Kaplan and Kehlmann: Carrying the Torch of George R. Stewart Onward, I: Robert Kehlmann

Although George R. Stewart is not as well-known as other authors of his day, there is a distinguished band of people who know, value, and carry on his work.  Other authors, including Stephen King, Larry McMurtry, Christopher Priest, Wallace Stegner, William Least Heat Moon, Kim Stanley Robinson, and others, acknowledge GRS either openly through essays or quietly through references in their work. Walt Disney filmed two of Stewart’s books for the Disney TV show.   Stewart’s millions of fans, of course, keep his books alive; several, like Earth Abides,  are still good sellers.  And there are those who actively memorialize and share Stewart’s work.  Two of these are Robert Kehlmann of the Berkeley Plaque Project and Naturalist Emeritus Alan Kaplan.  This post focuses on Robert Kehlmann.

Raised in Brooklyn, New York, now living in Berkeley, California, Robert Kehlmann is a distinguished glass artist, a “painter with glass.” Initially trained in Literature, Kehlmann began to see paintings as similar to poems in their effects on the viewer; and he decided to produce new works of painterly glass “paintings” that would encourage that response.  He helped found a movement taking artistic glass from its traditional use in architecture to a more painterly use, in which glass becomes the “paint” of an artist’s work.  Kehlmann’s work is found in many collections, including the Oakland Museum, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Corning Museum of Glass, New York’s Museum of Arts and Design, and others.

Kehlmann is active in historic preservation in Berkeley.  Former Director of the Landmark’s Preservation Commission in Berkeley, Kehlmann founded the Berkeley Historical Plaque Project in 1997.  On its elegantly designed site, the Plaque Project lists Berkeley historic sites and people with physical or online plaques.  One of those honored by Kehlmann’s project, byan ePlaque,  is  George R. Stewart.

(Also honored with an ePlaque is Wilder Bentley the Elder, and his family.   Bentley, an exceptional poet and printer, was a regular visitor at the former Thornton State Beach in the days Stewart and his family visited.  The Bentleys’ Archive Press published the first book of Ansel Adams’ photographs – a work which led to the establishment of Kings Canyon National Park.)

Kehlmann is one of several fine partners we work with in this tiny but determined project to honor the work of George R. Stewart and educate others about Stewart’s work.  He joins Bill Oudegeest of the Donner Summit Historical Society, who spearheaded the George R. Stewart Interpretive Plaque on Historic US 40 at Donner Summit, Phil and Patty Aaberg at Sweetgrass Music, who published Phil’s Earth Abides sheet music, Baiba Strads and the others of the Bancroft Library, and the select group of people who’ve dug into their pockets to fund or develop these works:  Steve Williams, Doug Raybeck, Junlin Pan, Joyce Colbath-Stewart, Dee and Barney Barney, Bob Lyon,  Beth Lapachet, Brian Byrne, Ross and Charlene Bogert, John and Angela Lucia, Willie Stewart, Paul F. Starrs.

And Alan Kaplan, subject of the next post.

George R. Stewart and “The Migrant Mother”

John Lucia, an old friend since Thornton Beach Days and involved in the GRS Project for decades, called excitedly a couple of years ago to say that Stewart had been mentioned in a magazine article.  John is a brilliant, hard-working artisan and craftsman who recycles the treasures of the past into exceptional homes for today.  He’s done this in Hawaii, and is now doing so in Sacramento, in “The Thirties.”  He’s also a restorer of classic cars; John owns one of the best 1950 Ford Woodie Wagons, which he restored himself.

His particular architectural interest is in the Arts and Crafts Movement. so he subscribes to American Bungalow magazine.  That’s where he found the article about Stewart, an article about a historic Berkeley Arts and Crafts cottage once owned by Paul Taylor and Dorothea Lange.  Stewart was friends with the couple; according to the article, he wrote his classic ecological novel Storm in their cottage. (Ribovich, American Bungalow, No. 56, P. 39)

Taylor was a professor at Cal Berkeley, in agricultural economics.  He had the progressive idea that in order to understand the economics of California agriculture, he’d need to understand the people who did the work in the fields.  Since many of those people were Mexican, Taylor decided that he would learn their culture from the inside.  He learned Spanish, spent much time with the workers, and even recorded many of their ballads.

Dorothea Lange  was one of the photographers documenting the plight of desperate migrants from the Midwest and the south who were trying to find some work here to feed their families. Hired by the Farm Security Administration she traveled extensively, photographing the migrants.

