Carrying the Fire of George R. Stewart. Kaplan and Kehlmann II – The First Publisher

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Born in New York City, and speaking with a distinct accent, Alan Kaplan brought a distinctive character to his work as a Naturalist for the East Bay Regional Parks.  Based in Tilden Regional Park, in the hills behind Berkeley, Alan interpreted the history and natural history of the area through guided hikes, school programs, and the preparation of exhibits for many years, until his retirement. He’s also provided leadership in organizations that provide education in interpretation for his fellow naturalists in the west, through his work in the old Western Interpreters Association.     (Note that “interpreter” in the park sense refers to what used to be called “naturalists” – those  people in distinctive uniforms who interpret the advanced concepts of a park’s cultural and natural history into common English for visitors.)

That’s where I first met him.  There,  he played a foundational role in the publication of the George R. Stewart biography.  He was the First Publisher of my writings about GRS.

In 1986, the WIA conference was held in Yosemite National Park.  I presented a talk, “George R. Stewart:  An Author for Interpreters.”  As the the title implies, Stewart’s histories and ecological novels are excellent resources for those interpreting the natural or human history of the West.

I was pleasantly surprised when Alan, then President of WIA, encouraged conference attendees to attend the GRS session.  And even more pleasantly surprised when the session was crammed full of enthusiastic naturalists and interpreters.

As the session ended, Alan, who was in the audience, rose to second my comments about Stewart’s value for interpreters.  He emphasized the power of Stewart’s writing by quoting the closing lines of FIRE.  Doing so, he even educated me – I knew FIRE well, but had never given the ecological power of its closing such careful attention. (FIRE was so well-researched and written that the U.S. Forest Service used it in their training programs for summer fire lookouts.)

Alan asked for an article for the WIA Newsletter, Bayways.  Entitled “The Man Who Named The Wind,” the article was a written summary of the GRS talk.  It was the first publication, for a large audience, of material which would eventually expand into the McFarland biography.

Alan also interpreted the work of George R. Stewart to Tilden Regional Park visitors.  For many years, on a weekend close to the day in August when Stewart died, Alan led a “George R. Stewart Memorial Hike” to the summit of one of Tilden’s peak .  The hike focused on Stewart’s work, especially his remarkable NAMES ON THE LAND.  The book is not a dictionary of American place names, but a history which explains in beautiful prose WHY we named places a certain way in a certain era.  As Wallace Stegner once wrote about NAMES (here paraphrased) “No one ever wrote a book like this before; no one has written one since.”  Visitors who joined Alan’s hike learned about Stewart, his work, and especially his unique work about place-naming.  (NAMES ON THE LAND has just been translated into Chinese for the millions of citizens of that country who are enamored of American culture.)

Once, friends and I joined Alan on the hike:  George  and Theodosia’s son Jack, Jack’s wife Joyce, and former high school student Denise L. Barney and her husband Barney hiked along; afterward we crammed into the back of the tiny Chinook microcamper with Alan to share some good wine and crackers (Alan abstained!)

As the GRS biography was written, and published, Alan joined public events which described GRS and my work.  Once, to my chagrin, he was at a talk at the Bancroft Library and I did not notice him so did not introduce him; fortunately, when he came up afterward to say hello I was able to give him a well-deserved gift – a first edition of STORM, autographed by GRS, with a rare misprint on one page.

He also shared our GRS dinner at the beautiful, historic  UC Berkeley Faculty Club, sitting next to me, and we were able to talk about shared GRS experiences.

To sum up – Alan Kaplan, Naturalist, played a major role in the work which led to the eventual publication of THE LIFE AND TRUTH OF GEORGE R. STEWART.   He also inspired me to take a second, deeper look at Stewart’s books, especially FIRE.  Stewart, and the GRS biography owe him much.  I am deeply grateful for his encouragement.

A Letter worthy of Thanksgiving

The attached text is from the comments section, but I wanted to highlight here.  It came this morning, quite by surprise.  Like the comments by other distinguished authors including Christopher Priest and James Sallis, it reminded me why I slog along this path of the honoring of George R. Stewart and his great novel, Earth Abides.

My original intention was to edit the message.  But it is so integrated that it shall stand as sent.  The only change  is to add links to Terence Green and his work.

Just finished your biography of George R. Stewart. Enjoyed it immensely — a very fine book. Like all good biographies, it gives a sense of the times and the place as well as the individual — especially the UC Berkeley milieu of that era. (In short, I learned a lot.)

