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.
I also find the fact that GRS is almost “overlooked” incredible. There is perhaps a little of Neil Diamond’s “Morningside” here, where the Old Man left a “table carved with pride” and though the children (us) sat around this great table, they did not claim the gift he made. GRS was also a great carpenter; George in Earth Abides is GRS.
We also are privileged that our collective biography has been written by the man who carved the great table – Man – an Autobiography.
Food for thought.
Steve (The Pilgrim) Williams