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.

NAMES ON THE GLOBE

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George R. Stewart’s last great book was Names On The Globe.  He wrote another names book, American Given Names, before he died, (see earlier post about  that book) but it was a dictionary and history of selected American names.  Names On The Globe, like his classic and never-duplicated Names On The Land, was a history of place-naming – in this case, on a global scale. Here, in the last post about one of Stewart’s major publications, is a short essay about the book.

As in Names On The Land, Stewart has created a rich, complex, and deep – but easily understood – history of the process of place naming and of eras of place naming.  Although it is supposedly about global naming, for many obvious and practical reasons GRS focuses on names in the areas we then called “western civilization.”  He was not a Chinese or Japanese scholar, nor an African one, nor one who knew much of Aboriginal languages and culture.  So he stuck with what he did know, with some brief chapters and comments about other regions of the world – assuming, probably, that others who came after him might add deeper histories of the naming in those places.  Another reason for emphasizing “Western Civilization” is that he spoke or read many Indo-European languages, and had studied the history of most Indo-European countries (save India), so he could do the scholarship necessary to tease out the story of those names.

He takes a different approach to understanding place naming in this book, beginning with an examination of Man as a Namer.  No recorded human society is without names.  Some have evolved, GRS says, and others were bestowed.  That is, in finding a previously unknown river its name “new river” evolved from the name of the original river.  But Tamsen’s Town was a name that would have been bestowed on a place by settlers of travelers.

GRS continues by considering the mind of Man the Namer, as he explains the types of place names given, and the reasons for giving them.  Some places, for example, were important to the namers because of incidents that happened there (Colt Killed Creek), others show possession  (Wassa’s Town, Washington),  others commemorate great (or small) events (Washington’s Crossing), and so forth.

In Part III, the longest section, GRS describes the names and naming in various places around the globe.  In discussing Celtic names, in modern Europe, he points out that they were so well-connected with the land that they outlasted the names later given by the Romans, even if in altered form.  But, as he points out, some of the “Celtic” names were probably originally given by earlier settlers.

Part IV is especially interesting, as Stewart considers important uses for ancient names – as tools for archaeologist, historians, and other scholars.  Fittingly, since Stewart was, after all, a poet who wrote prose, he ends with a chapter about place names as useful tools for poets. “…The romantic appeal springs from sonorous syllables, and from a sense of the strange, bizarre, and wonderful. …” Stewart writes, noting that the poet or author needs not to know the meaning of the name to use it in his work.  He quotes several famous poets who are known for the excellent use of such names, mentions Stephen Vincent Benet’s American Names.  And he quotes, appropriately, the beautiful opening of his own Names on the Land, where he lists the wonderful names found here – Gunsight Pass, Lone Pine, Broken Bow, Roaring Run, and the others.

He finishes the book, as he sometimes finished his works, with a reflection on even the most prosaic seeming of names, Cowbridge.  Did a cow fall from the bridge?  Or refuse to cross?  “….even the simple Cowbridge stirs the imagination,” George R. Stewart writes, as he finishes his great work.

The Author’s Note brings that work to a close.  He will finish and publish his book on American given names, but this, he knows, is his last great work.  So he honors his greatest friend, his wife, Theodosia, “who,” he writes, “might well be given the title Encourager of Books.”

And, thus, Opus Perfeci.  For this study of the books of George R. Stewart, and his life, and related topics.  Depending on what may come, I plan to add more as things of interest show up.  And since Stewart wrote of Earth from the view of space, ground, ecosystem, language, history, literature, and so on, I still have a broad canvas to draw on.

In the meantime, many thanks to all of you – from nearly 60 countries, in every continent save Antarctica at last count – who have visited this site, read the posts, commented on them, and encouraged the work.  You have been an inspiration.

 

 

 

Stewart’s Last Book – on Names

In the late 1970s, ill with Parkinson’s Disease, George R. Stewart worked valiantly to complete his last book.  The book was a dictionary of the names given to Americans, and, like Names on the Land, it considered those name-givings in an historical context.  The book was entitled American Given Names.

In the book’s “Introduction” Stewart describes several principles of American name-giving:  Names are given soon after birth; those names are considered permanent; names usually are gender-specific; the names chosen by the namers are considered “good” names; there is a huge pool of names from which to choose; names may leave the pool by misuse, and new names may be added by use; although the names may have originally come from many different languages, they are Americanized in spelling and pronunciation.   He follows that with a detailed “Historical Sketch,” nearly 40 pages long, which gives a good context for the types of names bestowed at different American eras, and some reasons for those choices.

