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.