In early October, 1949, Random House published the First Edition, First Printing of George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides. Since that day, October 7, 1949, Stewart’s novel has never been out of print, and the impact of the work on society and culture has been substantial. See this article for a summary of the book, its themes, and its influence.
Recently republished by Mariner Books, with a fine new Introduction by Kim Stanley Robinson, the novel continues to inspire its readers with page-turning prose and provocative ideas. If you’ve never read it, this would be a good time – as the nights lengthen and the weather encourages evenings sitting by the fire with a good book at hand – to read the new edition. If you’re a fan of the novel, this would be a good time to read it again, seated in the easy chair by the fireplace.
A package arrived last week carrying copies of the new printing of Earth Abides, with its splendid “Introduction” by Kim Stanley Robinson. Even if you have a copy of EA, this very affordable printing is worth buying for Robinson’s Introduction to the novel. (Buy from the non-profit Bookshop.org and a percentage of the sales will go to support independent bookstores.)
I consider the cover of this printing one of the three best EA covers. (And there have been many covers)
The original cover, by H. Lawrence Hoffman, is a fine piece of art depicting a ruined city after the fall – a city which looks to be San Francisco.
But as wonderful as Hoffman’s cover is, images of ruined cities speak of loss. My other favorites, which include the one on this new printing’s cover, focus on the Hammer of Ish — a powerful symbol of rebuilding, and thus hope. One of them is the cover of this new printing, with the Hammer centered over what appears to be a view of Earth from above the clouds. That overview encourages readers to keep a Whole Earth in mind as they read the gripping, encouraging story set during a pandemic not unlike the one Stewart describes.
My third favorite is by Alan Ligda, a hero of Earth Abides.
When Random House decided to stop publishing the book, Ligda acquired the rights from Stewart. His edition is a beautiful work printed by Hermes Press, his family’s small fine quality press.
Ligda centered the Hammer of Ish on the cover, juxtaposed over an open book. The cover makes an important point: LIke the Hammer, books are tools — for such as Stewart, Ligda, and all writers and readers.
(Sadly, as heroes often do, Alan Ligda died young.)
Ø Ø Ø
My order of the new Earth Abides was shipped on the publication date. October 13. On October 14th, by coincidence (or Jungian synchronicity?) I shared lunch and conversation about things Stewartian with Ed, George and Ted (Theodosia) Stewart’s grandson and the current keeper of the family rights. We hadn’t seen each other since his grandmother’s memorial service, about 30 years ago, so we spent some time catching up.Then we turned to matters of the GRS Legacy that he manages. No need to go into great detail, but thanks to his request for advice about book contracts and followup suggestions from my agent, Sally van Haitsma, it looks as if Ed and the Legacy are about to get an excellent agent. (The agent’s in Berkeley where most of Earth Abides takes place. He once managed a legendary bookstore, Cody’s. And he’s looking for clients.) The agent is also familiar with film options and contracts. Since there’s now interest in filming another of GRS’s other books should be a marriage made in heaven (as they say)..
All-in-all, the middle of October 2020 has been a milestone time for the Legacy of George R. Stewart, and Earth Abides.
Ø Ø Ø
It’s been 6 decades since a kind, wise librarian walked into the stacks, pulled out a book, and said “Here. I think you’ll like this book.” The trail from there has been like that of Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow: winding, up and down and back and forth, often through the dense fogs of life. But the winding path has always been lit by the lessons George R. Stewart teaches in Earth Abides. Learning that Kim Stanley Robinson generously mentioned the GRS biography in his Introduction to the new printing of EA, brings this life arc almost full circle – from reading the book as a 12-year old to finding myself in the book. It is a pleasant summiting. Lunch with Ed while we chewed over things Stewartian were gifts of the summiting, after that decades-long wandering saunter.
Seeing Ish’s Hammer beautifully displayed on the book’s cover makes my spirit sing. During those many years, the Hammer of Ish has been an encouraging (if symbolic) companion. Like a lantern or a grail, it has been a life-gift. As has Earth Abides.
….By gifted artist, schoolmate of Lennon and McCartney, and playing an important role in the story of George R. Stewart and Earth Abides, Steve Williams (AKA The Pilgrim).