The main section of the book is of course the dictionary of names.  Note that these are American given names – not English or any other nations, although many nations and tongues provided the names originally – so these names would be given to children born here.  Each name is defined; its origin and meaning given; and a brief history of its use included. Many of the names will seem dated now – the book is nearly 40 years old, and television and movies have had a profound impact on naming since then. But others are still common:  Robert, Catherine, Donald, Mary, John, and so on.  Since this is a work with an historical viewpoint, many of the names were not in common use even before publication, but Stewart included them as of historic interest.  Of just because he found them interesting.  How many people today are named Mahershalalhashbaz?

Stewart, good scholar that he was, leaves his readers with a quest – to track name changes of the late twentieth century, which seem like so much of that time to break with the past, to see if those new names endure, or if they’re replaced with other names.

The book is a good read, and a resource for scholars, writers, or anyone interested in American names.

 

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The book was published by Oxford in 1978.  Ted (Theodosia) Stewart told us that Stewart was  working while he lay in bed, in pain.  When someone commented that it must  be  hard to watch him do the work, Ted exclaimed, “No!  No one can live with George unless he’s writing!  Thank God he has this book to write!”

Stewart tried to write one more book, a biography of his father-in-law, University of Michigan President Marion LeRoy Burton.  But to read his manuscript is to feel deep sorrow.  He kept starting the book, over and over, but he could not get it beyond an early section.  He died without having made much progress on it.  On the other hand, he had written 28 published books, and a few never published; and even in the pain of his last illness, he wrote this fine book.

George R. Stewart’s Essays on Americans

American Ways of Life was based on a collection of lectures Stewart gave as a Fulbright Scholar in Greece.  There was great interest in American culture in Europe, especially after this nation led the successful effort to defeat the Nazis and the Fascists.  The world-wide fascination with Mickey Mouse and jazz and American movies added to the interest.  (Today, interestingly, the nation of China is mad to learn more about the USA.)

Stewart re-wrote the essays when he returned home, added several chapters, and the book was published in 1954.  It was a successful and popular book; but had nowhere near the power or endurance of Earth Abides or Names on the Land.  The book had a good run, and was re-printed in paperback.  But it is in much shorter supply today.  There’s a signed first edition on Amazon for about $165; (If that were a copy of Earth Abides, with a dust jacket, it would go for far more money. A fine edition of EA in a fine dust jacket is now on offer on ABE for $4750.)

The book is dated, a little pedantic, and suffers from the curse of trying to cover most American cultural topics in 300 pages.  There are chapters on food, holidays, religions, sex (of course – the Kinsey Report was fresh in those days), land and people, shelter, and so on.  Some of his scholarly interests are showcased – there’s a chapter on personal names, for example.  Interestingly, some of Stewart’s other interests are missing – U.S. 40 had just been published, but there’s nothing about American roads or traveling, for example.

Stewart, as always, enters the pages at times to make his comments about the various topics.  In the chapter on arts, in the section about books, he bemoans the public library as an institution that takes royalties from authors by buying one book for many readers.  Since Stewart was on the UC Berkeley Library Committee, that is probably done somewhat tongue-in-cheek.

He also uses the microcosm, as always, to address the macrocosm.  For example, in the chapter on sports, he uses the professionalization of major sports to make a cautionary comment about the specialization of American society:

“Still another phase of specialization is represented by the sharp differentiation between spectator and participant…

“Americans have hired people to play baseball for them…. “Spectator sport” has become a regularly-recognized term, and we have not only “sports clothes,” but even “spectator-sport clothes.” Some see in this development a fine manifestation of democracy, and point out that the spectator has a magnificent opportunity to identify himself with a group. Others, more pessimistically, point out that the periods of the great development of spectator sports have not been those of a democracy, but may be found in the periods of the later Roman and Byzantine empires. ….” (Stewart, George R., American Ways of Life, pp. 244-5)

Stewart had begun working on his Greek historical novel, The Years of the City, which in its Third Book details the collapse of an over-specialized society that neglects its resources and its environment preferring to spend its leisure time on poetry, art, and sport.  This comment probably reflects the fact that he was already  thinking along those lines.

