Stewart’s books, 1936 – I: English Composition: A Laboratory

In 1936, George R. Stewart would publish two books.  One would be the last of a type of literature required of him but which he did only reluctantly and under orders.  The other would be a breakthrough in literature; and it would change the world.  Today, I’ll describe the first book:  English Composition:  A Laboratory Course, Volumes I and II.

Stewart was still in his “eleven bad years,” under the thumb of the unsympathetic Department Head Montgomery.  Although there’s little detail about the reasons for this in the Stewart papers, some inferences can be drawn from what is there.   Stewart believed the most important role of a Department of English was the study, and creation, of literature.  Montgomery, as the University President’s company man, probably believed that the English Department’s job was to teach composition.   (This is similar to today’s conflicts between teaching critical thinking, and teaching to the test.)  Montgomery would have his pound of flesh, and thus Stewart would write books about composition.  This two-volume set is a result.  (Another was his Technique of English Verse, described in an earlier post.)

The title is interesting.  To call a composition course a lab course in those days was unusual.  But science was the great intellectual movement of the time, and Stewart had already written of the important connections between science and literature – notably in his ground-breaking article in the forerunner to Science magazine, Color in Science and Poetry.  UC Berkeley, where Stewart taught, was a pioneer in the study of experimental physics and life sciences;  a “lab course” would be likely to appeal to science students taking a basic composition course as part of their general education requirements.  As Stewart writes, in the Preface, “The teacher of the composition course is conceived as the director of a laboratory who assigns definite exercises to the class, and observes the working out of these exercises.”

The first volume presents the theories of composition.  Chapters include “The Beginning and the Ending,” “Punctuation,” “Usage,”  and so on.  But even in this somewhat formal text, Stewart inserts his pungent observations in a way that brings life to the work and encourages honest and useful prose.  Here’s one example: “…be effective even at the cost of being incorrect.  After all, grammatical correctness is only a negative virtue based upon a changing convention, but effectiveness is positive and practical….”  That sentence is one of many which probably yanked Montgomery’s chain:  It was good advice, couldn’t be argued with,  but it advised breaking the rules.

The second volume — a paperback volume, was the practice volume.  It was meant to be used — written in — and then thrown out.  As a result, it is almost impossible to find a copy today.  (One was available a few years ago from legendary (and now defunct) Serendipity Books for a couple of hundred dollars.)  My copy is a gift from Stewart Scholar Robert C. Lyon — and it is George R. Stewart’s personal copy, with his pencil markings throughout.  Thanks to Bob, I can describe the book for you.

Stewart presents exercises in topics like “Punctuation,” “Words,” “Sentence-Structure,” and so on.  Interestingly, his exercises use both student essays and milestone works of literature.  So the King James version of Ecclesiastes is here, and Bacon’s Of Studies. So are student essays on The University Library and The Advantages of Sororities.   Even though this is a somewhat technical work, Stewart still encourages critical thinking as opposed to lecturing — suggesting that student solutions to the lab problems be put on the blackboard, and discussed by the students.

The term “facilitator” became a buzzword a half-century later; but Stewart is suggesting in this book that the Professor should facilitate student thought and discussion.  As always, he was decades ahead of most people.

At the conclusion of the Volume I, Stewart makes a point which both teaches good English and contradicts the narrow minds of those who would “train” (literally “drag along behind”) rather than “educate” (literally “lead out”):  “…a mistake in usage is generally the violation of a definite convention, and thus can be precisely labeled as wrong.  The red-penciling of such mistakes becomes the occupation and the pleasure of many people who cannot recognize a badly constructed sentence but gloat over a ‘mistake of grammar’.”

It is a comment addressed to students — and the Montgomerys of the world.

Stewart had given his pound of flesh to the “compositors” in English departments.  It helped him keep his job, but did not bring him a long-overdue promotion to Associate Professor — and tenure.  He would not, in fact, get that promotion until 1937, after 14 years in the department even though his excellent teaching record, and the publication of two books should have earned a promotion much earlier.  (He did not get the promotion from Montgomery, either; it came about because a group of his colleagues went around Montgomery, to the University President.)  But in a way, Montgomery had given Stewart a great gift:  He decided to forget writing along traditional English professor lines, and instead to write for a popular audience.  “What did I have to lose?” he said, years later.

So in the same year that he wrote and published the books on composition, Stewart wrote a history —  still in print, still a page-turner — which would change our world.  And change us.

A Somewhat Curious Celebration

A celebration, because — and I cannot believe this — the George R. Stewart biography is for sale by (gasp) Walmart!

A Curious Celebration, because I — not their greatest of fans — am surprised they would offer something like this at their store.

Still, this is a celebration because it will offer those who would not normally normally know about this book a chance to consider it.  It’s an even bigger celebration because Walmart thinks this book, even at $55, will sell.   (They don’t discount the book.)  That’s the greatest market praise the book has had thus far.

So I’ll say thanks, on behalf of George R. Stewart, to Walmart for marketing this book about his life.

