The Case of George R. Stewart and the Lore of STORM

This is indeed the summer – and the week – of George R. Stewart.

A film, currently planned to be a documentary about one of Stewart’s non-fiction books, is under development.  STORM is being republished by the New York Review of Books Press and offered as the NYRB Classics Book Club selection for August. The Dixie Fire is burning almost exactly where Stewart placed his fire, “the spitcat,” in FIRE‘s fictional “Ponderosa National Forest.” And a slice of Lore about the writing of STORM  has resurfaced.

A message has come from old friend and Bookman Roger, announcing a tour of 2706 Virginia by the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association.  It’s a remarkable coincidence, because the description of the property’s provenance says that George R. Stewart once owned the house, and that STORM was written there.  That’s almost certainly Lore; but since it’s connected to STORM, it may have some truth to it. So as a Holmes or Watson of things Stewartian, I must take the case on.

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2706 Virginia Street, Berkeley, from the entrance pathway                                               Photo used by permission of Norah Brower

The source for the story is an article published a few years ago in American Bungalow Magazine, an excellent publication about Arts and Crafts architecture, in Issue 55. The article by John Ribovich  profiles the house and its provenance.  It mentions that GRS wrote STORM in the house.

In 2017, when the article was published, I contacted Mr. Ribovich to find out who his source was for the GRS comment.  During a pleasant conversation he directed me to someone (whose name I’ve since forgotten) who gave him that information.  I contacted that person, we discussed it, and – as I recall – she said she heard the story from a member of the Taylor-Lange Family.

Yesterday, Daniella Thompson, the Website Editor for the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association, sent an email which pretty much clears up the mystery about this bit of Lore about the Storm —  and also adds significant information to the GRS story.   She writes “…Paul Taylor and Dorothea Lange never owned 2706 Virginia Street. They rented it in 1935 and remained until 1940, when they moved to 1163 Euclid Avenue, which they did own. As for George R. Stewart, he was listed at 2706 Virginia Street in the 1934 city directory, meaning that he lived there before the Taylors.”

campanile at dusk

Campanile, University of California, Berkeley, and Bay Area from 2706 Virginia Street.     Photo used by permission of Norah Brower

 

Daniella Thompson’s information helps everything fall into place.

The Stewarts rented 2706 Virginia for less than a year.  Daughter Jill recalled the “House on Virginia Street”  as the place of some trauma:

…Jill Stewart was old enough to remember life in “the house at the top of  Virginia Street” as particularly unsettling. One day she heard “a terrifying  noise” from the flats of Berkeley—a house leaking natural gas had blown up.  Not long after, she heard a crash near the Stewart home and ran out to see a car teetering over the drop-off at the edge of the street. The passengers were sitting in the car, afraid to move. The car was eventually righted without injury to its passengers, but for a long time Jill was afraid to travel in cars. Jill’s third memory of the house was the most traumatic: she fell through a glass door.  She still carries a small facial scar from the fall. ..

Thanks to Daniella Thompson, we know now that the “house at the top of Virginia Street” is the legendary 2706 Virginia.  (It is a remarkable house, by the way, now for sale.)

In 1934, the Stewarts moved to the first house they could afford to buy, nearby in the Berkeley Hills.  Since the Stewarts knew the Taylors, Thompson’s guess is that George (or Ted) Stewart told them the house on Virginia Street was available for rental and Taylor and Lange moved in.

But was STORM written there?

Stewart was researching the book in the winter of 1940-41.  We know that because Ted Stewart told a story about GRS’s ride on a steam engine’s cowcatcher over Donner Summit in a major winter Sierra storm to get a sense of the storm, which is included in the biography:

Years later, Ted remembered how much she worried over the chances George took to do his research. To get the feeling of a Sierra storm, for example, he rode a locomotive cowcatcher through a snow flurry to the top of Donner Pass. Ted, who had driven to the Pass to meet him, found him almost frozen.  

STORM was published in late 1941.  During the time of research and writing the Stewarts were living in the house they had owned for several years, so the novel wouldn’t have been written on Virginia Street. The Stewarts had been long gone from the house on Virginia Street when STORM was being written.

To verify that, I asked Jack Stewart if he remembered his father writing at their friends’ house.  “No, I don’t.  And I don’t think he would do that.  It’s not like my father.”

Since GRS had an excellent “monk’s cell” in their house which was filled with resources a writer needs and the volumes of research material he needed while writing the novel Jack’s expert intuition was certainly correct.

So:  is there any truth to the story?  Or is it simply STORM  Lore?

Here are some possibilities:

Since the Stewarts and Taylors were friends, we can assume that the Stewarts visited them regularly.  If they visited while GRS was writing his novel, they may well have discussed it and those discussions may have influenced the writing.

There is a possible chance GRS was asked to watch the house for a short time when the Taylors had to leave for a family emergency or vacation. If so, it would be likely that he worked on it while in the house.

Or perhaps the two bits of Data – “The Stewarts lived in this house in the early 1930s; and, his friends Taylor and Lange lived here while GRS was writing STORM, ” mingled and were transmuted into Lore:  “George R. Stewart wrote STORM in this house.”

We’ll never know.  But this is the type of interesting scholarly mystery that needs to be investigated as far as we can go with it if our books are to be true, believable, and interesting.

Thanks to Bookman Roger and Daniella Thompson, we know now much more about the lives of GRS and his family than when the biography was written.  I find it of great interest to know the Stewarts lived in that exceptional, iconic house on Virginia Street just as GRS was beginning to change the world’s vision of human-Earth relationships; and that the remarkable Dorothea Lange and Paul Taylor moved into the house when the Stewarts left.

Many of you may not know Lange and Taylor, but they were perfect friends for the Stewarts, and like GRS worked to change the world.  Lange immortalized the common folk of the time, creating one of the greatest and best-known photographic portraits  of the era;  Taylor, like GRS, a professor at UC Berkeley, integrated social concerns of workers and other common people with photography, and hired Lange to take the photos (then married her); GRS was a great admirer of the uncommon common people that the Taylors worked, and used similar characters in his novels.

The friendship of the Lange and Taylor, and the Stewarts, and their sequential sharing of that house is worth a book in itself. In fact, I believe the house is worthy of National Historic Landmark status.

At least the mystery has been more or less cleared up, and we can turn our gleanings over to future scholars.

“Migrant Mother” by Dorothea Lange, once a resident of the House on Upper Virginia Street.

6 thoughts on “The Case of George R. Stewart and the Lore of STORM

  1. I love tracking down these little mysteries. I don’t know as many people as you do, but within the people I do know, I’m a very good tracker. But — what about the movie? When? Who is making it and is it for general viewing? My curiosity if very piqued!

  2. Don,

    I agree, very interesting information indeed! If you keep sleuthing GRS’s life, you might just come up with some additional bits of fascinating information. You could very well end up writing an updated edition of the book. I for one would surely look forward to that!

  3. Thanks, Fred. I am working on a new book, and thought I’d left GRS behind and well-taken care of. But as you suggest, these new nuggets do encourage thinking about a revised edition. Stay tuned.

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