After several months, the Earth Abides Project weblog is back. The long “vacation” was necessary as this writer wandered for a time, then settled in to a summer of volunteering as a Camp Host in an isolated Forest Service Campground. But the volunteer summer is ending, so there’s time to write more about George R. Stewart.
The last posts were about Stewart’s magnum opus, EARTH ABIDES. This time, we’ll look at the unplanned book which followed EA soon afterward. It’s a classic study of the battle for academic and personal freedom, entitled THE YEAR OF THE OATH.
EARTH ABIDES ends with a fire sweeping through the post-apocalyptic UC Berkeley campus. It was an unexpected but proper introduction to the events that would lead to Stewart’s oath book. A firestorm of an attack on academic freedom, led by three UC Regents – Bank of America’s Lawrence Giannini, the Hearst papers’ John Francis Neylan, and the Bechtel’s lawyer Sidney Ehrman – hit the campus just as EA was being published. In violation of University Regulation 5, the three demanded that all faculty members sign an anti-communist oath. The faculty successfully fought that requirement, but then the anti-communist oath was added to the employment contract. If faculty did not sign, they would be fired.
Several refused to sign, and were fired – most notably, the brilliant Dr. Edward C. Tolman – whose accomplishments were of great importance to science and education. But Stewart decided to join others in battling the oath. “Sign, stay, and fight!” was their motto. Each of those in opposition brought their particular strengths to the battle. Stewart, the distinguished author, wrote a book.
The book, in Stewart’s elegant prose, told the story of the oath and presented the reasons why it was illegal and therefore opposed by the faculty. Stewart had a widespread popularity with the reading public, so the book became a bestseller. It carried the day – Giannini resigned from the Regents threatening to take up vigilante action against freedom.
The oath was eventually ruled unconstitutional by the California State Supreme Court. Tolman and the others who had been fired were reinstated with back pay. As an act of apology, UC named a building for Tolman.
Stewart paid a price for his part in the battle. His publisher refused to publish OATH. Fortunately, a courageous editor at Doubleday, Howard Cady, convinced his company to publish the book….and, considering the massive sales of the book, that was a good investment by Doubleday.
After OATH, Stewart was wooed by Houghton Mifflin, and left Random House for good.
The book is considered a classic of civil liberties. It’s been reprinted several times, and is often used to encourage others who are fighting for freedom. Stewart had done his job well.
Of course, the attempts to politicize education, and thus weaken, continue unabated. Today there’s everything from “affirmative action” to “diversity” to “sexual harassment” to “terrorism” …. even the “footballization of the American University” … which are too often used to attack the freedom of a particular professor. Stewart would return to this theme in the Era of Movements, in a novel never published.
When THE YEAR OF THE OATH ended, Stewart could again turn to his theme of land and ecology. He began writing a unprecedented novel which readers still debate: Was SHEEP ROCK, Stewart’s attempt to “tell all the things that go to make up a place” a success? Or a brilliant failure?