George R. Stewart, 1948: Taking Stock

By 1949, George R. Stewart was successful beyond any possible imaginings he might have had in the early 1930s.  In those days, early in his writing and professorial career, he seemed stuck in a low-level academic position, held there by a particularly unpleasant English Department Head who had taken a dislike to him.  His only books were the sort of composition books expected of English professors – one on the Technique of English Verse, another on English composition.  His marriage was a great success – Ted (Theodosia) Stewart supported him as his best friend, and encouraged him to keep at the writing.  Although he would not have won any awards as parent of the year, his children were doing acceptably.

The situation with the English Department Head turned out to be a blessing in disguise.  Since he was apparently not going anywhere in the Department, he turned to writing instead – the writing of books that appealed to both scholars and the general literate audience – books that would sell, and sell well.  Since he enjoyed wilderness and history and the strange beauty of American names, he decided to write about those things.  Since many of his favorite colleagues were in the geography, history, or science departments, he decided to write about those areas of knowledge.

His first best-selling book, Ordeal By Hunger, introduced the Whole Earth Perspective – the understanding of Earth as one place, and as a system of ecological systems.  His first novel, East of the Giants, was about California history and told from the viewpoint of an independent California woman.    Storm was the first ecological (or geographic) novel.  Names on the Land – a remarkable and never-equaled book – was the first in the history of the Earth to tell the tale of national place-naming.   And Fire carried the ecological, geographic, cross-discipline methods used in Storm to new heights.

His influence was beginning to be felt, and honored.  He became a character in a radio play.  Disney invited him to the studio to help develop new types of films (and later made Storm and Fire into Disney movies.)  Stewart’s influence on his friend Wallace Stegner encouraged Stegner to begin writing the environmental/history works that would define much of Stegner’s later creative life.  Stewart won awards – both the silver and gold medals of the California Commonwealth Club.

During his service in World War II, writing up the Submarine Sailing Directions for the Navy, he had an encounter which showed him the influence of his work.  During a flight to Hawaii, he met Vic Moitoret, a young Navy meteorologist who enthusiastically shook Stewart’s hand and then told him a war story.  Moitoret kept a small diary of the books he’d read which he felt most influenced his life and career.  One of those was Storm.   Moritoret survived two aircraft carrier sinkings, once in shark-infested waters.  But he never lost that diary, which he showed  Stewart.  It was, in a way, a talisman or charm.  Later, Moitoret, who had gone to UC Berkeley and then on to the Naval Academy, would become the Chief Hydrographer of the US Navy.

Moitoret’s story was a great honoring of Stewart’s work.  Stewart received a high professional honor as well – he was invited to join the faculty of Columbia University – a high honor indeed.

Stewart did not go to Columbia.  His nemesis was no longer the Department Head, and the University admired him.  Besides, he loved the wild nature of the West.  And at any rate, he didn’t have the time for a major career move.

He had begun work on a third ecological novel.  This one would expand the ideas and the literary devices developed in Fire and Storm. This time, the protagonist would not be an event of the ecosystem, nor human character revealed by how someone reacted to a fire or a storm.  This time, the protagonist would be the ecosystem itself.  And the characters of its primary human characters would be revealed over the span of lifetimes.

By 1948, Stewart had achieved great things.  Now, he would achieve a pinnacle of human thought and literature of the late third millennium.

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