I would not recommend this as the first or the only Stewart book to read,  and I’d caution readers that it lacks the fire of  Fire or Names on the Land or Earth Abides.  Yet it is a good addition to a GRS library, and fine overview of the United States in its highest and greatest moments.  Copies, used, can be had for very little money; and the chance to get a signed copy for less than $200 is rare.

 

“Each time I read it, I’m profoundly affected…” EARTH ABIDES

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James Sallis on EARTH ABIDES:

“…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….

“… Art’s mission is to make our lives large again, to dredge us out of this terrible dailyness. I begin each reading of Earth Abides knowing that, once the flight’s done, I’ll be meeting a new man there at the end of the concourse. The guy who got on the flight’s okay. I like the one who gets off a lot better.”         (Quoted with permission.)

James Sallis is a fine contemporary writer – poet, detective novelist, and the author of the recently filmed Drive.  Of all the accolades given to Stewart’s great novel – and there have been many – Sallis’s seems to me the best.  He captures the power, the magnificence, and the beauty.  He also honors the transcendent, life-changing nature of the novel.  For most, to read Earth Abides is to undergo an epiphany.    (Read Sallis’s essay here.)

Sallis is not the only one who reads and re-reads the book.  The Pilgrim, Steve Williams, who went to school in Liverpool with Lennon and McCartney, has read it so many times he’s lost count – but it’s in the hundreds.  A fellow blogger who goes by the name of teepee12 tells me she reads it every couple of years. I’ve read it many times since the summer in 1956, when it was placed in my hand by The Librarian.

She was one of the best teachers encountered during my life journey, and I don’t even know her name.  To this day, and in my biography of Stewart, that perceptive woman is only known as The Librarian – but when she handed me that book she handed me my life.

I don’t want to give the plot of Stewart’s novel away, but I’ll share enough to intrigue you – if you like adventurous, ecological, philosophical,  almost-religious works of literature. As in Storm and Fire, the ecosystem is the protagonist.  But in this case, it’s not an isolated ecological event; it’s the entire ecosystem, thanks to a small virus. The lives of the few human characters are defined by how they respond to the effects of the virus.  Ish, the male protagonist, is an intellectual who tries to find meaning in the events of the book. For him it’s a quest for a faith. His wife, Em, responds by bringing new life into the post-human world. For her, it’s a duty to carry the flame of human life and culture onward, no matter what the conditions.

The greatest adventure happens in the early part of the novel, before Ish meets Em. Returning from an ecological research project in the Sierra he finds that he has returned to a post-human world. He must deal with what has happened – even questioning whether it is worth continuing to live.   But he finds his answer in the sciences of geography and ecology.  It is a remarkable opportunity for a scientist – he can study the effect of the removal of most humans from the ecosystem. (Note that this book was written a decade before the Environmental Movement and nearly two decades before the first Earth Day.)

He decides to travel the USA to see how others have fared.  (Stewart was a great wanderer of trail and road, and took the journeys he describes in the book.)  Ish begins by heading south from Berkeley, California, on US 99.  He heads east over Tehachapi Pass on California 58; then follows Route 66 until a tree blocks his way.  Eventually he reaches Manhattan; then returns on a more northerly route on US 40 until a forest fire near Emigrant Gap forces him to turn off on California 20.   Along the way, he finds a few survivors who seem to be almost stereotypes of diverse American subcultures.  Some, Ish believes, will prosper.  Others, like the couple in Manhattan who drink martinis in an apartment with no fireplace, probably won’t survive the first winter. Here, and later in the book’s sections on the evolving culture of The Tribe, Stewart is writing a wonderfully speculative anthropological work.

After the journey Ish meets Em.  As they grow closer, and begin a family, his quest changes to a search for faith – one that will help him, and his descendents, live in the changed world?  As the work evolves, he finds himself turning to the Old Testament, since it was the work of a small tribe like Ish and Em’s Tribe that had to survive and find meaning in an often hostile world.  (Stewart taught himself Hebrew so he could translate some of the Old Testament – notably Ecclesiastes – into English without losing the rhythm of the original.)

But the book is not a dreary religious tract by any means.  Much of the time, Ish and Em are building a small community in the Berkeley Hills.   Others join them and the “Tribe” begins to grow.  The “Americans” – those who lived before the event which begins the story – work hard to keep some of their culture alive.  But the youngsters, who will truly become a tribe, must live within the new world.  To them, a good method of hunting with bow and arrow is much more important than learning to read or going to church.

