And So We Come To A Milestone

Ish's Hammer(1)

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

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.

 

 

 

“Each time I read it, I’m profoundly affected…” EARTH ABIDES

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James Sallis on EARTH ABIDES:

“…Each time I read it, I’m profoundly affected, affected in a way only the greatest art—Ulysses, Matisse or Beethoven symphonies, say—affects me….

“… Art’s mission is to make our lives large again, to dredge us out of this terrible dailyness. I begin each reading of Earth Abides knowing that, once the flight’s done, I’ll be meeting a new man there at the end of the concourse. The guy who got on the flight’s okay. I like the one who gets off a lot better.”         (Quoted with permission.)

James Sallis is a fine contemporary writer – poet, detective novelist, and the author of the recently filmed Drive.  Of all the accolades given to Stewart’s great novel – and there have been many – Sallis’s seems to me the best.  He captures the power, the magnificence, and the beauty.  He also honors the transcendent, life-changing nature of the novel.  For most, to read Earth Abides is to undergo an epiphany.    (Read Sallis’s essay here.)

Sallis is not the only one who reads and re-reads the book.  The Pilgrim, Steve Williams, who went to school in Liverpool with Lennon and McCartney, has read it so many times he’s lost count – but it’s in the hundreds.  A fellow blogger who goes by the name of teepee12 tells me she reads it every couple of years. I’ve read it many times since the summer in 1956, when it was placed in my hand by The Librarian.

She was one of the best teachers encountered during my life journey, and I don’t even know her name.  To this day, and in my biography of Stewart, that perceptive woman is only known as The Librarian – but when she handed me that book she handed me my life.

I don’t want to give the plot of Stewart’s novel away, but I’ll share enough to intrigue you – if you like adventurous, ecological, philosophical,  almost-religious works of literature. As in Storm and Fire, the ecosystem is the protagonist.  But in this case, it’s not an isolated ecological event; it’s the entire ecosystem, thanks to a small virus. The lives of the few human characters are defined by how they respond to the effects of the virus.  Ish, the male protagonist, is an intellectual who tries to find meaning in the events of the book. For him it’s a quest for a faith. His wife, Em, responds by bringing new life into the post-human world. For her, it’s a duty to carry the flame of human life and culture onward, no matter what the conditions.

The greatest adventure happens in the early part of the novel, before Ish meets Em. Returning from an ecological research project in the Sierra he finds that he has returned to a post-human world. He must deal with what has happened – even questioning whether it is worth continuing to live.   But he finds his answer in the sciences of geography and ecology.  It is a remarkable opportunity for a scientist – he can study the effect of the removal of most humans from the ecosystem. (Note that this book was written a decade before the Environmental Movement and nearly two decades before the first Earth Day.)

He decides to travel the USA to see how others have fared.  (Stewart was a great wanderer of trail and road, and took the journeys he describes in the book.)  Ish begins by heading south from Berkeley, California, on US 99.  He heads east over Tehachapi Pass on California 58; then follows Route 66 until a tree blocks his way.  Eventually he reaches Manhattan; then returns on a more northerly route on US 40 until a forest fire near Emigrant Gap forces him to turn off on California 20.   Along the way, he finds a few survivors who seem to be almost stereotypes of diverse American subcultures.  Some, Ish believes, will prosper.  Others, like the couple in Manhattan who drink martinis in an apartment with no fireplace, probably won’t survive the first winter. Here, and later in the book’s sections on the evolving culture of The Tribe, Stewart is writing a wonderfully speculative anthropological work.

After the journey Ish meets Em.  As they grow closer, and begin a family, his quest changes to a search for faith – one that will help him, and his descendents, live in the changed world?  As the work evolves, he finds himself turning to the Old Testament, since it was the work of a small tribe like Ish and Em’s Tribe that had to survive and find meaning in an often hostile world.  (Stewart taught himself Hebrew so he could translate some of the Old Testament – notably Ecclesiastes – into English without losing the rhythm of the original.)

