George R. Stewart’s Friends, I – C.S. Forester

Stewart once wrote that although his life as a scholar had been necessarily a lonely one, he’d had some remarkable encounters along the way.  Many of those encounters were with other writers of his time, some of whom became household names, and in a few cases those people became close and life-long friends.

Over the next few months, as time and the move permit, this web log will share some of those friends with its readers.   Since I’ve just finished re-reading C.S. Forester’s The Good Shepherd, and am currently watching “Horatio Hornblower” on YouTube, Forester seems a good subject.

C.S. Forester is best known for his Horatio Hornblower series, 12 novels set in the Napoleonic Wars with track the adventures and the growth of a young Englishman in the Royal Navy.  The character lives on, long after the death of Forester – Captain James T. Kirk of the Starship Enterprise is modeled in part on Hornblower.

hornblower image

to see the first episode on YouTube, click here

Forester also wrote The African Queen, which was made into an excellent, award-winning film by John Huston.   The film, still excellent, and not dated, stars Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn – he, the hard-drinking grizzled skipper of a small steam-powered boat (think Disneyland’s Jungle Cruise boats), she, a prim, religious woman, both trying to escape from the German military in Africa during World War I.  After many adventures, they’re captured by the Germans and sentenced to hang.  But…… but you’ll have to see the movie or read the book to find out what happens.

The-african-queen-1-

to see the trailer, click here

Forester was born Cecil Louis Troughton Smith.  Raised by his mother in England after early childhood in Cairo, and studying medicine, he decided he wanted to be a writer. He began writing in 1921.

By 1940, he’d convinced the British government to let him move to the United States as a writer of propaganda encouraging Americans to enter the war on England’s side.  He soon found himself living in North Berkeley, where he would stay until his passing in the middle 1960s.

He was a well-known author by the time he arrived in Berkeley – The African Queen was published in 1935, and the first Hornblower novel in 1937 – and he’d published many other works as well.  His Berkeley circle quickly grew to include others who were successful academics and writers.  One of those was George R. Stewart.

By 1940, Stewart was also a well-known writer.  He’d published landmark biographies of Bret Harte and humorist George Horatio Derby.  His 1936 book on the Donner Party was a best-seller, and first “Whole Earth” book.  He’d written two novels, one scheduled to be filmed until the war interceded.  And he was working on the first ecological novel, Storm.

Stewart and Forester were innovators, who often broke the literary conventions of their day to produce works that stood head-and-shoulders above that time.  In Storm Stewart integrated history, science, and story into an unprecedented novel that looked at an ecological event and its influence on human affairs from a smooth, interdisciplinary perspective.

In The Good Shepherd, Forester also breaks convention.  The novel tells of a terrifying 48 hours in which the Commander of ships protecting an Atlantic  convoy from a German wolf pack  of U-boats must shepherd his small but important fleet through foul weather and deadly attacks.  He’s never been a commander under fire, and often worries about his ability.  But he doesn’t worry much – he does what he must, even as exhaustion and hunger and the need to go to the head creep upon him, to the point that he must against all his beliefs break protocol to remove his shoes so his feet can begin to function again.

A conventional novel like this one would be broken into several chapters, probably one for each watch on each day or for each major encounter with the enemy.  But Forester wants his readers to FEEL the all-encompassing Commander’s experience of the battle.  So he only has 3 chapters.  The first chapter is a 6 page introduction to the setting and the mission.  The third chapter is also 6 pages, as the Commander has won the battle but – now able to rest – loses the battle to stay awake.

The second chapter is a 295 page immersion in the battle, in such detail that the reader begins to gain new respect for military procedure and trigonometry and a good, hot cup of coffee.  It is almost impossible to put down.  And by the end of it, the reader feels as exhausted, and joyful, as our commander.

That unusual approach alone sets the novel apart.  The reader is, or at least this reader was, exhilarated by the out-of-the-box structure and how right it is.  But Forester does more.  He inserts small bits of personal history which take us into the Commander’s past, and his heart and his soul, and we understand why a successful mission is so important to him – he’s sacrificed the chance for a happy personal life so he can do his duty to protect his convoy, and his world.

Stewart does something similar in his second novel, Doctor’s Oral.  It is the story of a day in the life of a graduate student facing a committee who will decide whether or not he gets his Ph.D.    One member of the committee, a woman professor, is quiet and somewhat mysterious.  Then Stewart, in one brief section, opens her soul to us, and thus opens our heart and our understanding to her.

In both cases Stewart and Forester manage to put, within a larger story, unforgettable revelations of character showing us real people rather than cardboard cutouts.  They enlighten us, to the truth of human experience.  It is the quality of great, rather than conventional, art.

Stewart and Smith/Forester became good friends, often working and relaxing together or with their families.  We can imagine them talking about their various projects in a local club, inspiring each other’s work, or one of Ted (Theodosia) Stewart’s many picnics.  They were also members of The Armchair Strategists, a group of scholars who examined the events of the week during World War II, and suggested strategies based on their work.  LIFE Magazine carried a story and photograph about the Armchair Strategists, with both men in the picture.

They went on picnics together.  Ted Stewart loved picnics, and George loved to drive.  They’d head north over the new Golden Gate Bridge, then west into Marin County.  In those days, picnickers could park in a pull out and spread the lunch on the grass next to the road.  Not much traffic, and not many restrictions.   It would have been a time of relaxation, laughter, and light talk.

Here’s a photo of one such roadside picnic.  The photo, from Anna Evenson’s Stewart Family Photo Collection, looks like the photographer – almost certainly Stewart – set the camera on the ground and used a self-timer to take the picture.  It is probably taken in the early-to-mid 40s, to judge by the clothing and the apparent age of the subjects.

cs forester, grs, tbs, mrs  from the anna evenson stewart family photo collection

Ted Stewart is on the right.  GRS, seated in the back next to Mrs. Forester, is wearing sunglasses.  C.S. Forester is laying on his back in the middle foreground, apparently wearing jodphur riding pants and large hiking boots.  They’re all smiling for the camera; but those smiles are certainly honest ones.  It looks like a good time – and no picnic of Ted’s was ever anything but wonderful.  (I speak from  personal observations of a few at Thornton State Beach, and a sharing in one with the classic Ted Stewart lunch of cold chicken, good sourdough bread, and a nice white wine.)

Since GRS and Ted lived on into the 1980s, their friendship would likely have continued  until Forester’s death in 1966.  After GRS retired in 1964, there would have been more time for picnics.  I hope there were many, and many cheerful conversations about books and writing.

Read Forester, if you’re a Stewart fan.  The Good Shepherd is a fine place to start.  So is The African Queen, or any of the Hornblower novels.  As you read, think about the friendship between these two fine writers, and their families, and the influence it may have had on their work.

 

 

 

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