Want to buy a print of the painting? Here’s Steve’s website; contact information is near the bottom:
If you’ve been waiting to buy the “glorious” 2020 Mariner Press edition of Earth Abides, with an Introduction by distinguished author Kim Stanley Robinson, this is the week. The new printing of Earth Abides will be released on October 13th. (But not necessarily shipped; Amazon sent a notice that they would alert buyers when pre-orders ship. Other places to buy the book include your local bookstore. Or Bookshop, which helps support local bookstores.)
Even if you have a copy, you may want to purchase this new edition — published 71 years after George R. Stewart predicted a major pandemic which would affect the entire human race. This is the novel that inspired Stephen King to write The Stand, and poet/novelist James Sallis to write a poetic review of the power and glory of Stewart’s novel.
Sallis writes, in part,
…This is a book, mind you, that I’d place not only among the greatest science fiction, but among our very best novels.
Each time I read it, I’m profoundly affected, affected in a way only the greatest art — Ulysses, Matisse or Beethoven symphonies, say — affects me. Epic in sweep, centering on the person of Isherwood Williams, Earth Abides proves a kind of antihistory, relating the story of humankind backwards, from ever-more-abstract civilization to stone-age primitivism.
Everything passes — everything. Writers’ reputations. The ripe experience of a book in which we find ourselves immersed. Star systems, worlds, states, individual lives. Humankind.
Few of us get to read our own eulogies, but here is mankind’s. Making Earth Abides a novel for which words like elegiac and transcendent come easily to mind, a novel bearing, in critic Adam-Troy Castro’s words, “a great dark beauty.”
The new “glorious” paperback edition of Earth Abides will be released in mid-October. It can be pre-ordered now through your local, friendly, independent bookseller via BOOKSHOP or via Amazon.
This new printing is from Mariner Books (A division of Houghton Mifflin). It has, I think, the best cover for the book since the cover on the first edition in 1949:
Mariner Press Printing 2020
Cover of the First Edition, Random House, 1949
It also includes an Introduction by distinguished author Kim Stanley Robinson. He offers a brief but focused biography of Stewart; then describes the novel in terms of its place in similar literature and in Stewart’s fine body of work. He also makes the obvious and timely comparison between the events of Stewart’s novel and the current pandemic – a reminder that this is the best of times to read Stewart’s encouraging novel.
Even if you already own a copy, this edition is worth buying for Robinson’s excellent Introduction. Or to read or re-read Stewart’s fine novel, to see how the amazing thinker and writer George R. Stewart imagined our time, 71 years ago, and wrote a novel to help us deal with it.
In his first great work, Ordeal By Hunger, he told the story from an ecological (or Ranger’s) point of view. But he began with the Astronaut’s point of view from Low Earth Orbit. Not bad for a book published in 1936. (It’s still the best book about the Donner Party).
As he prepared for the publication of his ecological novel Firehe sent a letter to a Book-of-the-Month club publicist that prophetically explained:
“I consider the main theme … to be the problem of the relationship of man to his environment. I really think of myself, in most of my books, as what might be called an ecologist. ” (From a letter in the Bancroft Library’s George Rippey Stewart Papers. Published here by permission of the Stewart family.)
In the Third Book of The Years of the City, Stewart predicted how societies fade away, in a novel with disturbing parallels for today.
And in his classic work, Earth Abides, he predicted the end of the Anthropocene – the human era – through a disease that spreads rapidly throughout society, decimating most of the human race.
His interest in the idea came from his own experience. After graduation from Princeton University in the Class of 1917 (one of his classmates was F. Scott Fitzgerald), Stewart, like many of his classmates wrapped in patriotic passion by the US’s entry into WW I, enlisted. Like other army soldiers – young healthy men expected to be the most resistant to disease – he contracted the Spanish Flu. It nearly killed him; and it would interfere with his health for decades – eventually leading him to have one lung removed.
The flu infected ONE THIRD of the human population of the Earth. It may have killed as many as 50,000,000 people. And, like other recent epidemics, it became deadly when some component of a virus jumped from animal populations into a strain of human flu. This is exactly what caused the launch of coronavirus – almost certainly from a live animal market in China. Read about the 1918 epidemic. It killed perhaps 50,000,000.
