The End of the World, Past and Future

George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides has been named (by James Sallis, among others)  one of the finest dystopian, after-the-fall novels of all time, and one of the finest American novels.  Its long history of popularity —  never out-of-print (thanks to Alan Ligda), for nearly 70 years — shows the influence of the work.  Recently I read two books which, to me, stand alongside Earth Abides in the ability to inspire thinking about the possible end of human civilization.  One, a novel, is told from the point of view of an Amish farmer.  The other, a history and adventure, looks to a past collapse to speculate about how civilizations have ended just as Stewart foresaw – due to disease.

When the English Fall is David Williams’ novel about Pennsylvania’s Amish country after a massive solar storm destroys all things electrical.  There’s no power to run vehicles, freezers, hospitals, lamps, washing machines, or radios and computers.  The Amish are not much affected by the end of industrial civilization – at least not initially.  They send their surplus food to the starving people in a nearby city, continue to farm and can, and pray for strength and deliverance.  But soon the city’s population runs out of food, and begins to move toward the Amish community in often-violent raids.   The Amish must face the possibility that they may have to choose between their peaceful ways, and the survival of their friends and families.  Their choice is not for me to reveal here. But the book’s ending is hauntingly similar to that of Earth Abides.

The novel is written in the first person – pages from a journal found later.  It feels Amish in style – gentle, reflective, spiritual, loving.   While Earth Abides has a power sometimes called Old-Testament biblical and intersperses the narrative with short poetic passages that can feel like  psalms,  the quiet style of the journal supposedly written by a deeply religious person feels more like the quiet New Testament conversations Jesus has with followers.

Author David Williams is a Presbyterian minister who enjoys hoppy beer and dirty motorcycles – sounds like someone worth meeting.  But he understands his hero, Jacob the Amishman as a man of belief, and is able to communicate Jacob’s ideas in a way that will reach all readers.

The Lost City of the Monkey God is NOT fiction.  It is a journalistic report of a real expedition to discover lost cities in Honduras.  But it is written by someone who is an experienced and best-selling novelist,  who knows how to keep his audience involved to the point of reading into the early hours of the morning.  Douglas Preston tells the story in good journalistic fashion combining the space-based perspective of LIDAR with the grungy, dangerous, slow cutting  through a snake-infested jungle so dense that an expedition member could get lost within a hundred yards of the others.

Then,  in an interesting finale inspired by what happened to the explorers after they left the jungle,  the book becomes an ecologically-based work which in the best STEAM manner weaves together archaeology, history, pre-history and speculation to suggest a reason why these cities – and perhaps other ancient Latin American cities – were so quickly and inexplicably abandoned.  Again, this is no place to spoil the book’s conclusion.  Yet, like When the English Fall,  it is powerfully evocative of Stewart’s great work.

In fact, it is almost as if The Lost City of the Monkey is a prequel to an ancient version of Earth Abides.

Like Earth Abides, these two books are ecological works which look at the interconnections between humans and the ecosphere.   I highly recommend them  to anyone influenced by  George R. Stewart’s  Earth Abides.  And to anyone who enjoys a smashing good read.

George R. Stewart’s Friends, I – C.S. Forester

Stewart once wrote that although his life as a scholar had been necessarily a lonely one, he’d had some remarkable encounters along the way.  Many of those encounters were with other writers of his time, some of whom became household names, and in a few cases those people became close and life-long friends.

Over the next few months, as time and the move permit, this web log will share some of those friends with its readers.   Since I’ve just finished re-reading C.S. Forester’s The Good Shepherd, and am currently watching “Horatio Hornblower” on YouTube, Forester seems a good subject.

C.S. Forester is best known for his Horatio Hornblower series, 12 novels set in the Napoleonic Wars with track the adventures and the growth of a young Englishman in the Royal Navy.  The character lives on, long after the death of Forester – Captain James T. Kirk of the Starship Enterprise is modeled in part on Hornblower.

hornblower image

to see the first episode on YouTube, click here

Forester also wrote The African Queen, which was made into an excellent, award-winning film by John Huston.   The film, still excellent, and not dated, stars Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn – he, the hard-drinking grizzled skipper of a small steam-powered boat (think Disneyland’s Jungle Cruise boats), she, a prim, religious woman, both trying to escape from the German military in Africa during World War I.  After many adventures, they’re captured by the Germans and sentenced to hang.  But…… but you’ll have to see the movie or read the book to find out what happens.

