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.

 

The Chicago Tribune publishes its tribute to George R. Stewart

“George R. Stewart: Unrestrained by literary borders,” Patrick T. Reardon’s fine tribute to George R. Stewart, was published yesterday in The Chicago Tribune‘s literary magazine, Printers Row Journal.    Editorial Assistant Andreea Ciulac was kind enough to send the link. (The Journal is published online only.)

The essay gives a good introduction to Stewart’s vast literary output.  As Reardon says, GRS wrote in many fields – history, geography, environmentalism, civil rights, and fiction – creating several new types of literature along the way.

Reardon highlights several of Stewart’s books – Earth Abides, Names On The Land, Pickett’s Charge, Storm, Ordeal By Hunger, and others.  He quotes from the books to show Stewart’s style in each type of work, thus giving readers a sense of how the books read.

The portrait Andreea Ciulac chose for the article was taken in 1938, probably for East of the Giants.  It shows Stewart as the distinguished scholar and author he was – in a time when the publication of a book by a company like Random House meant honor and a huge readership. (Thanks to Anna Evenson for permitting use of the photo.)

To see that portrait with its fine accompanying article in The Chicago Tribune is to feel immensely satisfied – this is the kind of honorable place where GRS belongs.  In the literary magazine of one of the great newspapers of the country.

The article should encourage a new readership for Stewart’s work.  As Andreea Ciulac writes,  “… I think the article makes you jump from your seat and go read something written by GRS!”  (Andreea is a pleasure to work with – cheerful, enthusiastic, efficient, a friend of literature, and now, we hope, of GRS.  Printers Row Journal is lucky to have her on the staff.)

By the way – I wrote in the last post that you can subscribe to the Printers Row Journal; but no longer.  On the other hand, you CAN subscribe online to The Chicago Tribune, and receive the Journal as part of the subscription, for a reasonable price.  I was impressed with the Journal,  and have subscribed for a few months to try The Tribune and the Journal.