The Scholar in the Kingdom of the Mouse

Although George R. Stewart was not a fan of the audio visual media of his day, after World War II he would find himself deeply involved in radio and film.  He became a character on a radio mystery show (more about that in a later post); and he spent a week in the Kingdom of the Mouse – the Walt Disney Studios – helping Disney develop new ideas for films.  Years later, that would lead to the production of two Disney movies based on two of Stewart’s best-selling novels.

Disney was a Stewart fan – that’s clear from the letters Disney wrote to Stewart.  The two men thought along similar lines, at least in terms of the relationship between humans and nature, and in the types of art that communicate those ideas.

Disney was working on Bambi while Stewart was writing StormBambi, which views the world from the perspective of non-human nature and  portrays Man as dangerous to non-human nature, has many parallels with Storm. It is likely that Stewart did not see Bambi, since he was not a film-goer. But it is likely that Disney read and enjoyed Storm since he was a voracious reader and the book was a well-publicized best-seller.

Stewart’s next best-seller was Names On The Land.  With its history of American ways of naming things over time, the success of the book indicated that readers were interested in Americana.    Disney was also interested in Americana, and in presenting it in Disney cartoons.

World War II was hard on the Disney studios.   Pinocchio and Fantasia lost money due to the loss of the European market.  Disney also turned over most of the studio’s facilities to the production of training films for the military, who did not pay the studio very well.  And after a bitter strike, the studio became a union shop with increased salaries for the animators.

After the war, Disney scrambled to find new types of films that would bring in the kinds of money returned by Snow White and the Mickey Mouse cartoons.  He thought there would be a huge market for civilian educational films, modeled on his war training films.  Disney also believed that movies based on Americana themes would be popular, since the country was tired of war and would be looking for reassuringly sentimental films.

Impressed by Stewart, he invited him to the studio for a short time.  He asked Stewart to prepare suggestions for educational films.  He also wanted to hear Stewart’s recommendations for films based on Americana.

Stewart went to the studio, talked with animators and producers, and wrote up his ideas for Disney Producer Ben Sharpsteen. Although there’s no record (outside of Disney Archives) for Stewart’s recommendations about educational films, there is a record of his Americana thinking.  He suggested  a series of animated movies about American folklore; and that it begin on the East Coast with early tales, moving west and forward in time as the series progressed.

Before he left, Stewart had a fine lunch with Walt Disney.  After he returned home, Disney sent him a personal letter:  “The type of work you are doing is of much interest to us,” he wrote, “and I hope when you do have the time you will visit us again.”  Stewart never returned to the Studio.  But Disney did make a series of cartoons and films based on American folklore or fiction that is folkloric in nature – Song of the South, Johnny Appleseed, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.  Carl Carmer is credited as the main consultant for the films, so Stewart’s influence was probably minor.

Yet, if Stewart was not the primary influence on Disney’s Americana films, he had influence.  The True-Life Adventure Series and the Americana films at least show that the two men  had  similar ways of thinking. But Disney’s greatest compliment to Stewart and his work came a decade later.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Disney produced film versions of Storm and Fire for The Wonderful World of Color.  A Storm Called Maria was a good made-for-tv version of Storm.  Its use of documentary footage and real people playing their own roles gave the movie believability.  A Fire Called Jeremiah was also realistic – except for a few Disney “cute” touches – and it closely followed the ecological sense of Stewart’s novel.  (A version made by another studio strayed exponentially from Stewart’s Fire, mentioning nothing about ecology.)

So the short visit between George R. Stewart and Walt Disney, spent in the Kingdom of the Mouse at the Disney Studio, led to film versions of Stewart’s work with would teach his ideas to millions of Disney TV viewers.  It was another example of the far-reaching influence of George R. Stewart, scholar and author, who did so much to change our way of thinking about our Earth, and its culture.

 

 

Steve Williams: Stewart Scholar, Artist, and creator of Stamps

The painting of George R. Stewart’s books and the Hammer of Ish that heads this weblog is the work of Steve Williams.  Steve grew up in Liverpool, went to art school there (with Lennon and McCartney), married Carol, found a good job, and raised a family.  He discovered George R. Stewart along the way, becoming quite a Stewart scholar.

I met Steve when he traveled to Berkeley to research the Stewart papers at the Bancroft Library.  Later, when I went to Britain, Steve, Carol and family hosted me on a tour of Beatles sites in Liverpool and Castles in Wales.

Steve retired several years ago.  Returning to his first love, he began teaching art and  painting.  You can see his work and watch a video of him discussing his art here:  http://community.saa.co.uk/art/stevewilliamsart

He paints a wide variety of subjects:  Lancaster bombers heading out on a raid, a ferry crossing the Mersey River, landscapes of this and other worlds.  One subject he’s focused on recently is Bletchley Park, where British intelligence successfully broke the German codes in World War II.  He’s donated several paintings to the site, which were sold to raise money to support its restoration and operation as a museum and education center. Here’s a site which showcases the Bletchley paintings.

