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