George R. Stewart and a Centennial Celebration in the Donner Country

P1060586Although George R. Stewart was still in graduate school when the Pioneer Monument was dedicated at Donner Lake Memorial State Park, and just beginning his career when Donner Lake Memorial State Park was established, he would become the leading historian and novelist for the area.

Stewart was a professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley.  He was  interested in the geography, history, and field exploration of California and the West.  When a new Head of the English Department took a disliking to Stewart, and denied him his deserved promotion, Stewart decided to write in a field which interested him, Western history, and would bring him extra income to help support his growing family.  As he said, “What did I have to lose?”  So he would NOT write arcane books about punctuation in Elizabethan English or some such.  Instead he wrote the best history of the Donner Party ever published:  Ordeal By Hunger.

Stewart went whole-hog in the research and writing of the book.  He bought a cabin (partly for his family) at Dutch Flat, invited his colleagues from UC’s  history, geography, and art departments to visit, then hiked much of the Donner Trail with the others, using them as on-site references.   (They found – or may have found – one of the most important campfires along the trail.)  He earned sweat-equity knowledge about the great effort required by the Donners to cross deserts, face the Sierra, and endure the storms.   He also studied the books –  like the original diaries of the Donner party members, especially Patrick Breen’s moving pages (now online, here).

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The most important result of the field research was Stewart’s great epiphany:  “the land is a character in the work.”  That is to say, it was the Donners’ ignorance of the ecosystems they passed through that caused their great tragedy.

Thus, Ordeal By Hunger can be considered the first ecologically-based history.

Although Stewart did not influence the establishment of the Pioneer Monument or the establishment of Donner Memorial State Park, the success of Ordeal By Hunger  inspired readers to visit the park.

The Pioneer Monument itself, and the park, are gifts in large part from one of the most important fraternal organizations in California:  The Native Sons of the Golden West.  The Native Sons, who are organized into lodges called parlors, do a massive amount of charitable work.  One of their charities is a fund to help the healing of those with cleft-palate; the other is the support of California history through the acquisition, protection, and memorializing of events of the Gold Rush and similar milestones.  (The term “The Golden State” comes from the first historic plaque they placed .)  The NSGW built the Monument, and donated it and the land on which it sits, to be the foundation of Donner Memorial State Park.  It was only one of many such gifts from the Native Sons  – others include Sutter’s Fort and the Petaluma Adobe.

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P1060557The re-dedication of the Pioneer Monument on its Centennial was worth the trip – especially since it included the chance to drive Historic U.S. 40 over Donner Summit to (finally!) see and photograph the George R. Stewart Peak Interpretive Plaque on the Summit. (Placed with the help of another fine organization, the Donner Summit Historical Society.)

At Donner Lake, The weather was cold, the wind intense, and the noise of wind and Interstate 80 drowned out most of the re-dedication speeches.  But there was a chance to speak with some of the local history people and view the NSGW booth.  A highlight was meeting some of the descendants of the Donner Party, history brought to life.

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One of the Visitor Center people, when asked which of the several Donner Party histories to buy, said the park usually didn’t recommend Ordeal By Hunger.  He also said it was far and away the largest seller.  That, of course, is what counts, especially since Stewart’s book is still the best history of the Donner Party.

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A century after the Native Sons of the Golden West donated money to create the Pioneer Monument and 82 years after the publication of Ordeal By Hunger the Centennial re-dedication of the Monument reminds us to re-read Stewart’s book; and, as time and weather permit, to travel to Donner Summit on U.S. 40; and Donner Lake which sits below George R. Stewart Peak. There, one can reflect on the land, the Donners, and those who memorialized them – like the Native Sons of the Golden West and George R. Stewart.

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News About U.S. 40 and Earth Abides

Christmas and New Years are over, so there’s time to bring everyone up to date about recent George R. Stewart-related events.  The Donner Summit Historical Society reports some major work on US 40, a Route 66 leader has connected with this site through his interest in U.S. 40,  and there’s a new French translation of Earth Abides.

In the January issue of the Donner Summit Historical Society’s excellent online magazine, Donner Summit Heritage, Editor Bill Oudegeest includes articles on U.S. 40; one carries news about plans to upgrade the Historic Route over Donner Summit.   On page 14, there’s a review of a book about early travel over the road; on page 18, various items about U.S. 40, which begins with the notice of the road upgrade.    The current issue isn’t yet posted on the main DSHS pages; but will be soon.  However, if you become a paid member – and you should! – you’ll get the Heirloom every month.

