George R. Stewart’s Essays on Americans

American Ways of Life was based on a collection of lectures Stewart gave as a Fulbright Scholar in Greece.  There was great interest in American culture in Europe, especially after this nation led the successful effort to defeat the Nazis and the Fascists.  The world-wide fascination with Mickey Mouse and jazz and American movies added to the interest.  (Today, interestingly, the nation of China is mad to learn more about the USA.)

Stewart re-wrote the essays when he returned home, added several chapters, and the book was published in 1954.  It was a successful and popular book; but had nowhere near the power or endurance of Earth Abides or Names on the Land.  The book had a good run, and was re-printed in paperback.  But it is in much shorter supply today.  There’s a signed first edition on Amazon for about $165; (If that were a copy of Earth Abides, with a dust jacket, it would go for far more money. A fine edition of EA in a fine dust jacket is now on offer on ABE for $4750.)

The book is dated, a little pedantic, and suffers from the curse of trying to cover most American cultural topics in 300 pages.  There are chapters on food, holidays, religions, sex (of course – the Kinsey Report was fresh in those days), land and people, shelter, and so on.  Some of his scholarly interests are showcased – there’s a chapter on personal names, for example.  Interestingly, some of Stewart’s other interests are missing – U.S. 40 had just been published, but there’s nothing about American roads or traveling, for example.

Stewart, as always, enters the pages at times to make his comments about the various topics.  In the chapter on arts, in the section about books, he bemoans the public library as an institution that takes royalties from authors by buying one book for many readers.  Since Stewart was on the UC Berkeley Library Committee, that is probably done somewhat tongue-in-cheek.

He also uses the microcosm, as always, to address the macrocosm.  For example, in the chapter on sports, he uses the professionalization of major sports to make a cautionary comment about the specialization of American society:

“Still another phase of specialization is represented by the sharp differentiation between spectator and participant…

“Americans have hired people to play baseball for them…. “Spectator sport” has become a regularly-recognized term, and we have not only “sports clothes,” but even “spectator-sport clothes.” Some see in this development a fine manifestation of democracy, and point out that the spectator has a magnificent opportunity to identify himself with a group. Others, more pessimistically, point out that the periods of the great development of spectator sports have not been those of a democracy, but may be found in the periods of the later Roman and Byzantine empires. ….” (Stewart, George R., American Ways of Life, pp. 244-5)

Stewart had begun working on his Greek historical novel, The Years of the City, which in its Third Book details the collapse of an over-specialized society that neglects its resources and its environment preferring to spend its leisure time on poetry, art, and sport.  This comment probably reflects the fact that he was already  thinking along those lines.

I would not recommend this as the first or the only Stewart book to read,  and I’d caution readers that it lacks the fire of  Fire or Names on the Land or Earth Abides.  Yet it is a good addition to a GRS library, and fine overview of the United States in its highest and greatest moments.  Copies, used, can be had for very little money; and the chance to get a signed copy for less than $200 is rare.

 

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