George R. Stewart’s Friends, I – C.S. Forester

Stewart once wrote that although his life as a scholar had been necessarily a lonely one, he’d had some remarkable encounters along the way.  Many of those encounters were with other writers of his time, some of whom became household names, and in a few cases those people became close and life-long friends.

Over the next few months, as time and the move permit, this web log will share some of those friends with its readers.   Since I’ve just finished re-reading C.S. Forester’s The Good Shepherd, and am currently watching “Horatio Hornblower” on YouTube, Forester seems a good subject.

C.S. Forester is best known for his Horatio Hornblower series, 12 novels set in the Napoleonic Wars with track the adventures and the growth of a young Englishman in the Royal Navy.  The character lives on, long after the death of Forester – Captain James T. Kirk of the Starship Enterprise is modeled in part on Hornblower.

hornblower image

to see the first episode on YouTube, click here

Forester also wrote The African Queen, which was made into an excellent, award-winning film by John Huston.   The film, still excellent, and not dated, stars Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn – he, the hard-drinking grizzled skipper of a small steam-powered boat (think Disneyland’s Jungle Cruise boats), she, a prim, religious woman, both trying to escape from the German military in Africa during World War I.  After many adventures, they’re captured by the Germans and sentenced to hang.  But…… but you’ll have to see the movie or read the book to find out what happens.

The-african-queen-1-

to see the trailer, click here

Forester was born Cecil Louis Troughton Smith.  Raised by his mother in England after early childhood in Cairo, and studying medicine, he decided he wanted to be a writer. He began writing in 1921.

By 1940, he’d convinced the British government to let him move to the United States as a writer of propaganda encouraging Americans to enter the war on England’s side.  He soon found himself living in North Berkeley, where he would stay until his passing in the middle 1960s.

He was a well-known author by the time he arrived in Berkeley – The African Queen was published in 1935, and the first Hornblower novel in 1937 – and he’d published many other works as well.  His Berkeley circle quickly grew to include others who were successful academics and writers.  One of those was George R. Stewart.

By 1940, Stewart was also a well-known writer.  He’d published landmark biographies of Bret Harte and humorist George Horatio Derby.  His 1936 book on the Donner Party was a best-seller, and first “Whole Earth” book.  He’d written two novels, one scheduled to be filmed until the war interceded.  And he was working on the first ecological novel, Storm.

Stewart and Forester were innovators, who often broke the literary conventions of their day to produce works that stood head-and-shoulders above that time.  In Storm Stewart integrated history, science, and story into an unprecedented novel that looked at an ecological event and its influence on human affairs from a smooth, interdisciplinary perspective.

In The Good Shepherd, Forester also breaks convention.  The novel tells of a terrifying 48 hours in which the Commander of ships protecting an Atlantic  convoy from a German wolf pack  of U-boats must shepherd his small but important fleet through foul weather and deadly attacks.  He’s never been a commander under fire, and often worries about his ability.  But he doesn’t worry much – he does what he must, even as exhaustion and hunger and the need to go to the head creep upon him, to the point that he must against all his beliefs break protocol to remove his shoes so his feet can begin to function again.

A conventional novel like this one would be broken into several chapters, probably one for each watch on each day or for each major encounter with the enemy.  But Forester wants his readers to FEEL the all-encompassing Commander’s experience of the battle.  So he only has 3 chapters.  The first chapter is a 6 page introduction to the setting and the mission.  The third chapter is also 6 pages, as the Commander has won the battle but – now able to rest – loses the battle to stay awake.

The second chapter is a 295 page immersion in the battle, in such detail that the reader begins to gain new respect for military procedure and trigonometry and a good, hot cup of coffee.  It is almost impossible to put down.  And by the end of it, the reader feels as exhausted, and joyful, as our commander.

That unusual approach alone sets the novel apart.  The reader is, or at least this reader was, exhilarated by the out-of-the-box structure and how right it is.  But Forester does more.  He inserts small bits of personal history which take us into the Commander’s past, and his heart and his soul, and we understand why a successful mission is so important to him – he’s sacrificed the chance for a happy personal life so he can do his duty to protect his convoy, and his world.

Stewart does something similar in his second novel, Doctor’s Oral.  It is the story of a day in the life of a graduate student facing a committee who will decide whether or not he gets his Ph.D.    One member of the committee, a woman professor, is quiet and somewhat mysterious.  Then Stewart, in one brief section, opens her soul to us, and thus opens our heart and our understanding to her.

In both cases Stewart and Forester manage to put, within a larger story, unforgettable revelations of character showing us real people rather than cardboard cutouts.  They enlighten us, to the truth of human experience.  It is the quality of great, rather than conventional, art.

Stewart and Smith/Forester became good friends, often working and relaxing together or with their families.  We can imagine them talking about their various projects in a local club, inspiring each other’s work, or one of Ted (Theodosia) Stewart’s many picnics.  They were also members of The Armchair Strategists, a group of scholars who examined the events of the week during World War II, and suggested strategies based on their work.  LIFE Magazine carried a story and photograph about the Armchair Strategists, with both men in the picture.

