The First Micro-History: Pickett’s Charge

Stewart had long been interested in Pickett’s Charge, which historians consider the turning point in the American Civil War.   Stewart’s uncle John was a soldier for the union army, who told stories of the Peninsular Campaign to his  nephew. During his army service, Stewart was in a bivouac on the battlefield of Gettysburg, where he began researching the site of Pickett’s Charge.  Finally, in the late 1950’s he decided to write about the Charge.

Pickett’s Charge has long been debated by historians, both in terms of its strategy and its data.  If you go to Gettysburg, and follow the path of the charge, you’ll understand the questions about strategy:  The Virginians under Pickett lined up and walked up a hill with no cover into intense fire from Union soldiers who had the shelter of a stone fence at the hilltop – a classic example of Napoleonic tactics.  But those tactics were developed when ordnance – cannons and muskets – were much less accurate, so soldiers had some chance under such conditions.  By the time Pickett sent his men up the hill, 50 years later, highly accurate rifles and cannons meant there would be far more casualties if soldiers kept their straight line battle formation.

The battle was later seen as heroic by some, foolish by others.  Stewart didn’t want to get into that argument; but he did want to make sure that the statistics and research sources were accurate before he wrote his book.  He discovered that much of the data was off – the oft-stated number of troops in the fight, for example, was based on an off-hand remark by Confederate General Longstreet (who opposed the Charge).   And the times of events, reported in an era before Standard Time, varied wildly.

Once Stewart was certain that he had found the correct data, he began to write.  Again, he decided to invent a new form of literature – the micro-history, in which a small detailed section of historical time is the entire subject of a work.  (Stewart may in fact have co-invented the micro-history, since D-Day: The Sixth of June was written the same year.)  Entitled Pickett’s Charge, the micro history begins at 3:00 AM on July 3, 1863.  It ends, except for two short chapters which discuss later events and some of the controversies, 272 pages later, at sunset on the same day.  Stewart includes several appendices which discuss flags, artillery, battle orders, the battlefield and so on.

One of his comments about the battlefield is telling, spotlighting his role as an author of place, and his belief in the need to study places when writing about them:  “The battlefield itself is an important document…”

Another comment, in the beginning of the work, stresses his idea of microcosm.  Most of his works, although set in one place and concerned with one set of events there, were written with the idea that the place is a microcosm for all places, and its events are microcosms for all human or natural events.  In this case, Stewart writes “In a sense, even, the charge may stand for all of human life.  Some time in the years, if not daily, must not each of us hear the command to rise and go forward, and cross the field, and go up against the guns?”

When I visited Gettysburg, and walked the field of Pickett’s Charge, I must admit to tears in my eyes.  Even if I didn’t agree with their cause, I was moved by the thought of those men walking up that exposed hill into killing fire  – they were men of honor, a sense of duty and honor which we don’t understand, most of us, today.

The book, George R. Stewart’s Pickett’s Charge. A Microhistory of the Final Attack at Gettysburg, July 3, 1863, is one of three Stewart bookswhich still sell well.  (Earth Abides and Ordeal by Hunger are the others).  Civil War students, amateur and professional, consider the book a sine qua non for learning about the War, and especially Gettysburg.

It was the only book Stewart would write about an historical war.  But for the next decade he would leave fiction behind to write several more histories.


George R. Stewart, Radio Character

Although George R. Stewart did not make much use of electronic communication devices or media, he did, as reported earlier, find himself involved in the creation of Disney films.  At about the same time, in the late 1940s, Stewart – or an actor playing Stewart – made an appearance on a radio mystery program.

Television was on the horizon in 1946, but Americans still listened to their favorite programs on the radio.  Comedians like Fibber McGee and Molly or Jack Benny, western stars like Roy Rogers and Dale Evans or Bobby Benson of the B-Bar-B – and mysteries or detective programs.

