(PLEASE NOTE: For some reason, WordPress is not inserting paragraph breaks in part of this post. Please read it with that understanding. Thanks, DMS.)
I believe George R. Stewart’s Ordeal By Hunger was the most important book of the twentieth century.
The book is the history of one of the great calamities of the Westward movement, the stuff of nightmares: The story of the Donner Party.
The Donner Party, from an eastern ecosystem, made the mistake of listening to trail salesman Lansford W. Hastings. Hastings’ “shortcut” delayed the Party and the worst winter in many years pinned them down at what is now called Donner Lake, just below what is now known as Donner Pass. Rescue parties tried to bring food in and survivors out, but the harsh winter meant that they would have limited success. Members of the Donner Party tried to escape by climbing through the deep snow over the 7000+ foot pass, but most were forced back by weather and deep snow. Eventually, their food gone, those at the camps by the lake, and some of those stranded by snow on their way to Sutter’s Fort were forced to eat human flesh. Those acts of necessary cannibalism insured that the story of the Donner Party would become a major part of the story of the Westward Movement, and the settlement of California, even though it was actually a small blip on the historic record.
One of the survivors, Virginia Reed, summed it up in a letter to a relative written a year later:
I have not wrote to you half the trouble we have had but I have wrote enough to let you know that you don’t know what trouble is. But thank God we have all got through and the only family that did not eat human flesh. We have left everything but I don’t care for that. We have got through with our lives but Don’t let this letter dishearten anybody. Never take no cutoffs and hurry along as fast as you can.
“Never take no cutoffs and hurry along as fast as you can” is one of the great lessons of the Westward Movement.
But that’s not the reason I believe this history is critical to understanding our time. It’s the two epiphanies Stewart had while working on the book, which he wrote into it.
Books write themselves, even though authors do the hard slogging of getting things down on paper. Stewart had a dickens of a time trying to put the book together. There was the long trek across the plains, through the Rockies and the Wasatch, and over the deserts; there was the barrier of the Sierra Nevada (the name means “Snowy Mountains, which should have been a warning); there were the two winter camps; there were the various parties of emigrants braving the Sierra Nevada, seeking safety; there were the several parties of rescuers braving those same storms as they headed into the Sierra Nevada — the story was all over the map of eastern central California.
That gave Stewart an idea — he’d map the story. Stewart loved maps, and he loved to make maps. So they were the perfect tool to help him put the story together. As he mapped out the various events, he realized that he could use a technique of English to make the story compelling: He would follow one group until there was a critical moment, and then move to another group, similarly following them to a crisis, and then return to the first group to reveal how things had worked out. So readers would turn the pages quickly, eager to see what would happen next to each of the groups.
But mapping showed Stewart something much more important: The importance of the geography of the story in its eventual outcome. As Stewart put it, in the book, “It should be obvious to the reader that I consider the land to be a character in the work.” That simple statement, and the understanding it contains, reveal one of the great moments in western thought. Shakespeare told readers that the world is simply a stage for humans to act on. Stewart is telling his readers – us – that Shakespeare is wrong. The world – Earth, and its ecosystems – “The land” – is the principal player in any human drama. It is a remarkable vision, and it prepared readers for the great paradigm shift of the twentieth century, the idea that an ecological view of the world is the correct one.
What defeated the Donners, and defined the character of the human players in this tale, was their ignorance of ecosystems. They were easterners, and had no sense of the ecological reality of deserts or high “Snowy Mountains.”
Once he’d come to understand the ecological viewpoint, the idea that the land is a character, Stewart seems to have decided to emphasize that in the beginning of the book. Most histories of this type would begin with the party starting their ill-fated journey west, or with an overview of the Westward Movement up to that. But Stewart begins with an unprecedented look at northern Nevada and eastern California from the perspective of space.
To observe the scene of this story, the reader must for a moment imagine himself …raised in space some hundreds of miles above a spot near the center of the state of Nevada. …Far to his left, westward, the onlooker from the sky just catches the glint of the Pacific Ocean; far to his right, on the eastern horizon, high peaks of the Rockies forming the Continental Divide cut off his view. Between horizons lie thirteen degrees of longitude, a thousand miles from east to west…
He continues, describing the Earth from space so accurately that features in Astronaut photos of the area can easily be identified.
Stewart did this, mind you, 24 years before anyone actually saw that view. But in writing the Astronaut’s perspective into the opening of the work, he was making the point that all human experience took place in small ecological microcosms in that huge macrocosm of Earth. Now, of course, we have moved away from Earth, and the idea is not unusual. But he was the first to define our stories as Earth stories, and Earth ecosystem stories. A quarter of a century before humans actually saw the view, and began to speak of “Earth,” he was preparing us.
In writing the book, Stewart developed two remarkable ideas.
The Whole Earth concept – the idea that Earth from afar is small and beautiful; and from the surface a complex ecological and geographic system; and which defines the actions of all life, including human life – can be said to be the defining idea of the twentieth century So that century should be known as the first Whole Earth century. It was the time when we began to see ourselves as a raft of life on a very special place in the universe, and it was the first time humans did so. Ordeal By Hunger, the first Whole Earth book, prepared us for this great change in our understanding.
For the first time in human experience, a book was written which educated its readers to the understanding that Earth and its ecosystems are the principle protagonists in any human drama.
Once he’d experienced the Whole Earth epiphany, and shared it with readers, Stewart would continue writing books around that truth. Over the next decade or so, he would invent a “literature of the land.” He would invent the Whole Earth novel, and the ecological novel, and would refine them until he created his masterwork, Earth Abides. In doing this work, he would build upon this most important of twentieth century books, the first book to see and share the Whole Earth idea. Thus, George R. Stewart would shape the twentieth century.
This is one of those milestone events in U.S. history. No matter how many times I read about it, it still has a profound effect … on many different levels.
Have you read this book? Still the best version of the story — as well as being at least one of the most important books of the last century. Damn good read. Thanks, DMS
Reblogged this on Serendipity and commented:
The story of the Donner Party is a cautionary tale and a pivotal event in American history.