She was returning from a field trip along the central California coast when she saw a sign, “Bean Pickers Camp.”  Tired, she didn’t stop.  But about ten miles north of the camp she decided to turn around and go back to see if there was a good subject in the camp.  It was late, raining – not the best conditions for the large 4×5 field Graflex she used – but she went into the camp, found a mother with her children and took a few photographs, including this one:

Migrant mother photoFlorence Owen Thompson and her children –

Migrant Mother

The family, like most of the others in the camp, was hungry to the point of starvation

.After she took the photos Lange drove to her Berkeley cottage, developed and printed the photo.  She told the editor of a local paper about the camp, and the hunger there.  The editor published an article which included the photograph. The government rushed emergency food to the hungry families.

In an article in Popular Photography, in 1960, Dorothea Lange told the story of the photograph:

I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if
drawn by a magnet. I do not remember how I explained my
presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she asked me no
questions. I made five exposures, working closer and closer from
the same direction. I did not ask her name or her history. She told
me her age, that she was thirty-two. She said that they had been
living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds
that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to
buy food. There she sat in that lean-to tent with her children
huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might
help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about
it.

The photo, and one or two others by Lange, have come to represent the Depression.

She later documented the vicious internment of American citizens who happened to have Japanese ancestry, and similar abuses of American values and ideals.

Stewart’s friendship with Taylor and Lange is another of the extraordinary web of connections he had with the great minds of his time.

But did he write Storm in the Taylor-Lange bungalow?

When I asked Stewart’s descendants – son Jack and daughter Jill – about this story, they discounted it. Jill was especially emphatic, saying that her father did not work that way.  There may be a kernel of truth to the story – maybe he spent a weekend there doing some work on the book, for example.  But it is almost certain that he did not write the book there.

It is an interesting story, though, and I am thankful to John Lucia for starting me off on this research trail.

There’s an interesting footnote to this story.  The bean picker’s camp was located on the Nipomo Mesa – about ten miles from where I’m writing this.  And the place where Dorothea Lange decided to turn around was likely with a mile or two of here, in Arroyo Grande.

 

What Is “The Good Life?” George R. Stewart, GOOD LIVES

As the years began to pile up, and George R. Stewart felt his age, he began to think back over his life.  Had he lived a good life?

To answer the question, he wrote another book.:

Good Lives: The Stories of Six Men and the Good Life That Each Won for Himself

By examining six men throughout western history who seemed to share the same qualities and the same sense of accomplishment, Stewart found a definition of what comprised a (not “the”) good life:  Joab of the Old Testament, William the Marshall, Heinrich Schleiman, John Bidwell of California, Architect Francisco Eduardo Tresguerras of Mexico, and Prince Henry the Navigator, (He apologized, with explanation, for not including any women). The men where selected from those he’d encountered in his scholarly work over the decades.  In most cases, they were not widely known.(I suspect he profiled some because he wanted to let readers know about their lives – how else would the average reader in this country learn about the brilliant Francisco Eduardo Tresguerras?) The subjects ranged from the ancient – Joab of the Old Testament – to the fairly recent – John Bidwell of Chico, California.

In their lives, he discovered six qualities of character common to all.  Each had clear goals, and stayed committed to those goals until they were accomplished.  Heinrich Schleimann, for example, continued his search for the lost city of Troy during years of suffering the humiliation of failure and criticism from professional archaeologists and finally found the city.    Each accepted responsibility for his acts.  Each had great courage, sometimes in battle, sometimes, like Schliemann, in the pursuit of a goal.  And, at the end of their lives, each man felt fulfilled in things personal and professional, and had an integration of his spirit with his physical, material life.

The book is an interesting set of biographies of remarkable men, many of whom most readers had only met before in passing.  Discovering a pattern of character that helped him, and the reader, to understand why they are worth studying, added a layer of meaning to the book.

It may lack the power of Earth Abides.  But the book is none-the-less an important part of his body of work.  In a day when reading was still the primary method of informal education, the book introduced the lives of important but largely unknown historical figures to Stewart’s large reading audience.  It also found in those lives a set of standards by which all lives can be judged – thus using them as a microcosm, in the best Stewart manner.

Perhaps most important, it teaches us about George R. Stewart – what sort of man was he?  What values did he hold highest?  How did his life measure against the six in the book?  He didn’t answer that last question in the book.  But he once told his son Jack, “That’s a book an old man writes.”  In other words, in studying those lives he was giving us a key to his, as it drew close to the end.

But he wasn’t through with life yet.  He was already hard at work on another game-changing book, which would win a major prize and help his readers understand the nuts-and-bolts of living properly in the Whole Earth ecosystem that he had first visualized and shared, in the 1930s.