The-african-queen-1-

to see the trailer, click here

Forester was born Cecil Louis Troughton Smith.  Raised by his mother in England after early childhood in Cairo, and studying medicine, he decided he wanted to be a writer. He began writing in 1921.

By 1940, he’d convinced the British government to let him move to the United States as a writer of propaganda encouraging Americans to enter the war on England’s side.  He soon found himself living in North Berkeley, where he would stay until his passing in the middle 1960s.

He was a well-known author by the time he arrived in Berkeley – The African Queen was published in 1935, and the first Hornblower novel in 1937 – and he’d published many other works as well.  His Berkeley circle quickly grew to include others who were successful academics and writers.  One of those was George R. Stewart.

By 1940, Stewart was also a well-known writer.  He’d published landmark biographies of Bret Harte and humorist George Horatio Derby.  His 1936 book on the Donner Party was a best-seller, and first “Whole Earth” book.  He’d written two novels, one scheduled to be filmed until the war interceded.  And he was working on the first ecological novel, Storm.

Stewart and Forester were innovators, who often broke the literary conventions of their day to produce works that stood head-and-shoulders above that time.  In Storm Stewart integrated history, science, and story into an unprecedented novel that looked at an ecological event and its influence on human affairs from a smooth, interdisciplinary perspective.

In The Good Shepherd, Forester also breaks convention.  The novel tells of a terrifying 48 hours in which the Commander of ships protecting an Atlantic  convoy from a German wolf pack  of U-boats must shepherd his small but important fleet through foul weather and deadly attacks.  He’s never been a commander under fire, and often worries about his ability.  But he doesn’t worry much – he does what he must, even as exhaustion and hunger and the need to go to the head creep upon him, to the point that he must against all his beliefs break protocol to remove his shoes so his feet can begin to function again.

A conventional novel like this one would be broken into several chapters, probably one for each watch on each day or for each major encounter with the enemy.  But Forester wants his readers to FEEL the all-encompassing Commander’s experience of the battle.  So he only has 3 chapters.  The first chapter is a 6 page introduction to the setting and the mission.  The third chapter is also 6 pages, as the Commander has won the battle but – now able to rest – loses the battle to stay awake.

The second chapter is a 295 page immersion in the battle, in such detail that the reader begins to gain new respect for military procedure and trigonometry and a good, hot cup of coffee.  It is almost impossible to put down.  And by the end of it, the reader feels as exhausted, and joyful, as our commander.

That unusual approach alone sets the novel apart.  The reader is, or at least this reader was, exhilarated by the out-of-the-box structure and how right it is.  But Forester does more.  He inserts small bits of personal history which take us into the Commander’s past, and his heart and his soul, and we understand why a successful mission is so important to him – he’s sacrificed the chance for a happy personal life so he can do his duty to protect his convoy, and his world.

Stewart does something similar in his second novel, Doctor’s Oral.  It is the story of a day in the life of a graduate student facing a committee who will decide whether or not he gets his Ph.D.    One member of the committee, a woman professor, is quiet and somewhat mysterious.  Then Stewart, in one brief section, opens her soul to us, and thus opens our heart and our understanding to her.

In both cases Stewart and Forester manage to put, within a larger story, unforgettable revelations of character showing us real people rather than cardboard cutouts.  They enlighten us, to the truth of human experience.  It is the quality of great, rather than conventional, art.

Stewart and Smith/Forester became good friends, often working and relaxing together or with their families.  We can imagine them talking about their various projects in a local club, inspiring each other’s work, or one of Ted (Theodosia) Stewart’s many picnics.  They were also members of The Armchair Strategists, a group of scholars who examined the events of the week during World War II, and suggested strategies based on their work.  LIFE Magazine carried a story and photograph about the Armchair Strategists, with both men in the picture.