Mystery programs, which used the mind of the listener to create suspense or terror, were particularly creative and effective, because we all fear the unknown that we imagine much more than the known we can see.   The rattlesnake in your mind is much more terrifying than the rattlesnake on the trail.  Even today, it can be hard to listen to one of the more dramatic mysteries, like The Shadow, especially if you’re alone and it’s a dark and stormy night.

Mystery programs usually had a key character like Lamont Cranston – the Shadow.  The main character was often an urbane, slightly eccentric city type – an antiques dealer or bon vivant or independently wealthy person,  who had a nose for solving mysteries.  Think of Poirot or Inspector Morse or the modern Sherlock, Benedict Cumberbatch.

Gregory Hood was such a detective  He lived in a penthouse in San Francisco, made his money in the collectible art import and export business, and even had a Chinese house servant – the ultimate mark of cool for the radio detective.  One of Hood’s creators was local writer Anthony Boucher.  Boucher was the  pen name of William Anthony Parker White, who lived in Berkeley and knew George R. Stewart.  To make the show especially “real,” Boucher used Richard Gump, of Gump’s Department Store, which specialized in the sale of art, as a consultant.

By the time of the radio show, August of 1946, Stewart had become a well-known author.  Names on the Land had just been released; impressed with the book, Boucher decided to build an episode of the radio show around it.

Several episodes of The Casebook of Gregory Hood are available; unfortunately, “The Ghost Town Mortuary,” the episode with George R. Stewart, has not yet been found.  Fortunately, Stewart kept a copy of the script, and donated that to the Bancroft.  Here’s a portion:

…GREGORY: This place is handy for the one person who I think can help us on this case.
SANDY: And who is that person?
GREGORY: Professor George Stewart, of the University English Department.
MARY: Oh yes! He wrote “Storm”—a wonderful book.
GREGORY: True, but what is more to our immediate point is the fact that Random House recently published his new book: “Names on the Land.” It’s a classic and definitive study of American place-naming. His virtues are many. (with a chuckle) Including a fine sense of entering on cue. Here he is. (Raising his voice) Hello, George.
GEORGE R. STEWART: (clearance arranged) (straight and charming ) How are you, Gregory?
GREGORY: Fine. …

Stewart is able to identify the location where a kidnap victim is being held by one word on a note – the word is the name of a ghost town.  The town is real, and the name is discussed in Stewart’s place-naming book; but Boucher moves the town west for dramatic purposes.

You can learn more about the series here.  

You can listen to an episode here.

This was not Stewart’s only exposure on radio.  A few years after this episode, the classic radio drama series Escape broadcast a version of Earth Abides.  In order to capture its epic sweep, Escape broadcast the story in two half hour segments.  And in the days before high quality recording, it was broadcast in an East Coast and a West Coast version.  The star was the well-known character actor John Dehner.

Download here.  Listen here.

Note the use of the term “ecology” at the beginning of the broadcast.  This is one of the first uses of the term, or concept, in mass media.

A Significant Error Discovered

For those who’ve bought The Life and Truth of George R. Stewart, I am sorry to say that I found a significant error in the text.  Here’s the information, which you might want to note in your copy:

Page 120, 8th line up from the bottom:

“…beautiful limited edition books at his Archive Press and Publications…”

Should be “ …beautiful limited edition books at his Hermes Press…”

Page 120, 5th and 6th line up from the bottom: “… an Archive Press edition. …”

Should be “… a Hermes Press edition…”


In the rush to get the index and proofreading done in the two weeks allowed by the publisher, I confused Alan Ligda’s press with that of the Bentleys.



A Small Collectible Book by George R. Stewart

Take Your Bible in One Hand… was a special, limited edition book published by the Colt Press in 1939.  Stewart was interested in the life of William Thomes, who wrote about Mexican California (sometimes factually, sometimes with imagination), but it’s not clear why this short but oversized finely printed book was published by Colt.  Reading about Colt Press in the online archive of the Bancroft Library’s Regional Oral History Office’s oral history of Jane Grabhorn, conducted by Ruth Teiser, however, it’s easy to see that Stewart knew several of the people who were involved with the Press.  William Wheat, James D. Hart, Joseph Bransten, and Joseph Henry Jackson were all friends of Stewart’s and they may have suggested the printing of the book.

