We’re near the end of our discussions of the books George R. Stewart wrote. At the end of his life, when I met him, he was working on the last one – American Given Names. In the same short period, near the end of his life, Stewart wrote two other names books: Names On the Globe, and American Given Names.
He also wrote a manuscript that was never published. Since that particular work, which is controversial, speaks to some of the same issues as The Year of the Oath, subject of the last post about the courage of author James Sallis. So this is a good place to discuss Stewart’s unpublished work.
The Shakespeare Crisis is an unpublished novel which takes us back to the same fictional university and many of the same characters as Stewart’s 1939 novel Doctor’s Oral. It is clearly inspired by events on the Berkeley campus in the post-Free Speech Movement era, when movements which had great campus support – if not government and university support – were joined by other movements which were often vicious, and counter to freedom and democracy. Stewart had been a quiet supporter of some parts of the earlier movements; but he, like many of his colleagues, was appalled at the later movements, with their damaging of buildings, disruption of classes, non-negotiable demands for huge university programs with no accountability, and the like. The novel is his answer to the gangs wandering the classrooms, breaking windows, and shouting disruptively. His villains are clearly modeled on the real villains – from across the spectrum – in the real movements.
The novel tells the story of two professors who get into a debate over the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays. A young feminist journalist decides to hype the disagreement into an academic war in order to pad her resume. As she scales up the argument a seller of theses, who is also an entrepreneur of chaos, sees it as an opportunity. He gathers his regular protesters for a meeting and encourages them to make this a major war over books and learning. As things escalate, the “journalist” makes sure that the entire world knows about it, the protesters disrupt the university, and the regents act abominably. The climax is an assault on the Library by the protesters, who plan to burn its books. And in one the great concept scenes in literature, the Librarians fight them off with the tools of their trade – staplers, books presses, and the like. But one of the professors, depressed by it all, takes his life. The campus holds a meeting.
A Professor Emeritus,obviously Stewart, rises to speak.
“In those eighty years that I remember, the world has not moved … in a way that
I, as an old man, now find wholly agreeable. The trust in reason, and the sway of
the intellect, seem to have weakened….
Like an old-fashioned preacher, I now present an anecdote that might be
called an emblem. When I took my modest walk, as I do twice daily on the campus,
I saw recently a word, POWER, illegally sprayed on a wall. Then, a day or
two later, it had been partially scrubbed away, and reduced to POW, the traditional
word having been transformed into a kind of semi-word, as if in replica of
our times, moving from reason to un-reason…. Then, this morning—again
walking—I saw it still further reduced to OW, a mere instinctual cry of human
confusion or distress, animal-like, lacking in what we once called reason. So have
my times gone!…
There was a famous saying … in my day … “The lamps are going out all over
Yet one of them never went out, though it flickered at times. And that was the
lamp of learning, which we sometimes envisage as a torch…. And always—or, at
least, in our times—the universities.”
In our time, as universities are assaulted with politically correct thought, hiring and promotion by standards other than academic, and repeated accusations of misbehavior which, with no hearings except in the press – in the manner of that feminist reporter in the novel – one might think that the universities have seen their lights dim and feel that Stewart, like that old professor, was right.
But, after all, Stewart’s manuscript is fiction, isn’t it?
Stewart felt so strongly about the issue that when the Librarians are assaulted one of them uses a profane phrase that is beyond the pale of Stewart’s usual dignified writing. It’s almost as if one of those protesters had written that paragraph. The word would never have appeared in a published novel – Ted (Theodosia) Stewart would never have permitted it.
But there was no need to censor a publication. The book was not published. Ted almost burned it, and only allowed it to go to the Stewart Papers after long and persuasive arguments by family and university colleagues. She felt that the novel, with its condemnations of protest movements, sounded like a conservative rant. And she, like her husband, were dedicated liberals. (Ted was so progressive in her political views that she voted for Socialist Norman Thomas every time he ran for President.) Ted and others also felt that it was not a worthy example of Stewart’s brilliant style. He had bitten off more than he could chew in years when he was aging. He was also angry, so the characters are cardboard and the novel reads more like a polemic than a work of tragedy or comedy.
The Shakespeare Crisis is now only to be found in the Stewart Papers. I’ve read it, and it helped me write by biography of Stewart. If you have the desire and wherewithal to travel to Berkeley and the days to read the manuscript in the Library, you may judge it for yourself. But I would certainly not judge George R. Stewart by that book – it is far below the quality or the power or the importance of his great works like Storm or Earth Abides or Names On The Land. Consider it an experiment, like his other books that weren’t published (at least three never saw the light of day).
The next posts will return to Stewart’s published works; to his final books, on names.