U.S. 40 was, if any road was, the George R. Stewart Highway.  He hitchiked the eastern section in 1919, when it was still the National Old Trails Road, often drove it across the country, and finally wrote a classic book, the first popular “odology” (road geography) book, U.S. 40.  Stewart’s book led to another classic, Vale and Vale’s U.S. 40 Today:  Thirty Years of Landscape Change in America; the authors followed old U.S. 40 in 1983, re-photographing as many of his original locations as they could, describing landscape change in the thirty years since Stewart’s book was published.  A few years later Frank Brusca posted his wonderful U.S. 40 pages, with even more information about the historic highway and its current character.  Recently, in Roads To Quoz, William Least Heat Moon includes an entire section on Stewart and U.S. 40, opening the section with a quote from Stewart.

Finally, earlier this month, Fred Cain contacted me via Michael Ward’s wonderful George R. Stewart Wikipedia pages.  Fred is working on a plan to re-authorize U.S. 66 as a marked highway, not simply a series of older sections of the now-deauthorized highway.   As it turns out, Fred is also a great fan of Stewart’s U.S. 40 and Vale and Vale’s U.S. 40 Today.  We’ve been in an email conversation which includes Bill Oudegeest about getting better signage for the historic U.S. 40 Route.

Here’s a bonus for U.S. 40 historians and fans – a test photo for the book, never published. It’s from the Anna Evenson/George R. Stewart Family Collection, published here with permission.  (Please don’t republish it without Anna Evenson’s permission.  I can forward a request to her if you wish to use the photo.)

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GRS used a Rolleiflex twin-lens reflex to take his photos.  The Rolleiflex is one of the great cameras of a great era in photography, when Edward Weston and Ansel Adams were creating their best works.  Stewart knew Adams, and there’s a letter in the GRS papers from Ansel Adams to Stewart.

The Rollei’s format is square, 2 1/4 by 2 1/4 inch, so the photos in the book are in that square format.  (35 mm and most digital cameras have a format that is longer than it is high.)

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Here’s the cover page of the new French translation of Stewart’s great novel, courtesy of Philippe Grand.

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Earth Abides, abides.

George R. Stewart’s STORM in a new book about storms

One of the best rewards for writing the George R. Stewart biography and creating this weblog is the community of Stewart people  who follow it.  At the last count, there are followers in roughly 60 countries.  This week, we’ve had visitors from the UK, France, Morocco, India, and the US.

Some of those visitors leave comments, and I can begin to put a face on those people.  A few, like Christopher Priest, are well-known, most simply Stewart aficionados .  But all of the comments are interesting, and all of the visitors who comment enrich this work.

At times, one of the visitors will point out some new GRS treasure.  Ross Wilson Bogert, for example, who has become a good friend, brought the Wilson family into our dialogue – Stewart’s mother was a Wilson –  and donated an exceptional 1929 film of Stewart and his parents at the Wilson house in Southern California.

One theme that comes from reading the thoughts of others is the current rediscovery of George R. Stewart’s remarkable work.  Although GRS seems not to be widely-known to  the mainstream publishing/literary establishment,  articles are being written about him, there are new reviews of his books and his work, and his ideas are being included in others’ work.  One example is the one being discussed today, thanks to Joe Livak.

Joe sent a comment last week about a new book which examines Stewart’s STORM from new points of view.  The book, SNOWBOUND, by Mark McLaughlin, is available on McLaughlin’s website.  Joe heard Mark speak about the book in Reno.

McLaughlin, who studied cultural geography at the University of Nevada, Reno, is a prolific author and frequent public speaker on topics relating to the history of the Lake Tahoe region.  He’s published hundreds of articles and several books, and regularly presents talks at various local groups, to high praise.

McLaughlin’s new book describes the ten greatest storms to hit the central Sierra Nevada.  On pages 58 to 60 McLaughlin takes a close look at Stewart’s STORM, digging into real events which he believes were likely inspirations for Stewart’s ground-breaking novel.  McLaughlin also describes a couple of other storm-related tragedies, which had military connections but which Stewart does not include, speculating that he did so to respect the privacy of the families of the victims and also to protect military secrets.  McLaughlin fleshes out his GRS pages with images of the front pages of local papers describing the events.

My only small disagreement with his book is the idea that Stewart has been forgotten –  that’s only true for the “establishment” mentioned earlier.  Earth Abides, in particular, never out of print, is in 20 languages and is now slated to become a mini-series.  It enjoys healthy sales to this day.  Other GRS books are honored by other authors, like William Least Heat Moon, who devotes one section of Roads to Quoz to Stewart’s U.S. 40U.S. 40 is also honored by Larry McMurtry in Roads.   And the mother’s Fourth of July speech in Ivan Doig’s English Creek was inspired by Stewart’s Names On The Land.

Slowly, GRS is returning to the attention of the public, and books like McLaughlin’s are a major step in that new awareness.  Hopefully, the “establishment” will soon have a re-awakening of interest in the work of George R. Stewart.

