Bob Pavlik’s Review of The Life and Truth of George R. Stewart

Bob Pavlik has just sent a copy of his review of the GRS Biography.  With his kind permission, I’ll post it here.

Bob recently won the California State Governor’s Award for Historic Preservation, a well-deserved honoring of his long career in preserving the history of this place.

Donald M. Scott, The Life and Truth of George R. Stewart: A Literary Biography of the Author of Earth Abides. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland Publishing Company, 2012; photographs, notes, bibliography, 246 pages, $55 softcover, available at www.mcfarlandpub.com or by calling (800) 253-2187; or on Kindle at http://www.amazon.com/Life-Truth-George-Stewart-ebook/dp/B00AQCEY0O/ref=tmm_kin_title_0

Reviewed by Robert C. Pavlik

The times, trials, travels and accomplishment of George R. Stewart (1895-1980) are well documented in this engaging biography, written by a longtime student and admirer of the former UC Berkeley English professor.

Stewart was a Pennsylvania native whose family was acquainted with another writer and California emigrant, the poet Robinson Jeffers. Stewart grew up in southern California but went east for his education, earning his A.B. degree at Princeton in 1917 before joining the U.S. Army. Following a medical discharge he enrolled at UC Berkeley for his M.A. (his thesis was about another writer and traveler, Robert Louis Stevenson), before finishing his studies at Columbia University. Stewart took a break for a 3,181 mile bike trip through the United Kingdom and Europe; he was a peripatetic who would later put his rambles to work in several well regarded books.

Following his graduation with a Ph.D. from Columbia, Stewart took a job at the University of Michigan, where he met his future wife, Theodosia (also known as “Ted”). In 1923 he moved to Berkeley (and witnessed the great fire of September 1923), where he assumed a professorship that would last for 39 years. The couple was married the following year in Ann Arbor, and had two children, Jack and Jill, who were raised in the Berkeley Hills as well as in a writer’s cabin in the Sierra Nevada, and on the road while their father conducted his research for his many books.

Stewart had a strong sense of place when writing his non-fiction and his many novels; in that sense, he pre-dated the venerable Wallace Stegner by several years.  Later, the two men came to be friends, visiting each other at the homes across the San Francisco Bay from one another. Stewart conducted extensive field work for Ordeal by Hunger­, for many years the standard account of the Donner Party. His clear affection for the Sierra Nevada led to two more stories set there, Storm and Fire, both paying homage to the workers who face natural (and sometimes human caused) challenges with courage and aplomb. Stewart loved to drive, crossing the country on U.S. 40 several times for his photographic essay of the same name. As an odologist Stewart wrote the first nationwide treatment, Names on the Land, encompassing an impressive array of place names all across the United States. And, as a conservationist and close observer of the events surrounding the dropping of the atomic bomb, he wrote a science-fiction treatment of life in the Bay Area following a worldwide cataclysmic event.  Earth Abides takes its name from a passage in the Bible, but even the Good Book ceases to hold meaning for the post-apocalyptic survivors in this classic story. Stewart even played a critical role in the loyalty oath controversy that roiled the University of California in the 1950s; his book, The Year of the Oath is regarded by Scott as “a classic study of the fight to preserve our civil liberties and a testament to academic freedom…” (p. 127). At the end of the 1950s Stewart was drawn to another conflict, in another century: the Civil War and the Battle of Gettysburg.  He focused on 15 hours of those three days, when Confederate General George Pickett led 10,500 men in an attack on Union forces. Scott write, “In Pickett’s Charge, his last book of the first decade of the Oath, Stewart asked a question which grew out of the time: ‘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?’”

The more you learn about George R. Stewart, the greater your admiration will grow.  You’ll also learn something about the biographer (Don Scott), and you’ll admire him, too, for his persistence as well as his enthusiasm. Scott was a California State Park Ranger at Thornton State Beach in Daly City (south of San Francisco) where he got to know the Stewarts in the 1970s, and where a trail was dedicated to the prolific author and Professor Emeritus, who died in August 1980. Wallace Stegner considered the naming of this trail as one of the highest honors Stewart received during his lifetime. Another honor, albeit posthumous, is this fine biography.

Robert C. Pavlik is the author of Norman Clyde: Legendary Mountaineer of California’s Sierra Nevada (Heyday Books and the Yosemite Association, 2008) and a Thornton State Beach alumnus.

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