They went on picnics together.  Ted Stewart loved picnics, and George loved to drive.  They’d head north over the new Golden Gate Bridge, then west into Marin County.  In those days, picnickers could park in a pull out and spread the lunch on the grass next to the road.  Not much traffic, and not many restrictions.   It would have been a time of relaxation, laughter, and light talk.

Here’s a photo of one such roadside picnic.  The photo, from Anna Evenson’s Stewart Family Photo Collection, looks like the photographer – almost certainly Stewart – set the camera on the ground and used a self-timer to take the picture.  It is probably taken in the early-to-mid 40s, to judge by the clothing and the apparent age of the subjects.

cs forester, grs, tbs, mrs  from the anna evenson stewart family photo collection

Ted Stewart is on the right.  GRS, seated in the back next to Mrs. Forester, is wearing sunglasses.  C.S. Forester is laying on his back in the middle foreground, apparently wearing jodphur riding pants and large hiking boots.  They’re all smiling for the camera; but those smiles are certainly honest ones.  It looks like a good time – and no picnic of Ted’s was ever anything but wonderful.  (I speak from  personal observations of a few at Thornton State Beach, and a sharing in one with the classic Ted Stewart lunch of cold chicken, good sourdough bread, and a nice white wine.)

Since GRS and Ted lived on into the 1980s, their friendship would likely have continued  until Forester’s death in 1966.  After GRS retired in 1964, there would have been more time for picnics.  I hope there were many, and many cheerful conversations about books and writing.

Read Forester, if you’re a Stewart fan.  The Good Shepherd is a fine place to start.  So is The African Queen, or any of the Hornblower novels.  As you read, think about the friendship between these two fine writers, and their families, and the influence it may have had on their work.

 

 

 

NAMES ON THE GLOBE

NOTG cover

George R. Stewart’s last great book was Names On The Globe.  He wrote another names book, American Given Names, before he died, (see earlier post about  that book) but it was a dictionary and history of selected American names.  Names On The Globe, like his classic and never-duplicated Names On The Land, was a history of place-naming – in this case, on a global scale. Here, in the last post about one of Stewart’s major publications, is a short essay about the book.

As in Names On The Land, Stewart has created a rich, complex, and deep – but easily understood – history of the process of place naming and of eras of place naming.  Although it is supposedly about global naming, for many obvious and practical reasons GRS focuses on names in the areas we then called “western civilization.”  He was not a Chinese or Japanese scholar, nor an African one, nor one who knew much of Aboriginal languages and culture.  So he stuck with what he did know, with some brief chapters and comments about other regions of the world – assuming, probably, that others who came after him might add deeper histories of the naming in those places.  Another reason for emphasizing “Western Civilization” is that he spoke or read many Indo-European languages, and had studied the history of most Indo-European countries (save India), so he could do the scholarship necessary to tease out the story of those names.

He takes a different approach to understanding place naming in this book, beginning with an examination of Man as a Namer.  No recorded human society is without names.  Some have evolved, GRS says, and others were bestowed.  That is, in finding a previously unknown river its name “new river” evolved from the name of the original river.  But Tamsen’s Town was a name that would have been bestowed on a place by settlers of travelers.

GRS continues by considering the mind of Man the Namer, as he explains the types of place names given, and the reasons for giving them.  Some places, for example, were important to the namers because of incidents that happened there (Colt Killed Creek), others show possession  (Wassa’s Town, Washington),  others commemorate great (or small) events (Washington’s Crossing), and so forth.

In Part III, the longest section, GRS describes the names and naming in various places around the globe.  In discussing Celtic names, in modern Europe, he points out that they were so well-connected with the land that they outlasted the names later given by the Romans, even if in altered form.  But, as he points out, some of the “Celtic” names were probably originally given by earlier settlers.