I’m a Canadian writer and teacher, born in 1947, currently in my 12th year of teaching creative writing at Western University in London, Ontario, Canada (this London is a city of some 300,000, 2 hours south-west of Toronto). Before that, I spent 30 years teaching high school English, primarily in Toronto. I’m also the author of 8 books [That’s a review of one] (7 novels and a collection of short stories).

I bought and read the Ace paperback of EARTH ABIDES back in the early 60s (62? 63?) as a high-school teenager, and was duly impressed… So impressed, I might add, that I still have that particular 50-cent edition (more than 50 years now) on a bookshelf here in my office — an old favorite, and probably a collector’s item of sorts. I rank it with A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ — also never out of print — as transcending any genre, moving people, and opening eyes — touching the mind and the heart, as the best literature does.

When I spotted the trade paperback edition published by Del Rey about a decade ago, I bought it and re-read it. I was impressed once again. It more than held up. And just recently, I read it for the 3rd time, still moved and impressed — enough to search the internet for more information on Stewart. This is how I found and ordered your book.

I just wanted you to hear yet another story of how far-reaching his work has been, and by extension, how far-reaching your own appreciation has been.

Many thanks for the scholarship (and work) involved in spreading the word. I like to think there’s a potential, significant, continuous groundswell for the book, and that it will indeed abide long into the future, like Ish’s hammer. And you’ve helped.

Thanks to Terence Green, and to all those who understand the greatness of George R. Stewart and Earth Abides; and who take the trouble to let others in the “Fellowship of the Hammer” know their feelings.

Another Honor For GRS: George R. Stewart in “Stewart Heritage”

Two distinguished British authors, Henry Fothringham, OBE, and Charles Kinder Bradbury,  have just released their beautiful coffee table book, Stewart Heritage.  The book devotes a page to each of several dozen famous and influential Stewarts.  One of the Stewarts they profile is our focus in these pages:  George R. Stewart.

This is the third recent work honoring Stewart and his work.  There was an essay in the literary magazine of the Chicago Tribune, “George R. Stewart: Unrestrained by literary borders,” the several pages devoted to Stewart’s Storm in  Snowbound,  Mark McLaughlin’s just-released book about the largest storms recorded in the Sierra Nevada, the fine interpretive sign at Donner Summit so ably designed and place by Bill Oudegeest of the Donner Summit Historical Society (followed by several articles in the Society’s magazine), the Berkeley ePlaque edited and published by Robert Kehlmann and his stalwart colleagues; and now this fine one-page essay which succinctly summarizes Stewart’s life and work.

Although I can’t reproduce the entire GRS page from Stewart Heritage for reasons of copyright, I can post a portion here to give readers the chance to see the quality of the book and the George R. Stewart entry.

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There is clearly a continuing interest in George R. Stewart and his work.   The new, reduced price on the GRS biography and the planned mini-series of Earth Abides will increase that interest.

This weblog is not designed as a marketing tool.  But when something  exceptional  related to George R. Stewart comes along, I’ll always share it with you.  If you are a Stewart, or know a Stewart, or a passionate fan of George R. Stewart and his work, you might consider Stewart Heritage (which I understand was printed in a limited edition).

Post Script.  Having had the chance to review the book in more depth, I find it rich in history across disciplines, across borders, even across racial lines.  There are entries which sweep the Earth from Panamint City near Trona, California – founded by stage robbers who discovered silver there – to Brittany (“Little Britain”) and a tussle there between Satan and Saint George over Mont St. Michel – to Hollywood and James Stewart – and on and on.  Disciplines include science and engineering – the authors have expertise in chemistry and metallurgy – painting, music, film, sport, military accomplishments, academia, politics, law – think Justice Potter Stewart – and, of course, writing.  It is a fascinating read.

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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A New George R. Stewart e-Plaque at the Berkeley Plaque Project

 

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The Berkeley Historical Plaque Project is dedicated to placing plaques at, or about, historic sites in Berkeley.  Many of the plaques are physical, beautifully designed and placed at the locations interpreted.  Others are posted at the Plaque Project’s website, as e-Plaques.  The e-plaques allow people not in Berkeley to see the plaques, and learn about those being interpreted – a world wide version of the physical plaques, available to all.  The e-Plaques also allow an honoring of sites and people for far less than the $1000 cost of the physical plaques.