Thanks to Joe Livak for pointing us to McLaughlin and his work.

For more information about Mark McLaughlin and this book, click the image below.

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And So We Come To A Milestone

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After five years and 171 posts, reviewing George R. Stewart’s work, reporting on projects being developed to honor him, and describing his influence on human societythis web log about George R. Stewart has come to a milestone.  The weblog’s author is moving.

It’s been a luxury to have a comfortable place to research and write about him, and hopefully that’s been reflected in posts that are longer and more readable than ones written on the fly.  Now, the author  is leaving his comfortable office, and heading out to seek new adventures.  This means that there may be gaps in the posts, and posts may be less developed.

Fortunately, this is a milestone in other ways.

For one thing, all of his major work has been described here on this site.   So without reading all of Stewart’s books, the fans of some of them can see the intellectual and artistic context in which they are placed. His masterwork Earth Abides, for example, can be seen as the pinnacle of his ecological novels – the books in which the ecosystem, not humans, is the protagonist.  And readers of this web log will now also know that Stewart’s ecological best sellers, published long before Earth Day or the rise of the Environmental Consciousness, certainly helped bring that Consciousness about.

It is a milestone, too, in sharing those honors which he is increasingly gathering.   The interpretive sign at Donner Summit is in place during the summer when the old highway he immortalized, U.S. 40, is open to traffic.  The GRS ePlaque is now online at the Berkeley Historical Plaque site.  (Someday, if funding is found and permission gathered, a physical plaque could be placed at the site of Stewart’s San Luis Road home.)   Junlin Pan, Chinese scholar, is well along in her difficult translation of Names on the Land for an immense Chinese audience eager to learn about America.  The sheet music for Philip Aaberg’s Earth Abides is soon to be published, thanks (like the US 40 sign) to the contributions of friends of Stewart.  And, just perhaps, there’s an Earth Abides mini-series on the horizon.  It’s been a pleasure and an honor to have been part of these things.

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New GRS Interpretive Sign, Donner Summit, Historic U.S. 40, just above the Rainbow Bridge and Donner lake, and just below George R. Stewart Peak.

Along the way of the weblog, we’ve been reminded of how Stewart’s work still directs us, and encourages us.  One of the great Stewart interpreters, for example, recently refused to sign an illegal loyalty oath in his unenlightened college system – a college system in a state whose voters salivate over the chance to pack weapons into diners, but apparently have little use for freedom of thought.  Surely, that Stewart interpreter, that hero of thought, (a famous poet and author), was inspired by Stewart’s Year of the Oath.  And as the ecosystem gets our attention through climate change, we can all be reassured by the ecological novels that humans can survive and transcend any such changes.

Stewart once wrote that although his scholarly life had often been a lonely
one, he had enjoyed some fine meetings along the way. That is true for this web log, as well.  It’s brought us into conversations with a professor at Temple University, well-known author Christopher Priest, and several dedicated Stewart fans, who’ve all shared their experiences with Stewart’s books.  It brought into the light a remarkable 1929 silent film of George R. Stewart and his parents, visiting his wife’s Wilson relatives in Pasadena – a film now copied, thanks to Ross Wilson Bogert and his son, and placed in the Bancroft, other Stewart collections, and the collections of the Stewart family.

So we’ve done a lot. And if this weblog needs to take a break, it’s earned the right to do it.

But the site will return, because there’s much yet to discuss.  Stewart’s friends, for example, like C.S. Forester and Wallace Stegner and Bruce Catton and Frost and Sandburg and all the rest.  And there will be news, of that you can be sure, about George R. Stewart and his continuing influence on us all.

Thanks to you, readers, for enriching and expanding this weblog with your comments, your encouragement, your suggestions, your support, and your continuing interest in things Stewartian.

 

Author George R. Stewart in one of his favorite places, Nevada

from the anna evenson stewart family photo collection

MAKING SOMETHING FROM NOTHING – George R. Stewart in the Donner Summit Historical Society Newsletter

October’s issue of The Donner Summit Heirloom has a series of articles about George R. Stewart, or topics that relate to Stewart’s subjects.  There’s a good article about the search for the California Trail route over Donner Pass, which includes some information about the Lincoln Highway route – think Stewart’s U.S. 40 and The California Trail – a review of Stewart’s landmark work, Ordeal By Hunger, a description of the new George R. Stewart interpretive sign.

There’s also my article about Stewart, with an emphasis on his connections to the Donner Summit area.  It gives a good overview of the man and his work.  If you’d like a quick introduction to GRS, you’ll find the article – and the other articles – useful.

Here’s the October 2015 Heirloom:

By the way, if you have an interest in GRS, or Donner Summit, or Lake Tahoe, you might want to join the Society.  It costs little, but supports the historic preservation and interpretation of the area.