(An excellent article about the Spanish Flu epidemic, In Flew Enza, focuses on the effects at UC Berkeley — discussing Stewart’s experience, and Earth Abides.)
So far COVID has killed about 6000, and has a 95% cure rate. This is not meant to discourage prudence but to point out that we are far from the 1918 pandemic.
Be prudent. Don’t panic.
If this already frightening disease, coronavirus, should mutate, Stewart’s prophesy could well become (at least partially) true. There are still isolated human populations – as many as 100 tribes, the Sentinelese being the best known – which might avoid the disaster.
Will this be the Earth Abides virus? Hopefully not. At least Stewart helped prepare us with his novel. The book is so widely-read and in so many languages that certainly many of those who are in the leading roles to battle this epidemic have likely read it, and have thus been thinking for decades about what to do if and when such an epidemic should happen. It has in fact been impressive to see how quickly they have begun to respond to it. So we shall wish them well and hope for the best.
In the meantime, you may want to re-read Earth Abide.
POSTSCRIPT, on the first day of spring 2020:
There is major economic and social disruption today – the economic weakening of a society, and the isolation of neighbors from each other when cooperation and high social capital are needed but prevented by locking down a town. A city with which I am familiar (as was George R. Stewart) has one case. They have demanded the closure of all businesses except food and drug stores and the hospital. Businesses can’t pay rent or employees; employees can’t pay rent or buy food. For ONE case in a city of more than 50,000.
And there are proposals to close the national parks – the best places for people to get the medical benefits of fresh air and exercise with the best of social distancing.
This would be a good time to consider Rudyard Kipling’s poem IF – especially the first few lines:
by Rudyard Kipling
If you can keep your head when all about you Are losing theirs and blaming it on you; If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, But make allowance for their doubting too: If you can wait and not be tired by waiting, …
The Bancroft Library, nestled between the Campanile and the Doe Library,
University of California, Berkeley
Photo copyright: MikkiPiperImaging.com Used with permission.
The Bancroft Library will digitize recordings of several manuscripts recorded by George R. Stewart.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, GRS decided to record his drafts. (Before this, his drafts were written with sharp pencils, so he always kept a wad of sharpened pencils near his desk). Since tape recorders were not available, we believe he used the Dictaphone or a similar system.
Over the years of researching and writing about Stewart and his works, the idea of finding those recordings and digitizing them never went away. But the big question was whether or not the Bancroft Library had the ability to digitize fragile recordings from an “ancient” format – if they existed and could be found.
Then, this week, a message came from the Bancroft Library:
I am happy to let you know that we are finally moving forward with digitizing the SoundScriber discs created (we believe) by George. The process has taken quite awhile as we switched from our original plan of having them digitized by our normal vendor to having them digitized by a somewhat new and much less invasive process.
Our normal audio vendor is set up to digitize physical audio formats, like the SoundScriber discs, by playing the disc on a machine with a stylus, much like you would listen to a record a home. The player is connected to some fancy equipment that records a digital file of the audio. The SoundScriber discs are extremely fragile and their inherent fragility means that playing them once might completely erase the audio. We were very nervous about the fragility and spent some time researching other methods of digitization that could mitigate the harm to the physical media. Luckily for us UC Berkeley is the home to Project IRENE, which is a project team that works on digitizing obsolete media using optics.
They have spent the last few years working on wax cylinders from the Phoebe Hearst Museum and the Library of Congress. We brought the possibility of the SoundScriber process to them and they were excited for a new challenge. They have now purchased new equipment to allow for their existing equipment to “play” SoundScriber discs and we plan to start digitizing the George Rippey Stewart discs soon.
As you can see from the Project IRENE website, they make as much of the material they digitize available as possible. We would like to know if you would be amenable to us making the material available to researchers in the following ways:
1. in the Reading Room at The Bancroft Library
2. on the internet at one of our collection sites and/or through the Project IRENE site (without downloading capabilities for researchers)
The material has not yet been digitized so we still do not know what is actually on the recordings. Please let me know what questions, comments, concerns you may have about making this material available to researchers.
Permission and Access Officer
The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley
The answer to the letter was a resounding “YES!” — from the GRS family and those of us sharing George R. Stewart with scholars, artists, and the general literate world.
