For years this weblog has been promising news about a possible film version of Earth Abides. There may be more detailed news soon. That’s all I can report now – but please stay tuned…. and prepare to celebrate.
The late Alan Ligda, who gets the credit for keeping Earth Abides in print without a break for 74 years. When Random House dropped the book his Hermes Press bought the publishing rights and produced a beautiful edition. When that printing sold like hotcakes, Random House bought the rights back.
Words, when written, crystallize history; their very structure gives permanence to the unchangeable past. –Francis Bacon, essayist, philosopher, and statesman (1561-1626)
George R. Stewart’s Names On The Land was published in 1945 just as World War II ended. In a letter to Stewart, his friend, Pulitzer Prize Winner Wallace Stegner, jocularly said he was interested in reading the book to see if GRS had included some of the more salacious names on the American land or if he’d cleaned them up so as not to offend the blue noses. Stewart was name-honest in the book, but discreetly so.
Today, however, that approach would surely result in loud protests over his description and explanation of the origins of American place names.
There is a wave of censorship about place names and an avalanche of renaming not unlike the practice in Orwell’s 1984 of changing history and word meanings on a frequent basis: Done for political reasons and ignoring the effect on the history of our nation and our times.
Some names are clearly insensitive, and no one should oppose such renaming. But many names which WE have made derogatory were in their original meanings only descriptive. If the naming bluenoses insist on sanitizing them to the detriment of their true meanings it would be unfair to those who originally used them. Much better to modify them so the original meaning is clear.
“Squaw,” for example, originally meant “young woman” or woman to Algonquin and other indigenous peoples; when immigrants began flooding here certain of them made the word a slur; but to deny the honest name is to give the racists who changed its meaning another nasty victory over those first American peoples by corrupting their language. If “Squaw Valley” is offensive, re-name it “Young Woman Valley.”
Place names are also often used to honor people who at particular times in our history had a profound effect on our nation and our world. Sometimes their influence is seen as glorious; sometimes, in hindsight, as dangerous. Yet in removing “Washington” from the maps because he owned slaves we also remove reminders of him from our history. Ironically, that could mean other countries who’ve honored the man who led our fight for independence would be celebrating him but Americans would forget who he was.
One especially egregious example is the current attempt to remove Joseph LeConte’s name from the land. LeConte and his brother John were Georgians who owned slaves during and before the Civil War. Extremely racist, they supported the Confederate war effort. After the rebels were defeated the LeContes moved west to California. Excellent scientists and university administrators (they’d been professors in a southern university) the brothers were quickly hired by the new University of California to provide strong academic foundations for the new school. It was a sound decision – John LeConte, Physicist and UC’s first President, established a physics program that would eventually lead to the discovery of new elements of matter – two of which, Californium and Berkelium are named for the University. Californium is at the heart of many smoke detectors.
John’s brotherJoseph LeConte was a beloved geology professor, botanist, and namer of species, who with his close friend John Muir and a few others founded the Sierra Club. The good work done by the club and its inspiration for the modern environmental and public lands protections movements are achievements on a summit of the greatest human accomplishments – like the Declaration of the Independence, written by another slave owner, Thomas Jefferson. Yet the 21st century Sierra Club, which owes its existence to Joseph LeConte, has “unnamed” the Lodge in Yosemite Valley which was built by the contributions of Sierra Club members and UC faculty and students to honor LeConte.
There was also an attempt to tar John Muir with the brush of racism. The true danger of Orwellian renaming is this: If those who founded the Sierra Club were racists, why, the Club may be a racist institution, so its arguments and programs for preservation of wild places can be ignored.
There’s a name for this kind of argument in debate circles: “Ad Hominem” – “To the man” – in which you turn a question of fact into a slander on an individual or an organization to cloud the evidence for the other side’s (stronger) case.
Another problem with such Orwellian “unnaming” is that it allows history to be forgotten. As George Santayana wrote, Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
In the Lake Tahoe and Carson Pass area, many features and places are named for Civil War people and events. Fredricksburg (a massive Confederate victory), Burnside Lake (named in jest by former southerners?) for the Union General who lost the Battle of Fredricksburg), Jeff Davis Peak (named for the President of the Confederacy), Reno (named for a fallen Union General). Those names are messages to help future scholars piece together the connections between the Lake Tahoe area and a Civil War thousands of miles away.
The proper way to deal with offensive names or names which carry an offensive history behind them is to add a plaque or addendum on the map explaining why they are offensive and that they’ve been left so people will know their history and not repeat its mistakes.
George R. Stewart was aware that such unnaming could happen, and he cautioned readers against it in Names On The Land: “The classical interests of the later eighteenth century are as much part of the history of the United States as are the existence of the Indian tribes or the Revolution. To maintain, as many have done, that Rome and Troy are mere excrescences on our map, is to commit the fallacy of denying one part of history in favor of another part–or else is to be ignorant of history.