The Donner Summit George R. Stewart Interpretive Sign

Thanks to several sponsors and the hard work of Bill Oudegeest of the Donner Summit Historical Society, the George R. Stewart interpretive sign, which will be part of the Twenty-Mile Museum, has gone to the manufacturer.  The base will be installed soon; the sign, late next spring when the Pass opens.  Here’s the final (or nearly final) sign:

  The almost final sign

Bill chose the location with care, and it’s perfect:  A parking area which overlooks Donner Lake, Donner Peak, the historic “Rainbow Bridge” on U.S. 40, and the Summit of Donner Pass – which would have been the route of the first covered wagons over the Pass.

Here’s a photo from Bill, showing where the sign will be placed:

photo of GRS sign location

Stand by the sign, face northwest across old U.S. 40 to look directly at George R. Stewart Peak.  Here’s a photo from a kind soul who posted it to Google Maps:

parking area - grs peak

The parking area is close to the Pacific Crest Trail, too,  The PCT crosses U.S. 40 not far beyond the left (west) side of this photo.  Here’s a map from Bill which shows the PCT crossing – yellow arrow – in relation to the sign location at the parking lot – black arrow.

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It’s a short walk – always face traffic! – to the Trail Crossing; from there, it’s a short hike and scramble to the summit of George R. Stewart Peak.  The directions are on the new sign.

Let’s all hope to meet there some day in the summery future, and do the hike.  Afterward, we can have a picnic – Ted (Theodosia) Stewart loved picnics – and read from Stewart’s books.

Thanks to Bill Oudegeest, and the sponsors who made this possible:

  • Alan Kaplan, Naturalist, Founder of the National Association for Interpretation, Stewart Scholar;
  • Paul F. Starrs, distinguished geographer, University of Nevada, Reno, Professor, author of books about California agriculture, the Black Rock Desert, and other topics;
  • Willie Stewart, George R. Stewart’s grandson, who accompanied GRS on trips;
  • Joyce Colbath-Stewart, wife of GRS’s son Jack Stewart, inveterate hiker, and caretaker of Stewart family history;
  • Steve and Carol Williams.  Steve – who went to school with Lennon and McCartney –  is a Stewart scholar, artist, teacher; Carol is his partner in all things;
  • Denise and Milton Barney, campers extraordinaire, who have walked the GRS journey with me for many years.  Denise is a poet, Barney a scouter encouraging young folks to explore the outdoors like Stewart;
  • Beth Lapachet and Brian Byrne, also campers and colleagues for many years.
  • John and Angela Lucia, former Rangers, who have also walked the GRS journey for decades, and helped support it;
  • Bob Lyon, Founder of The Friends of George R. Stewart, Stewart Scholar, and Encourager of all things Stewart, who first introduced Steve Williams to the Friends of GRS.

George R. Stewart joins the Twenty-Mile Museum

In a recent post, I described the Twenty-Mile Museum – the interpretive signs that line the historic route of U.S. 40 over Donner Summit – placed by the Donner Summit Historical Society.  Next spring, a sign for George R. Stewart will join the Twenty-Mile Museum.

Looking over the various pages on the Historical Society’s website, a few weeks ago,  I found a link to their Newsletters.  Since there was none with an article about GRS, I contacted the Editor, Bill Oudegeest,to volunteer to write one.

After receiving the first draft, Bill suggested the Society would be interested in placing a GRS interpretive sign along the old highway, if financial sponsorship and help with the sign’s research and writing were available.  I sent in some photos and text, posted a message to the GRS group, and soon the design was underway, the cost fully sponsored.  Thanks to Brian and Beth, Steve and Carol, Bob and Sandra, Paul F., Denise and Barney, John and Angela, Willie, Joyce, and Alan, the sign will be installed next spring. Caltrans has approved the sign’s location; Bill has done a fine layout.   The sign will be installed very near the Historic U.S. 40 access point for the Pacific Crest Trail – which is also the closest access to George R. Stewart Peak.  This means that hundreds of hikers on the PCT, day hikers in the Donner Summit area, drivers sauntering over Historic U.S. 40 (the subject of a legendary book by GRS), or anyone who visits the Society’s small museum in Soda Springs will learn about George R. Stewart and his remarkable books.  Hopefully, many of those people will take the short side-trail and scramble to the top of George R. Stewart Peak (named in honor of GRS by the Board of Geographic Names).  The round trip from Historic U.S. 40 is only about 3 miles.

Those interested in George R. Stewart and the Donner Summit area owe thanks to all those involved in this successful project.  The Donner Summit Historical Society is always looking for members; one way to show your thanks is to join!

Below is the current draft of the GRS Interpretive Sign.  It will be placed next spring, after the old road reopens.  Some of us are already dreaming about a dedication celebration.  Stay tuned.

 

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