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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A Suggestion: “First Stewartians”

Paul F. Starrs is a distinguished, award-winning geographer and beloved teacher  at the University of Nevada, Reno.  He is one of the few who’ve attended legendary Deep Springs College.  He has also been a GRS follower and supporter for decades.

In a recent email, Paul referred to those who GRS has influenced so deeply as “First Stewartians,” meaning, I suppose, that we who have discovered and preached about GRS for decades will be the Wise Old Men and Women when Stewart is widely-discovered and lavished with praise, even by the NY literary establishment.

At this writing, there is no formal GRS study or appreciation group.  There have been two:  The George R. Stewart Fan Club and The Friends of George R. Stewart.

Vic Moitoret survived the World War II sinking of TWO aircraft carriers.  Inspired by Stewart’s Storm,  he went on to become Chief Meteorologist of the U.S. Navy.  (A small black book listing books which most influenced him – Storm being at the top of the list – survived both sinkings with him, because he wouldn’t leave it behind.)  After retirement he founded The Friends of George R. Stewart and began setting up correspondence with others who felt the same passion for GRS.

When Vic left the scene, Bob Lyon stepped in.  I had not been involved in the Fan Club; but Ted – Theodosia –  Stewart connected me with Bob.  He introduced me to other GRS followers, like distinguished San Francisco Attorney Frank Sloss, Historian Ferol Egan, and The Pilgrim – Stewart Scholar Steve Williams of England.  Bob put together some important and wonderful events, including a special GRS Symposium at the Western Literature Association Conference which resulted in a fine collection of papers.  But chili called. He bacame a master participant in chili cookoffs, and the Friends faded away.

With the publication of the George R. Stewart biography (two biographies, in fact; the other, by Dr. Fred Waage, is reportedly more academic but gets the nod for being the first), the possible production of a film or mini-series based on Earth Abides,  and the simple accrual that happens when individuals snowball into a group, there seems to be an increasing number of people who might be interested in a few, informal meetings or events related to George R. Stewart, his life, his family, his work, his places.

So here’s to the possible “First Stewartians.”   If you have any interest, even in informal gatherings or an online community of some type, feel free to send a comment.

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.

BIG NEWS – GRS BIO PRICE DROPS TO $35

Cover of the McFarland Book

Those of you who are loyal followers of this weblog are among the first to know this – The Life and Truth of George R. Stewart: A Literary Biography of the Author of Earth Abides has just had a major price reduction.  Originally $55.00, McFarland has reduced the price to $35.00.  The  new price puts the book well within the budget of most GRS fans.

(Like Amazon, McFarland ships free.  Click on the book cover to go to the book’s page.)

As the authorized biography of GRS, the book contains previously unpublished photographs and other materials about Stewart, and also his mid-twentieth century community of American writers and scientists, and others .   There are photos of Wallace Stegner, C. S. Forester, Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, and others.  Manuscript materials include quotations from letters from Walt Disney and others, a radio mystery script “starring” Stewart, and a previously unpublished Civil War Journal from the Battle of the Peninsula.

The book is meticulously, thoroughly researched.  Written for a general audience,  Feedback indicates it’s well-written, easy to read, and interesting.

It will take a week or two for the price drop to be reflected at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

Then, for the price of a few lattes, you can have your own copy of this well-reviewed biography of one of the great writers and thinkers of the last 100 years.

P.S. If you want to save even more money, you can buy it as an ebook, here, in several formats, for less than $13.  Of course, you’ll lose the wonderful texture and of the printed book.

 

 

 

 

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

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.

Stewart’s Last Book – on Names

In the late 1970s, ill with Parkinson’s Disease, George R. Stewart worked valiantly to complete his last book.  The book was a dictionary of the names given to Americans, and, like Names on the Land, it considered those name-givings in an historical context.  The book was entitled American Given Names.

In the book’s “Introduction” Stewart describes several principles of American name-giving:  Names are given soon after birth; those names are considered permanent; names usually are gender-specific; the names chosen by the namers are considered “good” names; there is a huge pool of names from which to choose; names may leave the pool by misuse, and new names may be added by use; although the names may have originally come from many different languages, they are Americanized in spelling and pronunciation.   He follows that with a detailed “Historical Sketch,” nearly 40 pages long, which gives a good context for the types of names bestowed at different American eras, and some reasons for those choices.

The main section of the book is of course the dictionary of names.  Note that these are American given names – not English or any other nations, although many nations and tongues provided the names originally – so these names would be given to children born here.  Each name is defined; its origin and meaning given; and a brief history of its use included. Many of the names will seem dated now – the book is nearly 40 years old, and television and movies have had a profound impact on naming since then. But others are still common:  Robert, Catherine, Donald, Mary, John, and so on.  Since this is a work with an historical viewpoint, many of the names were not in common use even before publication, but Stewart included them as of historic interest.  Of just because he found them interesting.  How many people today are named Mahershalalhashbaz?

Stewart, good scholar that he was, leaves his readers with a quest – to track name changes of the late twentieth century, which seem like so much of that time to break with the past, to see if those new names endure, or if they’re replaced with other names.

The book is a good read, and a resource for scholars, writers, or anyone interested in American names.

 

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The book was published by Oxford in 1978.  Ted (Theodosia) Stewart told us that Stewart was  working while he lay in bed, in pain.  When someone commented that it must  be  hard to watch him do the work, Ted exclaimed, “No!  No one can live with George unless he’s writing!  Thank God he has this book to write!”

Stewart tried to write one more book, a biography of his father-in-law, University of Michigan President Marion LeRoy Burton.  But to read his manuscript is to feel deep sorrow.  He kept starting the book, over and over, but he could not get it beyond an early section.  He died without having made much progress on it.  On the other hand, he had written 28 published books, and a few never published; and even in the pain of his last illness, he wrote this fine book.