And so it begins.
Ø Ø Ø
The backstory of events that brought us to this point is full of twists and turns. It depended on the hard work of GRS Helpers, including Michael Ward, Keeper of the George R. Stewart Wikipedia pages.
I had contacted the Bancroft as a somewhat-anonymous scholar wondering about digitizing the recordings. But Stewart left strict instructions with the Bancroft: No one was to listen to those recordings without his specific written permission. When GRS passed away in 1980, permission would need to come from the family’s holder of copyright.
The Bancroft Librarians began searching for the family keeper of permissions. Discovering Mike’s excellent GRS website they contacted him, asking if he could direct them to the person who could authorize the digitization and sharing of the recordings.Mike directed the Bancroft to me.
I connected them with Ed Stewart, GRS’s grandson, who manages permissions since his father Jack Stewart’s death. Ed quickly gave his ok.
The Librarians began the process of finding the best and safest way to transfer those fragile old recordings to modern digitized form. The letter explains the next steps they’ll take to preserve those treasures of literature.
Heller Reading Room, The Bancroft Library
The Bancroft Library is one of the great literary repositories on Earth. Their collections include ancient papyrus texts, 49er diaries and journals (including those of the Donner Party), the Papers of the founders of the National Park Service and the Wilderness Society, and Mark Twain. (Clemens’ family insisted on the Bancroft.) And the Bancroft holds the Papers of George R. Stewart, soon, we hope, to include his recordings of several of his manuscripts.*
Of course, as the Bancroft Librarian says, we don’t yet know exactly what’s on those recordings. But there is good evidence that some of them contain GRS’s reading and verbal notes on his great epic, Earth Abides. That novel, never out of print, influenced writers like James Sallis and Stephen King (who based The Stand on Earth Abides), and composer-musicians including Phillip Aaberg and Jimi Hendrix (Hendrix was inspired to write Third Stone from the Sunby Stewart’s book). Stewart’s novel is one of the great inheritances from our time, to all time.
GRS Composer/Scholar Philip Aaberg’s new video from Montana’s HiLine, honoring the Montana Farmers’ Union.
The hope we may soon be able to hear GRS reading parts of the novel in draft form is, well, stunning. The idea that the Bancroft will share that with the world’s scholars is a credit to them and the tools of this age.
It has been a long journey, indeed full of twists and turns, aided along the way by critical helpers, as our small band of scholars seeks the holy grail: To teach the literate world and the STEAM-thinking world about George R. Stewart’s books and his ideas. Now, at a summit on the Stewart Trail, we appear to be close to receiving a boon. That boon – hearing Stewart read his manuscripts – will be shared with the world.
Whatever is on those recordings, I am infinitely grateful for the hard work of all who have brought GRS and his works to this point.
As digitizing progresses, I’ll send updates. Stay tuned.
National Park Service Ranger ready to do NPS research at the Bancroft Library
According to Google, both the 70th and hundredth anniversaries are honored with platinum gifts. Since Earth Abides is closing in on the 70th anniversary of publication, George R. Stewart’s epic work is approaching platinum.
The novel was published on October 7, 1949. It immediately caught the attention of reviewers for its well-written, epic tale of humans living in a world they no longer dominate. One later reviewer went so far as to call it “a second work of Genesis.” With its title from Ecclesiastes, and the old testament rhythm of its language, it is almost biblical in its feeling.
Stewart later insisted he didn’t intend it to be a religious work. But even he admitted that there was “a certain quality there.” The language was one reason. Stewart taught himself Hebrew before he wrote the book. He wanted to translate portions of the Bible into more-modern English. He was surely influenced by the style of ancient Hebrew.
The book has had enormous influence. Stephen King based The Stand on Earth Abides, Grammy-nominated composer Philip Aaberg wrote “Earth Abides,” Jimi Hendrix was inspired to write “Third Rock From the Sun” by the novel (his favorite book), other authors and scientists honor Stewart’s works. It is published in either 20 or 27 languages, depending on who you ask. There is some talk of producing a film version of the novel.