George R. Stewart has now been honored with an ePlaque.  With the permission of GRS Family Photo Collection Keeper Anna Evenson, the writing talents of Steven Finacom and company, and the leadership of Robert Kehlman, the plaque is now online at the link above. The Plaque gives a good overview of Stewart, his family, his life, and his work. It links to other honorings like the brilliant James Sallis essay on Earth Abides.  (Sallis is a poet and author, the writer of the novella DRIVE which was made into an excellent movie.)

The Plaque also links to a radio script, written by Stewart’s colleague, Berkeley author “Anthony Boucher.” “Boucher,”  nom de plume of William Anthony Parker White, created a series, The Casebook of Gregory Hood, which ran in the late 1940s.  One episode, The Ghost Town Mortuary, “starred” George R. Stewart. Follow the link at the bottom of the plaque to read part of that script.   (Some of the Gregory Hood episodes are online; unfortunately, The Ghost Town Mortuary is not.)

Eventually, it may be possible to put a physical plaque on what might be called “Ish’s House,”  the house on “San Lupo Drive” which was the Stewart home when Earth Abides was written, and Ish’s home in the novel. But that will need to wait until the time when there is funding available for it.  Until then – and after – this is a fine piece of work, to be enjoyed by people in many places around the globe – and beyond, if someone on the International Space Station is a Stewart fan.

American Place Names

In William Least Heat Moon’s American classic, Blue Highways, Least Heat Moon explains that one of the goals of his 11,000 mile American journey was to visit towns with unusual names.  Since another of his goals was to follow the old U.S. Highways, I guessed he knew the work of  George R. Stewart.  So when I met him, I said, “You’ve been influenced by George R. Stewart.”  He looked up from the desk where he was signing books and said, “Yes.  Profoundly.  How did you know?”  “Because I’m a scholar of GRS’s works, and Blue Highways is clearly influenced by U. S. 40, Names On The Land, and American Place Names.”

American Place Names is one of the last books – all about names – that Stewart wrote before his death in 1980.  He had a fascination with names, of place particularly, and with what names tell us about the people who do the naming.  Names on the Land is his masterwork, a history of American place naming – which Stewart considered untranslatable since it included so many unique American references.  (But that’s not stopping Scholar Junlin Pan, who, following a request from one of the most distinguished publishing houses in China, is well along in her translation – with a little help from someone who knows American history and can give some sense of meanings of American place names.)

Researching  Names on the Land, Stewart had built a huge file of the history of how places were named, far more than could be used in the book.  So now, near the end of his work, he decided to publish those mini-histories of the names.  Released in 1970 by Oxford University Press, American Place Names was described as “an instant classic.”

The book contains the meaning and brief history of approximately 12,000 names of places from coast to coast and border to border, in its  500 plus pages.  Names like Arroyo Grande – Big Gulch or Big Creek or Big Ditch, named tautologically – Arroyo Grande Creek means Big Creek Creek – or for some prominent local feature.  Pismo, as in Pismo Beach, means tar in Chumash, since the area is filled with tar seeps (and now oil fields and a refinery).  Bug Scuffle warns the visitor that he or she should expect to spend time fighting off bedbugs or other members of the insect world.  Likely was named because the locals believed it was unlikely that any other town with a post office would have that name.  Nameless, a humorous name for a small feature or town;  Accident because somebody surveyed some land by accident; Los Angeles, an Anglo contraction of the Spanish name “Nuestra Senora de los Angeles de Porciuncula; Angels Camp, for founder George Angel.  And so on, and so on.

The book is a wonderful read….the type of book to keep by the bed so you can browse through it before sleep and thus perchance dream of all those exotic places on American roads and trails that you hope to see someday.  I also suggest to friends that they keep a copy in their car, so that when they’re on a long trip, they can find the meaning of interesting names of the places they pass through-  Devil’s Churn, say, or Ekalaka, or Deer Lodge, or Ten Sleep, or Monticello, or Yosemite.

William Least Heat Moon visited or acknowledged several places with unusual names on his great odyssey – Dime Box, Texas; Nameless, Tennessee; Igo and Ono, California.  His chapter on Nameless is one of the great pieces of American writing, which everyone should read.

If you’re going to visit these places, you’d better hurry.  The  bowdlerizers are hard at work,  removing some of the most interesting and important names from the map. Nellie’s Nipple may go; Shit House Mountain has probably gone.   In some instances, the names are offensive; but they reflect a part or our history, and the censors should not be allowed to erase that from the map.  But they’re in high dudgeon now, and have the ear – or some appendage – of the establishment, so much of our language is at the risk, including our place names.  Visit while you can.  And in preparation, read Stewart’s book.

The book is available used; check with your local bookseller to order a copy.

 

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.