The GRS Saunter

One of the gifts of the trip to the Western Literature Association (and there were many gifts) was the GRS Saunter.  Cheryll Glotfelty, who encouraged my attendance at the WLA, also suggested that we do some kind of a field trip to sites both literarily and academically connected with George R. Stewart.  I sent out an email to people who might be interested in such a trip, and had a good response.  Baiba Strads, Bancroft Librarian, enthusiastically agreed to coordinate the campus sections.  John and Angela Lucia helped with the Berkeley part of the trip.

So after staying a couple of days with John and Angela at their beautiful Sacramento home, and accompanied by John,  I drove the aging Chinook to the Berkeley Hills, to Indian Rock Ave, and to what (I thought) was Indian Rock Park, to meet Cheryll, Ross and Charlene Wilson Bogert, Willie Stewart and his mother Sallie, and GRS Scholar/Interpreter Alan Kaplan.  The plan was to do some readings from Earth Abides (which is largely set in that area) and have a small ceremony honoring the gathering.  And then to head to the campus, where Baiba had arranged a special showing of archival materials from the George Rippy Stewart Papers.

Well.  The Chinook had a few problems – couldn’t get up the Marin Street hill (which we, as college students, used to zip down in our mid-20th century cars).   I got lost.  And then, when we finally found the park no one showed up.  After a half hour, John and I walked around the Rock –  found the name of that park – Mortar Rock Park – and realized we  were in the wrong place.  John ran to INDIAN Rock Park, where everyone was waiting.  I was very apologetic.   But they didn’t mind.   They’d had a great time talking and enjoying each others company.

We read from Earth Abides, about the carving of “The Year I” in the rock, and the naming of that year.  Then poured some fine Laphroaig (a scotch founded appropriately by descendants of Clan Donald) on the rock in honor of The Year LXIV – which I hope could be named “The Year The Years Began Again,” since we discussed an annual gathering there in honor of Ish and Em.

The Year 64L-R:  Charlene Wilson Bogert, Angela Lucia, Ross Wilson Bogert, Alan Kaplan, Willie Stewart, Sallie Stewart, Cheryll Glotfelty.

Here’s another photo of Ish’s Country.  The fellow in the foreground is Donald M. Scott, author of blogs and biographies.  Photo by John Lucia.

Don at Ish's houseWe sauntered to the Bancroft, where Dee Lapachet Barney – Poet, an editor of the GRS biography, former student, and friend – joined us.  Baiba had arranged for the display of some remarkable manuscript items – GRS’s uncle’s Civil War Journal (written under fire), a hilarious sketch of the GRS – Theodosia wedding by one of Ross Bogert’s ancestors, a letter from Walt Disney to GRS praising his work, a 19th century family photo of the Wilsons, and a page from the manuscript of Earth Abides which showed Stewart’s corrections and re-writing.  There were a few other items.  We also showed the historic 1929 film of GRS, his parents, and the Wilsons, so kindly donated by Ross Bogert Wilson.

Dee and Cheryll had to leave after the Bancroft session.  The rest of us went to the Faculty Club – designed by Bernard Maybeck in the Arts and Crafts style and a model for National Park Service buildings –  where we had a fine dinner, some of the Club’s labelled wine, and a wonderful conversation.  It was the perfect end to a Grand Saunter.

I said farewell to the group, then headed to my motel.  The Golden Bear, on old US 40, was built in 1946.  It’s an icon of the U.S. Highway era and the golden era of motels.  Our family passed it on our adventurous 1949 trip from California to McConnellsville, Ohio.  Perhaps more important – Ish would have passed it many times after the plague; and it’s likely that the dying Ish was carried past it on his last trip, heading west, across the Bay Bridge.

Thus ended the Saunter.  Unless, of course, this becomes an annual event.


The Western Literature Association and George R. Stewart

There were two papers about George R. Stewart at this year’s Western Literature Association conference, in Berkeley.  Sadly, GRS, who should be honored as a star by the WLA, is almost unknown there.  Very few of the attendees at my panel even knew who he was.

Cheryll Glotfelty, who encouraged my attendance, said that she thinks his lack of popularity comes from – among other reasons – his inability to create well-rounded characters.  It was a perceptive comment, which acted as a catalyst for some thinking.

I was also interested in this question:  If writers honored by the WLA – Wallace Stegner comes to mind – and others of that level, like Ivan Doig, Larry McMurtry, and William Least Heat Moon consider GRS to be an important and under-appreciated writer, and readers buy his books by the thousands, why does the WLA seemingly not appreciate him?

After some thinking, I have a tentative answer.   Stewart’s important characters were not human – they were the events of the ecosystem, like a storm, and the ecosystem itself.  He may have purposely kept the human characters flat for the same reason that he did not name most of them in STORM – because his emphasis was on those ecological characters.  And there’s no question about his ability to bring eco-event to life.   Other writers realized what an extraordinary and culturally significant accomplishment this was, both in the ability to bring those characters to life and in the development of the literary devices that GRS used to do that.  Without analyzing devices or human character development, readers understood what he was doing and embraced it.

The only group who did not seem to be impressed by what GRS did is that of the literati, of the west and elsewhere.  This is probably because there is a different standard of “great” literature in those groups, including the university teachers of literature.

None of this is intended to be critical of the WLA or other literati, although I might suggest some deeper attention to the work of GRS.  I’m certainly glad that Cheryll talked me into attending, I enjoyed the conference, and all-in-all had a worthwhile weekend there.  Most important, it was a wonderful, learning experience, listening to other papers and discussions (like the one between Kim Stanley Robinson and Molly Gloss).

A final thought is this:  It seems to be an historical truth that great creative minds are often forgotten for a time, especially if they don’t do much self-promotion.  Johann Sebastian Bach, who wrote music “for the glory of God,” was unknown to all (but the musicians who studied his work) for a century after he died.  Not until Mendelssohn performed one of Bach’s oratorios in honor of the centennial of his death did Bach begin to become a household word.  I expect GRS will be rediscovered by the literati, sooner or later, and will himself become a household word in literate households.

Perhaps the publication in China of Names On the Land will make Americans take notice, and that will lead to the re-discovery of GRS.