The novel has never been out of print –no thanks to its original publisher. Random House decided to pull the novel in the early 1970s. Fortunately, Stewart and small fine press publisher Alan Ligda quickly got together and brought out a beautiful copy from Ligda’s Hermes Press.
The Hermes edition sold well. Random House quickly realized they’d made a mistake and bought the rights back.
Thanks to Alan Ligda, Earth Abides has been in print for seventy years come next October. He is a Hero of the novel. Sadly, he died young, and won’t be able to help celebrate the book’s Platinum Anniversary. So please take a minute (or more) to say a silent thanks to Alan Ligda while you celebrate the novel.
And read the novel again. (You’ll have to do a number of readings to catch up with Steve Williams, the Pilgrim, who doesn’t know how many dozens of times he’s read it.) As you read, reflect on Stewart’s role in raising our consciousness of the ecosystem. His wildly popular ecological novels, Storm, Fire, and Earth Abides, and his less-widely read “post-modernist” ecological novel, Sheep Rock, have shaped our thinking. Like most great creative works of thought, they have more power than all the armies in existence. That pen (or, in Stewart’s case, pencil) is mightier than the sword.
By the way – if you want to buy a signed first edition, Morley’s Books in Carson City just happens to have one. It comes with a custom box to protect the classic. Only $1600 – about half the price of another on offer at ABE.
George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides has been named (by James Sallis, among others) one of the finest dystopian, after-the-fall novels of all time, and one of the finest American novels. Its long history of popularity — never out-of-print (thanks to Alan Ligda), for nearly 70 years — shows the influence of the work. Recently I read two books which, to me, stand alongside Earth Abides in the ability to inspire thinking about the possible end of human civilization. One, a novel, is told from the point of view of an Amish farmer. The other, a history and adventure, looks to a past collapse to speculate about how civilizations have ended just as Stewart foresaw – due to disease.
When the English Fall is David Williams’ novel about Pennsylvania’s Amish country after a massive solar storm destroys all things electrical. There’s no power to run vehicles, freezers, hospitals, lamps, washing machines, or radios and computers. The Amish are not much affected by the end of industrial civilization – at least not initially. They send their surplus food to the starving people in a nearby city, continue to farm and can, and pray for strength and deliverance. But soon the city’s population runs out of food, and begins to move toward the Amish community in often-violent raids. The Amish must face the possibility that they may have to choose between their peaceful ways, and the survival of their friends and families. Their choice is not for me to reveal here. But the book’s ending is hauntingly similar to that of Earth Abides.
The novel is written in the first person – pages from a journal found later. It feels Amish in style – gentle, reflective, spiritual, loving. While Earth Abides has a power sometimes called Old-Testament biblical and intersperses the narrative with short poetic passages that can feel like psalms, the quiet style of the journal supposedly written by a deeply religious person feels more like the quiet New Testament conversations Jesus has with followers.
Author David Williams is a Presbyterian minister who enjoys hoppy beer and dirty motorcycles – sounds like someone worth meeting. But he understands his hero, Jacob the Amishman as a man of belief, and is able to communicate Jacob’s ideas in a way that will reach all readers.
The Lost City of the Monkey God is NOT fiction. It is a journalistic report of a real expedition to discover lost cities in Honduras. But it is written by someone who is an experienced and best-selling novelist, who knows how to keep his audience involved to the point of reading into the early hours of the morning. Douglas Preston tells the story in good journalistic fashion combining the space-based perspective of LIDAR with the grungy, dangerous, slow cutting through a snake-infested jungle so dense that an expedition member could get lost within a hundred yards of the others.
Then, in an interesting finale inspired by what happened to the explorers after they left the jungle, the book becomes an ecologically-based work which in the best STEAM manner weaves together archaeology, history, pre-history and speculation to suggest a reason why these cities – and perhaps other ancient Latin American cities – were so quickly and inexplicably abandoned. Again, this is no place to spoil the book’s conclusion. Yet, like When the English Fall, it is powerfully evocative of Stewart’s great work.
In fact, it is almost as if The Lost City of the Monkey is a prequel to an ancient version of Earth Abides.
Like Earth Abides, these two books are ecological works which look at the interconnections between humans and the ecosphere. I highly recommend them to anyone influenced by George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides. And to anyone who enjoys a smashing good read.