The book is an anthropological work in many ways.  The old culture tries to protect its great store of knowledge.  The younger members of the Tribe work to survive, and have little time for sitting and reading or listening to prayers.  They practice shooting their bows and arrows. Yet The Tribe will develop its own faith, as Ish is seeking his.  Both faiths, ironically, revolve around a simple American object.

During his research in the American River Canyon, Ish finds an old single-jack miner’s hammer.  It gives him a sense of security, so he carries it with him throughout the novel.  By the end of the book, the Hammer of Ish has become the most revered object the tribe possesses.  They insist that Ish must pass it on when he dies.  The person who receives the Hammer will become almost god-like – as Ish does, in the latter pages of the novel.

The Hammer of Ish is one of the great symbols in literature.  And it’s a quintessentially American symbol, designed for common tasks by the Common Man  – but it can also be used to find and mine gold.   I believe the Hammer is one of the reasons for the book’s strong effect on readers.  Like Ish, readers feel very comfortable with the Hammer; but readers feel its mythological power growing throughout the tale as it becomes a spiritual object.

Like the book, the Hammer haunts readers.  A casual mention of the Hammer in conversation often starts a discussion of the novel; and that happens more often than you might think.  One wealthy reader, the late Frank Sloss, even had a sculptor create a silver version, which sat at the center of Sloss’s vast Stewart collection.   Stewart Scholar and Artist Steve Williams was inspired to do a series of fine paintings of The Hammer:

Ish's Hammer(1)The Hammer of Ish.  (Painting Courtesy Steve Williams, Artist and Scholar.)

The book was based on solid research.  The Stewart Papers in the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley hold many letters from colleagues and companies responding to Stewart’s questions about a post-human world.  For example – how sheep and cattle would fare, how long auto batteries would last, and when rust would collapse the Bay Bridge. One of the letters is from Carl Sauer, the greatest geographer of his age and one of the greatest minds of any age, discussing the sheep/cattle question.  It, like all the letters, reveals how intrigued Stewart’s correspondents were with his questions.

The book was published in the fall of 1949.  After a few years of good sales, Random House decided to stop publication and return the rights to Stewart.  Almost immediately, one of the book’s strongest fans, Alan Ligda, contacted Stewart and asked to publish Earth Abides at his  Archive Press and Publications.  Stewart granted permission and the book quickly went into print.   Ligda’s publication sold out quickly.  Random House asked for the return of the rights, and the book returned to print with that major trade publishing house.

Thanks to Alan Ligda the novel has never been out of print.  Readers and scholars owe him a great debt.  Although he died poor and relatively young, Ligda played a major role in the story of Earth Abides.

Does Ish find his faith?  Does the Tribe survive?  Does Earth abide?  What adventures, literary and intellectual, are found along the way?  To find out, read the book.

Earth Abides has had an extraordinary literary and intellectual life.  Never out of print in the 65 years since publication, now in an audio version as well as a print version, and in 20 languages,  the book and its ideas have swept across the Earth.

The next post will discuss how the book has affected some of the finest literary minds, and how the book has influenced art, science, and thought.

MAN: An Autobiography

Once again, George R. Stewart invented a new type of literature – the pre-history and history of humankind as autobiography.  His subject, Man, explains that he considers all those listings of kings and caesars and pharaohs,  of wars and kingdoms, and of endless dates, as trivial gossip.  So Man tells his story in general terms, emphasizing major changes and trends rather than Ozymandias-istic minutiae.

The book was published in 1946 – only a year after Names On The Land – which gives some idea of how prolific and hard-working Stewart was.  In this case, both books were new types of literature, in which he had to do unprecedented research, and then create a precise, readable work based on that research.

The book was a best-seller.  But it was the first of Stewart’s books to bring about a major controversy.  Many fundamentalist readers were upset about Man’s description of his evolution.  The book received more negative letters than anything Stewart had written until that time.

The book gets little attention today – Stewart was apparently trying to find a general pattern to human history separate from specific dates, names, and events.  Since he wrote it for a general literate audience, that search for pattern seems to be somewhat lost in the story.  The idea is sound, and worth more exploration, and the book deserves more attention.