They went on picnics together.  Ted Stewart loved picnics, and George loved to drive.  They’d head north over the new Golden Gate Bridge, then west into Marin County.  In those days, picnickers could park in a pull out and spread the lunch on the grass next to the road.  Not much traffic, and not many restrictions.   It would have been a time of relaxation, laughter, and light talk.

Here’s a photo of one such roadside picnic.  The photo, from Anna Evenson’s Stewart Family Photo Collection, looks like the photographer – almost certainly Stewart – set the camera on the ground and used a self-timer to take the picture.  It is probably taken in the early-to-mid 40s, to judge by the clothing and the apparent age of the subjects.

cs forester, grs, tbs, mrs  from the anna evenson stewart family photo collection

Ted Stewart is on the right.  GRS, seated in the back next to Mrs. Forester, is wearing sunglasses.  C.S. Forester is laying on his back in the middle foreground, apparently wearing jodphur riding pants and large hiking boots.  They’re all smiling for the camera; but those smiles are certainly honest ones.  It looks like a good time – and no picnic of Ted’s was ever anything but wonderful.  (I speak from  personal observations of a few at Thornton State Beach, and a sharing in one with the classic Ted Stewart lunch of cold chicken, good sourdough bread, and a nice white wine.)

Since GRS and Ted lived on into the 1980s, their friendship would likely have continued  until Forester’s death in 1966.  After GRS retired in 1964, there would have been more time for picnics.  I hope there were many, and many cheerful conversations about books and writing.

Read Forester, if you’re a Stewart fan.  The Good Shepherd is a fine place to start.  So is The African Queen, or any of the Hornblower novels.  As you read, think about the friendship between these two fine writers, and their families, and the influence it may have had on their work.

 

 

 

It’s A Wonderful Story

This is the time of year when most of us watch the classic Christmas movies.  A Christmas Carol with Alastair Sims, Miracle on 54th Street, A Child’s Christmas in Wales,   (An almost unknown gem, produced in Canada, starring Denholm Elliot), It’s a Wonderful Life.

Here in Arroyo Grande, the local theater,  owned by a man who loves movies, shows one of those classics each Christmas. The admission is a can of food or a toy.  This year, it was the venerable old classic about Kris Kringle, the old man who thinks he’s Santa Claus – and maybe is – and restores the faith of others in the spirit of Christmas.  To see that film on the big screen, surrounded by local neighbors of all ages – to see how the children love the film – it is a reminder of what we’ve lost, as we watch movies on TV, but less intently – a kind of a digital sampling of the films.  Like a CD, we miss much when we do that.  But in the theater, yesterday, we missed nothing.  And – how long since you’ve experienced this? – the audience clapped and cheered when the judge decided that, yes, Kris Kringle was indeed Santa Claus.  It was a great, traditional, American Christmas experience.

 

its_a_wonderful_life_002

For most of the people I know, It’s a Wonderful Life   is the Christmas movie.  So those who are George R. Stewart fans should know about the connection between that classic film and GRS.

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 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 born and raised in Indiana.

George and Jimmy looked alike.  With all the 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 Stewarts went to the middle-class Presbyterian church on the flats; Jimmy Stewart and his parents went to 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 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 went to Princeton, then moved to Pasadena; and spent his life in Southern California.  GRS wrote books, two of which were filmed.  Jimmy made films, like that grand Christmas classic we all love.   GRS worked at the Disney studios for a time, as an advisor to Walt himself.  Jimmy worked at many studios, creating characters and stories that touched the hearts of millions.  But, ironically, GRS did not like the media, and apparently did not attend movies often, if at all.

Their paths apparently never crossed.  GRS and his family left Indiana for California in 1905, when he was 12.  That was 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 even if he did go to the movies.

Yet, in this Christmas season, we should remember there is one thing they shared; and thanks to the film, we all share it with them:  The experience of life in a small American town, in the early 20th century.  Like a trip to Disneyland, a viewing of It’s a Wonderful Life enfolds us in such a place; and, for a time, we walk the streets and meet the people of the town and the time where both boys grew up.

Here’s a passage from my book about Indiana, Pennsylvania, as Bedford Falls:

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.   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 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.  It’s a winter festival; so the people lining the streets in their warm clothing bring life to a snow-bound town, like the movie brings life to the streets of the movie set town.

(The film’s Producer Director, Frank Capra, probably modeled his set on the upstate New York town of Seneca Falls; but for the star of the movie, Indiana, Pennsylvania, where he and George R. Stewart grew up, was the place he kept in his heart as he brought George Bailey to life.)

So this Christmas, when you watch Capra’s great film (which, by the way, is playing here today in three nearby theaters), give a thought to the boyhood of George R. Stewart.  GRS celebrated his Christmases in a town which for Jimmy Stewart was the model for that iconic American town, Bedford Falls.

Merry Christmas to all.

 

its-a-wonderful-life-collage-73136