Only 750 copies were published.  They’re still available, at reasonable prices, if you’re interested in collecting.  Jane Grabhorn was also connected with the better-known Grabhorn Press; some of the Grabhorn  books go for substantially more than this one (and some for less).  So if you’re a true Stewart fan, or a fan of fine small presses and their books, this is a good way to begin a collection.

It’s also an interesting book about Mexican California – so interesting that you can also buy a new reprint of the book from Amazon or Barnes & Noble!

Small presses, like the Colt Press, played another role in the work of George R. Stewart, as you may remember from an earlier post.  When the big publishers dropped Earth Abides, Hermes Publications,  Alan Ligda’s small fine press, bought the rights and kept the book in print.  When the big publishers saw how well it sold, they bought the rights back.  It’s still in print; thanks to Alan Ligda  the book has never been out of print.

Distinguished Geographer Dr. Paul F. Starrs Reviews the GRS Biography

Dr. Paul F. Starrs is a distinguished professor of geography at the University of Nevada, Reno.  He’s received many accolades for his teaching and research, including four awards for excellence in teaching and a Fulbright Scholarship.  He has also written or co-written several books – most recently, the wonderful UC Field Guide to California Agriculture. (Every road traveler to this agricultural state should carry a copy of that book.)   He and his colleague Peter Goin also did a fine little book about a Nevada place, Black Rock,  immortalized by George R. Stewart in one of his ecological novels.

Dr. Starrs’ review of The Life and Truth of George R. Stewart has now been published in the Association of American Geographers (AAG) Review of Books.  More an essay than a simple review, his work discusses the life, ideas, and books of George R. Stewart in the context of the biography.  You need to be registered to read the full article – an expensive registry, I’m sure – but you can see the preview here: 

It’s an honor to have the George R. Stewart biography, The Life and Truth of George R. Stewart, reviewed by Dr. Starrs.

Professor Howell’s students review Earth Abides

Yesterday a pleasant comment came to the Earth Abides mailbox:

I hope this finds you well. I’m currently teaching a class at Temple University for which we just read Earth Abides, and I thought you’d be interested in seeing what my students had to say about the novel. The general theme of the class is “climate change fiction” or “cli-fi,” and Stewart’s book fit into the class marvelously. 20 students wrote reviews of the book, which you can read here if you’re inclined:

Temple University is in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Stewart’s home state.  He wrote several works which were partly or completely set there. So it’s an appropriate place to be teaching about him.

Professor Howell was also kind enough to say that he’s reading the GRS biography, and other GRS books.

I’ve begun reading the student essays.  It’s very satisfying to see young people rediscovering GRS and his work, especially Earth Abides.  The authors have given me some new perspectives on the book, from the experience of the inhabitants of the early third millennium.

Please take the time to read some of those reviews, if you will.  If you add a comment on the page, Professor Howell will be able to read it.  And, as I said to him, he is a pioneer in the renaissance of Stewart’s work.  And he’s coined (or at least uses) a clever name for a new kind of fiction:  “CliFi.”  Climate Fiction.

(PS. Professor Howell sends a note to say that the term CliFi didn’t originate with him. Dan Bloom is the coiner of the term.  You can read Bloom’s weblog here:




ABE books showcases Earth Abides

Today’s email brings a message from ABE books, a subdivision of Amazon focused on collectible titles,  about “End of the World” books.  The book highlighted, in both text and image, is Earth Abides. As the essayist notes, “This is an extremely influential book.”  Indeed.

Browsing through the hardcover first editions, you’ll discover that the high-end prices have gone up quite a bit.  A signed first with dust jacket, in fine condition is being offered for $4500.

It’s good to see this masterwork beginning to receive its due.

If you have a first edition, I’d recommend keeping it in a safe place.