“Bret Harte: Argonaut and Exile” George R. Stewart’s first major book

The Department of English at the University of California, Berkeley, was one of the best in the early twentieth century.  Yet there was always a tension between those who thought it should teach composition — mainly administrators — and those who thought it should teach literature and its attendant encouragement of critical thinking.  Sadly, when Walter Hart ran the Department of English, he failed to prepare an espirit d’corps among the potential literary leaders of the Department.  He was replaced by someone who, if Stewart’s description is to be believed — he called him a tyrant — was the quintessential bureaucrat, Guy Montgomery.   Montgomery apparently ruled with little regard for his faculty – or at least for Stewart – during much of the Depression,  a period Stewart called “the eleven bad years.”

By the early 1930’s, George R. Stewart, long overdue for promotion,  decided he had little hope of advancement under Montgomery.  Since his family was growing, he chose not to write one of those academic books that English professors normally write for each other, but to write a book of more general (and marketable) interest.  So he began to research and write books about California and western history.

As an English professor, he felt some obligation to focus on literature, formal or informal.  So following a model he developed for his Master’s Thesis work , in which he researched novelist Robert Louis Stevenson’s explorations in the old west, he decided to write a biography of Bret Harte.

Harte was very popular in the time immediately after the Gold Rush.  Although born in Albany, New York, of mixed Jewish/Dutch/English ancestry, he wandered west, found work, and began to write. His stories and poems seemed to capture the flavor of the mining camps of the time.  His literary technique was brilliant, keeping readers turning the pages and helping them to hold the stories in their minds after they finished reading.

Harte had his problems out west.   He did not seem happy with the real rough-and-tumble of the place, a rough-and-tumble which was often based on murderous racism and theft.  Working on a newspaper in what is now Arcata, California, he wrote a powerful editorial condemning the brutal slaughter of an entire village of native folks by local racists.  As a result, he was driven from town, and wound up working in San Francisco for the US Mint.  It was a blessing in disguise — while there, he had time to write, and eventually  became editor of the early San Francisco literary magazine, The Overland Monthly.  But Mark Twain, who knew Harte in San Francisco, believed Harte’s work did not reflect the real west and publicly criticized Harte’s work.

Harte married — not happily — then eventually moved east again to write a series of articles for The Atlantic Monthly.  After that, his fame (and his income from writing) faded, and he went back to work for the US Government as a Consul in Germany and Scotland. Eventually, he began “keeping company” with an English lady friend, who supported him financially in his last, poverty-stricken days.

Stewart’s biography was written at a time when Harte’s star had faded.  He originally planned a massive work about the west, but soon realized that he needed to pare that down to a microcosm of the time.  Since he’d written an article about Harte, and Harte’s work seemed to encapsulate the Gold Rush brilliantly, he chose Harte as his subject.

His goal was to bring a rebirth of interest in Harte’s work. He wanted to show Hart as neither heroic nor anti-hero and the book is honest in its depiction of Harte’s accomplishments and his weaknesses.  But it is also the adventurous story of a young man exploring the west in a time which would become mythical — thanks in part to his writing. Stewart emphasizes the beauty of Harte’s work, and its powerful evocation of the 1850’s California as a special place and time in human history.   Thanks in part to Stewart’s biography,  Harte is now considered an important author in Gold Rush Era California, and his works are read to capture some of the flavor of the time.

Since this was Stewart’s first major work aimed at the trade press — that is, the publishers who produce books for a general audience — it lacks the flow and majesty of his later works like Fire and Earth Abides.  Yet, it’s a very readable book, even for a non-scholarly reader.  Good reviews helped book sales, and encouraged Stewart to keep writing to his interests, rather than the academic norm.

Years later, in an excellent oral history conducted by Suzanne Riess for the Regional Oral History Office, Stewart reflected on his experiences with the Bret Harte biography, and the lessons it taught him.

“Writing is too financially precarious, for one thing. You get yourself in an awful trap. Of course writing about Bret Harte was a good thing for me, as a matter of fact, [laughing] It showed me what a trap writing can be. He was a prime example of a man who should never have cut loose. He should have taken that job at the University of California when he had the chance. That would have changed his whole life. He probably would have written much better, and had a much better life all the way around.”

Stewart, of course, is writing here of himself.  He did take a job at the University of California, which  — whatever problems he had with Montgomery — gave him a safe harbor from which to write.  Harte turned the UC offer down, and died poor and alone.

As he did in so many of his landmark works, George R. Stewart broke new ground with this biography, ground never been better tilled.  Bret Harte: Argonaut and Exile, is still the best biography of Harte that’s available.   The book sold well, so Stewart was encouraged to continue writing about history and the West.

His next book would be a milestone in research, approach, and vision.  Even though it was written in 1936, long before the Environmental Movement or the Space Age, it has been called the first Whole Earth book.  George R. Stewart’s biography of Harte thus opened a important door, into the future where we now live.

2013 begins with good news

Best wishes for a good New Year to all of you.  I hope you enjoyed a Merry Christmas.

The George R. Stewart/Earth Abides Project has some good news to share:

The George R. Stewart Biography is being reprinted after only 4 months.  I have a limited supply of friends and family, so this means the book is selling to a general audience.

And it’s been reviewed, again.  The review is simply a brief description, but since it’s been done by Reference and Research Book News, it will likely get some attention from libraries and scholars interested in Stewart.

The Western Literature Association is to meet in Berkeley this year.  If resources permit, I hope to present a paper about George R. Stewart at the conference.  I’ll post any information here.

Now that the holidays are over, There should be time to get back to my reviews of Stewart’s books.