One of Steve’s Bletchley Park paintings is of Alan Turing.  Turing played a major role in the code breaking, a role now showcased in The Imitation Game, when he refined the Polish Bombe Machine.  With the growing interest in Turing, and Bletchley Park, Steve was asked to donate several paintings to be used on stamps honoring  the role played by place and person.  The stamps were released recently:  Here’s the order form.

In a special Centennial Stamp set, Steve’s paintings of the Bombe machine, Turing’s Cottage, and a reunion of Bletchley Park workers  is paired with a painting of Turing by another artist.:

Turing set

The “Fellowship” of George R. Stewart is populated by people like Steve – creative people inspired by the remarkable ideas and books of Stewart, who express that inspiration in  personal acts of creativity:  Composer Philip Aaberg, NASA-JPL Ranger Mission Project Manager James D. Burke, Walt Disney, Jimi Hendrix, Stephen King, and many more.

Superfetation – FOUR books in Two Years.

George R. Stewart told his oral history interview, Suzanne Riess, that he practiced superfetation, like a rabbit.  Rabbits begin a new litter while an earlier one is still in the womb.  In Stewart’s case, he was researching one or more books while he was writing another book or two – and teaching, and living.

Between U.S. 40 and N.A. 1, for example, Stewart wrote four books.  One was based on talks he presented in Athens while he was a Fulbright Scholar; the second was a a small work about the first wagon party to make it through to California; the third, his only book for children; the fourth, his last novel.

American Ways of Life was the book based on his talks in Athens.  (“American,” in the case of this book, meant United States American.)  Stewart presented the essence of the way Americans lived in the post-World War II era in several chapters:   habits of eating, dressing, drinking, celebrating holidays, religion – even sex.  For American readers, it was a good overview of what we share as a national culture.  For foreign readers, especially those doing business with Americans, or traveling here,  the book was an invaluable guide to American dos and don’ts.  It’s not one of his best-known, or most readable books; but it is a fine window into its era.

By the early 50s, Stewart was researching the Westward Movement over the California Trail.  In his usual passion for field research, he traveled much of the original trail accompanied by historians or geographers. (He first encountered the place he named “Sheep Rock” on one of his trail expeditions.) He also consulted books – especially the manuscripts of the pioneers which are held by the Bancroft Library.   The one that particularly caught his eye was the oral history of Moses Schallenberger, a 18 year old boy who was a member of the first expedition to bring their wagons all the way to California – the Stevens Party.  Schallenberger’s story was an especially gripping one – he was left alone near Donner Pass for 3 months, in a rough cabin, during a cold and seemingly endless winter.  The two men who had volunteered to stay with him, and who had helped build a cabin at what is now known as Donner Lake, decided to head over the Pass.  Moses was too weak to keep up with them – and in one of the great and moving moments of the Westward Migration, he encouraged them to leave him and head for the safety of the Sacramento Valley; and they, heading down the trail, turned and waved and said “Goodby Mose.”  He survived, though, and was rescued.  (The next year, that cabin would be used by the Breens, members of the ill-fated Donner Party.) Stewart turned this story into a small book printed by the University rather than a trade publisher.  Then, thinking it over, he realized that with a teen-aged hero, it would make a perfect children’s book.

Stewart had written nothing for children.  But he taught himself how to write for younger readers, who have more limited vocabularies than adult readers.  The result was By Covered Wagon to California. The book was published in the popular Landmark Series – Number 42 – and enjoyed great success.  It was republished 33 years later, in 1987, as The Pioneers Go West.

His Fulbright year in Greece gave Stewart the chance to research the history of Greek City-States in their original settings.  Since his mother had taught him how to read Greek when he was still in high school, Stewart could easily read the histories and manuscripts of ancient Greece.  It gave him the idea for what would be his last novel, The Years of the City. 

One of Stewart’s literary devices was the use of non-human characters as the protagonists of his novels.  By the mid-1950s he’d used a storm, a fire, a place – and in Earth Abides – the ecosystem as protagonist.  In this novel, the protagonist was an ancient Greek City state, the fictional Phrax.

The novel opens with the founding of Phrax by a boatload of colonists which includes a child who is the only survivor of the sack of another city.  During the early years of Phrax, the city grows into a strong community of ethical, hard-working people.  Citizens  successfully defeat an enemy known as The Horde, in what might be called the city’s high-water mark.

Then, the city’s inhabitants sink slowly into laziness, selfishness, and materialism.  The old values are forgotten.  They are now ripe for conquest – and it comes, at first, from within.  A contractor creates terrorist acts and blames them on “terrorists.”  The “old money” gives control of Phrax to the contractor and his thugs, and sinks slowly into softness and decadence.  When The Horde attacks again, the people of Phrax are not strong enough to defeat them.  The city is sacked and burned to the ground, to pass into (fictional) history.  The only survivor is a small boy who manages to hide on one of the town’s ships – and thus, the story has come full circle.