“The ideals and aspirations of the Americans of that period deserve their perpetuation.”
In a similar way, Ken Burns, Lynn Novick, and Sarah Botstein wrote in the LA Times (9-11-22):
Do Americans today have the courage to look at the mistakes of our past for the sake of our improvement? Courage, in this case, includes our willingness to teach our entire history, to confront the difficult along with celebrating the positive. ….
…“If we’re going to be a country in the future, then we have to have a view of our own history which allows us to see what we were,” historian Timothy Snyder told us. “And then we have to become something different if we’re going to make it.”
Centuries ago, Thomas Jefferson wrote …a name when given should be deemed a sacred property….
George R. Stewart would heartily agree. Fortunately, through his writings on place names – some in his books, some now preserved in hidden places – future scholars will be able to discover why we named places for certain things or certain people at certain times. And while they will surely wonder at our glorification of the ignorance of our own history, they will honor George R. Stewart for his celebration of Names On The Land.
For many of my friends It’s a Wonderful Life is the Christmas movie. They, and George R. Stewart fans, will be interested in the connection between that classic film and Stewart. George R. Stewart – and another Stewart – spent their boyhoods in a town that was one of the inspirations for “Bedford Falls.”
George R. Stewart was raised in Indiana, Pennsylvania, where his mother’s family lived. His maternal grandfather, Andrew Wilson, planned to be a teacher and even helped found a school nearby (which would eventually become the prestigious Kiski School). But he couldn’t earn enough to support his family so he went into the mercantile business. He had a hand in a hardware store there, owned by another Stewart. That Stewart’s son was James Stewart, also raised in Indiana, PA.
George and Jimmy bore a remarkable resemblance to each other. With all their similarities in family history, geography, and physiology, you’d expect they were related. But they shared only one possible distant relative. And they lived in different worlds, in Indiana. The George Stewart family went to the middle-class Presbyterian church on the flats; Jimmy Stewart and his parents attended the upper-class Presbyterian church on the hill. GRS went to a public high school out west, Jimmy to a prestigious private school in the east.
Still, the two young Stewarts’ lives paralleled in remarkable ways. GRS and his family moved to Pasadena; he went to Princeton; and after marriage, moved his family to Berkeley, California. Jimmy Stewart also went to Princeton and also moved to Pasadena; then spent his life in Southern California. GRS wrote books, two of which were filmed. Jimmy made films, like the beloved Christmas classic. GRS worked at the Disney studios for a time, as an consultant to Walt. Jimmy worked at many studios, creating characters and stories that touched the hearts of millions.
With all these similarities, their paths apparently never crossed. GRS and his family left Indiana for California when he was 12, in 1905 – the year James Stewart was born. Out West, nothing in their interests or their work brought them together. Since the film we now consider a classic failed in its initial run, it is unlikely GRS would have seen it. (For one thing, GRS didn’t like the mass media and rarely if ever attended movies.)
Yet in the Christmas season we should remember there is one thing they shared – which, thanks to Capra’s film, we share with them: The experience of life in a small Midwestern American town in the early 20th century. For a time, we walk the streets and meet the people of the town, and the time, where both boys grew up. Indiana, Pennsylvania, is one of the inspirations for “Bedford Falls”.
From my book:
“George R. Stewart’s boyhood town was so archetypically American that it could pass for George Bailey’s “Bedford Falls” in Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life. In fact, the town was “Bedford Falls” – at least for the movie’s male star. Indiana, Pennsylvania, was also the boyhood home of James Stewart, who played “George Bailey” in Capra’s film.
In fact, Producer/Director Frank Capra probably modeled his set on the upstate New York town of Seneca Falls. But for James Stewart, Indiana, Pennsylvania, was the place he held in his heart as he brought George Bailey to life on the set of “It’s a Wonderful LIfe.” Although the movie’s “Bedford Falls” was built on a studio backlot in the San Fernando Valley, Jimmy Stewart said that when he walked onto the set for the first time he almost expected to hear the bells of his home church in Indiana.”
Each year, Indiana, Pennsylvania, holds an It’s a Wonderful Life Festival, with a parade, hot chocolate, tree lighting, and continuous showings of the film at the Jimmy Stewart Museum. The people lining the streets in their warm winter clothing bring life to the snow-bound town, in the same way the movie brings life to the streets of “Bedford Falls.”
When you watch Capra’s film this Christmas please give a thought to the boyhood town of George R. Stewart, Indiana, Pennsylvania, where he celebrated his Christmases. A town, which for Jimmy Stewart, was the model for the fictional Bedford Falls. A town which although fictional, brings an American Christmas into our hearts.