Part IV is especially interesting, as Stewart considers important uses for ancient names – as tools for archaeologist, historians, and other scholars.  Fittingly, since Stewart was, after all, a poet who wrote prose, he ends with a chapter about place names as useful tools for poets. “…The romantic appeal springs from sonorous syllables, and from a sense of the strange, bizarre, and wonderful. …” Stewart writes, noting that the poet or author needs not to know the meaning of the name to use it in his work.  He quotes several famous poets who are known for the excellent use of such names, mentions Stephen Vincent Benet’s American Names.  And he quotes, appropriately, the beautiful opening of his own Names on the Land, where he lists the wonderful names found here – Gunsight Pass, Lone Pine, Broken Bow, Roaring Run, and the others.

He finishes the book, as he sometimes finished his works, with a reflection on even the most prosaic seeming of names, Cowbridge.  Did a cow fall from the bridge?  Or refuse to cross?  “….even the simple Cowbridge stirs the imagination,” George R. Stewart writes, as he finishes his great work.

The Author’s Note brings that work to a close.  He will finish and publish his book on American given names, but this, he knows, is his last great work.  So he honors his greatest friend, his wife, Theodosia, “who,” he writes, “might well be given the title Encourager of Books.”

And, thus, Opus Perfeci.  For this study of the books of George R. Stewart, and his life, and related topics.  Depending on what may come, I plan to add more as things of interest show up.  And since Stewart wrote of Earth from the view of space, ground, ecosystem, language, history, literature, and so on, I still have a broad canvas to draw on.

In the meantime, many thanks to all of you – from nearly 60 countries, in every continent save Antarctica at last count – who have visited this site, read the posts, commented on them, and encouraged the work.  You have been an inspiration.

 

 

 

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.

 

What Is “The Good Life?” George R. Stewart, GOOD LIVES

As the years began to pile up, and George R. Stewart felt his age, he began to think back over his life.  Had he lived a good life?

To answer the question, he wrote another book.:

Good Lives: The Stories of Six Men and the Good Life That Each Won for Himself

By examining six men throughout western history who seemed to share the same qualities and the same sense of accomplishment, Stewart found a definition of what comprised a (not “the”) good life:  Joab of the Old Testament, William the Marshall, Heinrich Schleiman, John Bidwell of California, Architect Francisco Eduardo Tresguerras of Mexico, and Prince Henry the Navigator, (He apologized, with explanation, for not including any women). The men where selected from those he’d encountered in his scholarly work over the decades.  In most cases, they were not widely known.(I suspect he profiled some because he wanted to let readers know about their lives – how else would the average reader in this country learn about the brilliant Francisco Eduardo Tresguerras?) The subjects ranged from the ancient – Joab of the Old Testament – to the fairly recent – John Bidwell of Chico, California.

In their lives, he discovered six qualities of character common to all.  Each had clear goals, and stayed committed to those goals until they were accomplished.  Heinrich Schleimann, for example, continued his search for the lost city of Troy during years of suffering the humiliation of failure and criticism from professional archaeologists and finally found the city.    Each accepted responsibility for his acts.  Each had great courage, sometimes in battle, sometimes, like Schliemann, in the pursuit of a goal.  And, at the end of their lives, each man felt fulfilled in things personal and professional, and had an integration of his spirit with his physical, material life.

The book is an interesting set of biographies of remarkable men, many of whom most readers had only met before in passing.  Discovering a pattern of character that helped him, and the reader, to understand why they are worth studying, added a layer of meaning to the book.

It may lack the power of Earth Abides.  But the book is none-the-less an important part of his body of work.  In a day when reading was still the primary method of informal education, the book introduced the lives of important but largely unknown historical figures to Stewart’s large reading audience.  It also found in those lives a set of standards by which all lives can be judged – thus using them as a microcosm, in the best Stewart manner.

Perhaps most important, it teaches us about George R. Stewart – what sort of man was he?  What values did he hold highest?  How did his life measure against the six in the book?  He didn’t answer that last question in the book.  But he once told his son Jack, “That’s a book an old man writes.”  In other words, in studying those lives he was giving us a key to his, as it drew close to the end.

