Waiting with Bated Breath: Will We Hear George R. Stewart reading his manuscript of Earth Abides?

UCB_Doe_7The 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.
MML,
Permission and Access Officer

The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley
lange@berkeley.edu

 

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.

bancroft-reading

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 Sun by 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.

Bancroft Ranger          National Park Service Ranger ready to do NPS research at the Bancroft Library

 

*The Bancroft uses donations to fund such special projects, and also accepts donations of exceptional items that are within the purview of their collections.  You might consider sending them a donation .

2019: EARTH ABIDES ACHIEVES PLATINUM

Ish's Hammer(1)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 best essay about the novel was written by James Sallis and published in The Boston Globe.  Like Stewart, Sallis realizes the importance of integrity and beauty in his work, and it’s reflected in his essay.  (Sallis is a distinguished novelist and poet, whose noir novella Drive was filmed by Nicolas Winding Refn.)

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.

Hermes EA

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.

ligda

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.

EA Morleys

 

The End of the World, Past and Future

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.