someone like Stewart breaks out of the mold, changes human thought, invents new types of books, and otherwise shows the kind of work a Department of English OUGHT to be doing.

Golden Ages are rare, and hard to sustain, and Stewart realized that.  So he finished the work by calling The Department of English a testament to The Department in its first century. He wrote, “Few people, I think, will read this small book, and even who those will be, I  scarcely know.”

Yet this is a book which every member of an English Department and every English major should read, for its careful consideration of the purposes of an English Department, as illustrated by the history and personalities of the first century of the Department of English of the University of California on the Berkeley Campus.

Writing the history, Stewart  got the last word about the Head of the Department who had kept him from his deserved promotion (and thus propelled him into his writing career).  He described  the years under Montague as the “11 bad years.”   And his description of those years presented a place of fear and suspicion, under the “leadership” of someone almost dictatorial in how he ran the Department.  It’s Stewart’s take on things, of course; but since it was in a Department-approved publication it’s safe to assume that it has truth to it.

The book was elegantly printed by Lawton and Alfred Kennedy, fine printers in San Francisco.  Relatively few copies were printed, so it’s hard to find now.  But for those interested in Berkeley, its Department of English, or the study of English, it’s worth seeking.  For anyone else, it’s a good read, and provocative.

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Follow up on Migrant Mother

To refresh your memory:  The famous portrait, Migrant Mother, has a George R. Stewart connection.  Stewart knew Dorothea Lange, the photographer, and her husband Dr. Paul Taylor.  Stewart may have written part of STORM in the Taylor-Lange arts and crafts cottage in Berkeley.

(See earlier post for the famous photo and more detail.)

Thanks to a local citizen, Tobie Charles, I discovered that the photo was taken not far from where this is being written – in the small rural town of Nipomo.  Now, with help from a local museum fellow writer Brian Byrne found the actual location of the Nipomo pea pickers camp where the photo was taken.

Here’s a location shot, which shows the Migrant Mother’s family in her tent.  Notice the Eucalyptus trees in the background:

MMother locale shot

If you look carefully at those trees, and imagine  the same location a 80 years later, this is how it would look:

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The exact location won’t be published, to protect the site; but it is certainly one of the most important places in American and world history, and the birthplace of a milestone in photographic art.

Stewart was not alone in his ground-breaking work and ideas.  He was part of a group of scholars, writers, artists, and thinkers who helped create a small enlightenment with big effects, centered around UC Berkeley, and the Central California coast.  Steinbeck, Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, and many others – including Dorothea Lange and Stewart – helped change the world.  Such changes require a Fellowship of great minds, like these.

The TWENTY MILE MUSEUM: A “Linear Museum” at Donner Summit

There’s a legendary story about museum design that comes from Grand Canyon National Park.  The designer apparently did a wonderful job putting together a state-of-the-art museum design.  But when he showed it to the park’s superintendent, he got a rebuff. The superintendent said something like this:  “The Grand Canyon is out there.  Your museum keeps visitors inside and away from it. Open the museum up and let it lead them out into the Canyon.”

That’s also the philosophy of the Donner Summit Historical Society.  The Society operates a small visitor center near the summit and publishes a fine newsletter.  But the bulk of its energy seems to be site-focused.  It sponsors a series of hikes into the area which help interested people learn about the place in the best way, perspiring as they are inspired. But it is the Society’s unique linear museum, placed along the historic route of U.S. 40 (and the Lincoln Highway) which educates the bulk of visitors about Donner Summit and the surrounding country.

The Twenty-Mile Museum is a fine collection of interpretive signs placed along old US 40. Visitors to the country made famous by George R. Stewart in Storm, Ordeal By Hunger, and other books can thus learn about its history on site.  The panels interpret human connections with the area from ancient petroglyph-making eras through the Overland Migration period, the work done by Chinese Americans on the transcontinental railroad,  and early highway eras.   Here’s an example:

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If you’re planning a trip over Donner Pass to Lake Tahoe or Reno, allow time to stop by some of those interpretive signs.  They encourage exploration; so plan enough time for a short hike or two as well.  You can prepare for the adventure by downloading the text version of the Twenty-Mile Museum Brochure here.

George R. Stewart educated the world about Donner Summit country, in the more than 20 languages in which his books were published.  The Twenty Mile Museum adds the critical field experience to that GRS education.  It’s a great concept and a highly recommended experience.

IN SEARCH OF US 40: ON THE ROAD WITH FRANK BRUSCA.

In 1953, George R. Stewart published his ground-breaking U. S. 40 — a book which used photography and text to interpret the transcontinental geography of the United States from U.S. 40, then the major east-west highway.

In 1983, Thomas and Geraldine published U.S. 40 Today.  The Vales traveled Stewart’s route, re-photographing most of the sites from the original book, and describing the changes in the 30 years since the original was published.

Now, leading U.S. 40 scholar Frank X. Brusca is rephotographing Stewart’s sites as they appear today.  Last week, I was honored to accompany him on part of his re-photography project.

We spent the first two days at the Bancroft Library, researching Stewart’s papers, and the first three nights with John and Angela Lucia at their historic home in Sacramento.

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The food and the accommodations were excellent,  and the conversation went on into the night.  John and Angela are also roadies, and “car guys,” so we had much to discuss – like John’s interest in U.S. 50, and the Lucias’ 1950 Ford Woodie (which is one of the best woodies in the country).