But he wasn’t through with life yet.  He was already hard at work on another game-changing book, which would win a major prize and help his readers understand the nuts-and-bolts of living properly in the Whole Earth ecosystem that he had first visualized and shared, in the 1930s.

Charter Day – George R. Stewart’s follow-up to the Year of the Oath

In one of the most egregious events of the time, the University actually granted an honorary degree to one of those who tried to destroy academic freedom in the University. Although Stewart was one of the most distinguished scholars at the University, and one of the best-known because of his histories and novels, he decided to boycott the Charter Day ceremonies as a protest against the granting of the degree to Sidney Ehrman. He also wrote a letter, sent to the University community, explaining his action.

Here is part of the letter.

I do not wish to walk in the same procession with the majority of those Regents,
whose beliefs and actions I abhor, and especially by walking behind them to
accept symbolically the position of inferiority….
I earned my doctorate by hard work and honest scholarship…. I do not believe
that the professors that once granted me that degree…. would wish me to wear
my academic regalia under such circumstances.

Those who think the purpose of a university is to field a football team would not understand his actions. But any good educator or scholar would.

George R. Stewart, THE YEAR OF THE OATH

After several months, the Earth Abides Project weblog is back. The long “vacation” was necessary as this writer wandered for a time, then settled in to a summer of volunteering as a Camp Host in an isolated Forest Service Campground. But the volunteer summer is ending, so there’s time to write more about George R. Stewart.

The last posts were about Stewart’s magnum opus, EARTH ABIDES. This time, we’ll look at the unplanned book which followed EA soon afterward. It’s a classic study of the battle for academic and personal freedom, entitled THE YEAR OF THE OATH.

EARTH ABIDES ends with a fire sweeping through the post-apocalyptic UC Berkeley campus. It was an unexpected but proper introduction to the events that would lead to Stewart’s oath book. A firestorm of an attack on academic freedom, led by three UC Regents – Bank of America’s Lawrence Giannini, the Hearst papers’ John Francis Neylan, and the Bechtel’s lawyer Sidney Ehrman – hit the campus just as EA was being published. In violation of University Regulation 5, the three demanded that all faculty members sign an anti-communist oath. The faculty successfully fought that requirement, but then the anti-communist oath was added to the employment contract. If faculty did not sign, they would be fired.

Several refused to sign, and were fired – most notably, the brilliant Dr. Edward C. Tolman – whose accomplishments were of great importance to science and education. But Stewart decided to join others in battling the oath. “Sign, stay, and fight!” was their motto. Each of those in opposition brought their particular strengths to the battle. Stewart, the distinguished author, wrote a book.

The book, in Stewart’s elegant prose, told the story of the oath and presented the reasons why it was illegal and therefore opposed by the faculty. Stewart had a widespread popularity with the reading public, so the book became a bestseller. It carried the day – Giannini resigned from the Regents threatening to take up vigilante action against freedom.

The oath was eventually ruled unconstitutional by the California State Supreme Court. Tolman and the others who had been fired were reinstated with back pay. As an act of apology, UC named a building for Tolman.

Stewart paid a price for his part in the battle. His publisher refused to publish OATH. Fortunately, a courageous editor at Doubleday, Howard Cady, convinced his company to publish the book….and, considering the massive sales of the book, that was a good investment by Doubleday.

After OATH, Stewart was wooed by Houghton Mifflin, and left Random House for good.

The book is considered a classic of civil liberties. It’s been reprinted several times, and is often used to encourage others who are fighting for freedom. Stewart had done his job well.

Of course, the attempts to politicize education, and thus weaken, continue unabated. Today there’s everything from “affirmative action” to “diversity” to “sexual harassment” to “terrorism” …. even the “footballization of the American University” … which are too often used to attack the freedom of a particular professor. Stewart would return to this theme in the Era of Movements, in a novel never published.

When THE YEAR OF THE OATH ended, Stewart could again turn to his theme of land and ecology. He began writing a unprecedented novel which readers still debate: Was SHEEP ROCK, Stewart’s attempt to “tell all the things that go to make up a place” a success? Or a brilliant failure?