The book was not a success.  Although Stewart felt its length was to blame I think it more likely that the dark descriptions of the decadence of the city and the contractor’s use of “terrorists” to  make the people fearful hit too close to home.  As it does, and it should, today, as once again we hear of “terrorists,” and contractors benefit mightily from the wars that follow.

George R. Stewart: A Founder of the Environmental Movement Turns Road Scholar

Today, many people see a conflict between the environmentalist view of the world and the engineered view of the world.  Roads are often seen as threatening the environment.

George R. Stewart didn’t see it that way.  So after he helped create the Environmental Movement with Storm, Fire, Earth Abides, and Sheep Rock, he turned to writing about odology – the study of paths.  Doing so, he created a new kind of literature – the odological book.

Stewart had often considered writing about US Forests – a book that would be a kind of a wayside introduction to them.  But his friend Wallace Stegner, now a regional editor for the publisher, Houghton Mifflin, suggested that he focus on highways instead.  Stegner’s suggestion made sense, since hundreds of thousands of Americans were now taking to the road in cars, rather than using the train. A book that explained America from the roadside should be a big seller.

Stewart was convinced, and went to work. Since U.S. 40 went from Atlantic City to San Francisco on a central route, he chose that road.  Today, many people consider Route 66 more important – it’s the Mother Road.  But U.S. 40 is in fact much older and much more important.  In the east, 40 followed the route of the first Federally-funded road, The National Road.  That was also the eastern route for the first transcontinental highway, the National Old Trails Road, established and signed before the Lincoln Highway was founded.

In 1949, the year of Earth Abides‘ publication, and the Year of the Oath,  he took the first of two coast-to-coast research trips to gather material for his book.  Ted accompanied him on one trip.  His son Jack, who was turning out to be a good map-maker and photographer, joined him on the other.  The family presence helped; he listened to their ideas, which improved the book.

Stewart wrote a few introductory essays, essays introducing each section of the road, and a concluding essay about road signs.  Most of the book, however, consisted of photographs of geographically-representative sections of the road and precise (rather than literary) descriptions of the scenes.  There were beautiful maps and small expository drawings by the great mapmaker Edwin Raisz placed appropriately throughout the book.

U.S. 40 was published in 1953.

Stegner was not happy with the result.  He felt it was too academic. Yet the book was a success.  It helped Americans traveling through their country to understand its geography and history.  At least one owner wrote the date pf their visit by each place visited.  It was, that is, a roadside interpretive guide to the USA in the mid-twentieth century.

The book also had a great influence on others.  William Least Heat Moon was inspired in part to write Blue Highways by Stewart’s book; and in researching Roads to Quoz, Least Heat Moon took U.S. 40 Scholar Frank Brusca along, eventually adding four chapters about GRS and U.S. 40.  German film Director Hartmut Bitomsky, who had been commissioned to do a movie about the trails of the Westward Movement, chose instead to produce “U.S. 40 West” after reading Stewart’s book. A copy of U.S. 40 is visible in some scenes of the movie, which has become a German classic.  And Tom and Geraldine Vale produced  the first book to “descend” from a George R. Stewart book, U.S. 40 Today.  Following Stewart’s route, the Vales photographed and described as many of the original Stewart locations as they could find, commenting on landscape change between 1953 and 1983.

Stewart liked the book, and its approach.  It was successful enough that he was encouraged to write more odological works.  N.A. 1 Looking North (more properly N.A. 1 Looking North: The North-South Continental Highway) and N.A. 2 Looking South were the result.  These were a two-volume examination of a highway which existed partly in the imagination – a Highway that would go from Alaska to the Panama Canal.  Stewart traveled from the Canadian border north to the road’s end 50 miles north of the Arctic Circle for the first book; and from the Mexican/U.S. border to the impenetrable jungle north of Panama for the second. It was a much more adventurous pair of drives than those for U. S. 40; but on the other hand the proposed North-South Continental Highway was no more rugged than the National Old Trails Road Stewart hitch-hiked in 1919.

Were the road books anti-environmental?  Had Stewart abandoned his great Whole Earth vision?  In a passage from the southern highway book, Stewart makes clear that  highways aren’t the problem – it’s the TYPE of highway:

  …freeways…almost brutally imposed upon the face of the countryside…the driver and his passengers alike lose the sense of a countryside, because it has literally been steam-rollered away….

… in Mexico or Central America … if [the road] winds through a canyon, you still know that a canyon is there.  It does not by-pass all the villages and towns, and so you see what they are like. And, all the time, you know you are really driving a car and feel the pleasant sense of achievement that goes with that….

So even here, in arguing for a gentler highway which follows the contours of the land and takes the traveler into that land, Stewart sees such a road as an introduction to the ecology and geography of a place.  He is suggesting that travelers who are enjoying their journey – as opposed to tourists rushing to some heavily-advertised vacation spot – should follow what Least Heat Moon calls the Blue Highways.  Thus even in a car on a highway, we can choose to be environmentalists, and Stewart is showing us how to do that.