DSCN2874Then Frank and I headed east on I 80, which parallels or covers historic U.S. 40.  Our first stop, thanks to Dispatcher Maria and Sergeant Dave Brown of the California Highway Patrol, was productive.  Sgt. Brown took us to two of the sites in his patrol car, sites not safe to photograph now unless there’s CHP support, so we were glad for the  help.  Sgt. Brown’s also an amateur historian from the Dutch Flat area, where George R. Stewart had a summer cabin, so he was interested in Stewart.

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We spent the night in Truckee; then continued east to Wendover, Utah, photographing along the way.  Highlights of the photography were Donner Pass, Emigrant Gap, Wendover – and the most difficult photography of the trip – from Black Rock, near the Great Salt Lake.  The steep Rock was challenging to climb, but Frank made it to the top and took his photos of the scene.

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I stayed in Salt Lake City that night, while Frank headed east to finish his work.  My plan was to take the Amtrak train west to Sacramento after visiting family in the area.  I eventually did so – after a 2.5 day delay.  The train delay and the poor attitude of Amtrak’s customer “service” were good reminders of the enjoyable freedom of auto highways, like U.S. 40.

Frank plans to publish a new version of U.S. 40, using the photographs from this and other trips.  His version will include color images and 360 degree panoramas, which will make Frank’s publication a technological leap forward from both the original work and the Vales’ classic re-visiting.

If you want to learn more about Frank Brusca and his work on U.S. 40,  read William Least-Heat Moon’s best-selling ROADS TO QUOZ, which has four chapters about Frank, George R. Stewart, and U. S. 40.  Or visit Frank’s excellent U.S. 40/National Road website.

Was his trip a success? The photo says it all.

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George R. Stewart and “The Migrant Mother”

John Lucia, an old friend since Thornton Beach Days and involved in the GRS Project for decades, called excitedly a couple of years ago to say that Stewart had been mentioned in a magazine article.  John is a brilliant, hard-working artisan and craftsman who recycles the treasures of the past into exceptional homes for today.  He’s done this in Hawaii, and is now doing so in Sacramento, in “The Thirties.”  He’s also a restorer of classic cars; John owns one of the best 1950 Ford Woodie Wagons, which he restored himself.

His particular architectural interest is in the Arts and Crafts Movement. so he subscribes to American Bungalow magazine.  That’s where he found the article about Stewart, an article about a historic Berkeley Arts and Crafts cottage once owned by Paul Taylor and Dorothea Lange.  Stewart was friends with the couple; according to the article, he wrote his classic ecological novel Storm in their cottage. (Ribovich, American Bungalow, No. 56, P. 39)

Taylor was a professor at Cal Berkeley, in agricultural economics.  He had the progressive idea that in order to understand the economics of California agriculture, he’d need to understand the people who did the work in the fields.  Since many of those people were Mexican, Taylor decided that he would learn their culture from the inside.  He learned Spanish, spent much time with the workers, and even recorded many of their ballads.

Dorothea Lange  was one of the photographers documenting the plight of desperate migrants from the Midwest and the south who were trying to find some work here to feed their families. Hired by the Farm Security Administration she traveled extensively, photographing the migrants.

She was returning from a field trip along the central California coast when she saw a sign, “Bean Pickers Camp.”  Tired, she didn’t stop.  But about ten miles north of the camp she decided to turn around and go back to see if there was a good subject in the camp.  It was late, raining – not the best conditions for the large 4×5 field Graflex she used – but she went into the camp, found a mother with her children and took a few photographs, including this one:

Migrant mother photoFlorence Owen Thompson and her children –

Migrant Mother

The family, like most of the others in the camp, was hungry to the point of starvation

.After she took the photos Lange drove to her Berkeley cottage, developed and printed the photo.  She told the editor of a local paper about the camp, and the hunger there.  The editor published an article which included the photograph. The government rushed emergency food to the hungry families.

In an article in Popular Photography, in 1960, Dorothea Lange told the story of the photograph:

I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if
drawn by a magnet. I do not remember how I explained my
presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she asked me no
questions. I made five exposures, working closer and closer from
the same direction. I did not ask her name or her history. She told
me her age, that she was thirty-two. She said that they had been
living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds
that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to
buy food. There she sat in that lean-to tent with her children
huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might
help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about
it.

The photo, and one or two others by Lange, have come to represent the Depression.

She later documented the vicious internment of American citizens who happened to have Japanese ancestry, and similar abuses of American values and ideals.

Stewart’s friendship with Taylor and Lange is another of the extraordinary web of connections he had with the great minds of his time.

But did he write Storm in the Taylor-Lange bungalow?

When I asked Stewart’s descendants – son Jack and daughter Jill – about this story, they discounted it. Jill was especially emphatic, saying that her father did not work that way.  There may be a kernel of truth to the story – maybe he spent a weekend there doing some work on the book, for example.  But it is almost certain that he did not write the book there.

It is an interesting story, though, and I am thankful to John Lucia for starting me off on this research trail.

There’s an interesting footnote to this story.  The bean picker’s camp was located on the Nipomo Mesa – about ten miles from where I’m writing this.  And the place where Dorothea Lange decided to turn around was likely with a mile or two of here, in Arroyo Grande.