But the book is not a dreary religious tract by any means.  Much of the time, Ish and Em are building a small community in the Berkeley Hills.   Others join them and the “Tribe” begins to grow.  The “Americans” – those who lived before the event which begins the story – work hard to keep some of their culture alive.  But the youngsters, who will truly become a tribe, must live within the new world.  To them, a good method of hunting with bow and arrow is much more important than learning to read or going to church.

The book is an anthropological work in many ways.  The old culture tries to protect its great store of knowledge.  The younger members of the Tribe work to survive, and have little time for sitting and reading or listening to prayers.  They practice shooting their bows and arrows. Yet The Tribe will develop its own faith, as Ish is seeking his.  Both faiths, ironically, revolve around a simple American object.

During his research in the American River Canyon, Ish finds an old single-jack miner’s hammer.  It gives him a sense of security, so he carries it with him throughout the novel.  By the end of the book, the Hammer of Ish has become the most revered object the tribe possesses.  They insist that Ish must pass it on when he dies.  The person who receives the Hammer will become almost god-like – as Ish does, in the latter pages of the novel.

The Hammer of Ish is one of the great symbols in literature.  And it’s a quintessentially American symbol, designed for common tasks by the Common Man  – but it can also be used to find and mine gold.   I believe the Hammer is one of the reasons for the book’s strong effect on readers.  Like Ish, readers feel very comfortable with the Hammer; but readers feel its mythological power growing throughout the tale as it becomes a spiritual object.

Like the book, the Hammer haunts readers.  A casual mention of the Hammer in conversation often starts a discussion of the novel; and that happens more often than you might think.  One wealthy reader, the late Frank Sloss, even had a sculptor create a silver version, which sat at the center of Sloss’s vast Stewart collection.   Stewart Scholar and Artist Steve Williams was inspired to do a series of fine paintings of The Hammer:

Ish's Hammer(1)The Hammer of Ish.  (Painting Courtesy Steve Williams, Artist and Scholar.)

The book was based on solid research.  The Stewart Papers in the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley hold many letters from colleagues and companies responding to Stewart’s questions about a post-human world.  For example – how sheep and cattle would fare, how long auto batteries would last, and when rust would collapse the Bay Bridge. One of the letters is from Carl Sauer, the greatest geographer of his age and one of the greatest minds of any age, discussing the sheep/cattle question.  It, like all the letters, reveals how intrigued Stewart’s correspondents were with his questions.

The book was published in the fall of 1949.  After a few years of good sales, Random House decided to stop publication and return the rights to Stewart.  Almost immediately, one of the book’s strongest fans, Alan Ligda, contacted Stewart and asked to publish Earth Abides at his  Archive Press and Publications.  Stewart granted permission and the book quickly went into print.   Ligda’s publication sold out quickly.  Random House asked for the return of the rights, and the book returned to print with that major trade publishing house.

Thanks to Alan Ligda the novel has never been out of print.  Readers and scholars owe him a great debt.  Although he died poor and relatively young, Ligda played a major role in the story of Earth Abides.

Does Ish find his faith?  Does the Tribe survive?  Does Earth abide?  What adventures, literary and intellectual, are found along the way?  To find out, read the book.

Earth Abides has had an extraordinary literary and intellectual life.  Never out of print in the 65 years since publication, now in an audio version as well as a print version, and in 20 languages,  the book and its ideas have swept across the Earth.

The next post will discuss how the book has affected some of the finest literary minds, and how the book has influenced art, science, and thought.

FIRE – Stewart’s Second Ecological/Geographical Novel

Time for a slight change in focus.

Although I consider Stewart  an ecological author – that is, one who defines human character by how individuals relate to the ecosystem – a good friend who is a distinguished geographer reminds me that Stewart can also be considered a geographic author – one who writes about the land as a character in the work.  Stewart probably considered himself more geographer than ecologist or environmentalist until the Environmental Movement came to have such an influence on the world, even though he was one of those who laid the thought-foundation for that Movement.  But whether we consider him a geographic or ecological novelist, his second novel about “the land” fits well under both definitions.

Fire is the story of another ecosystem event.  This tim. it’s a huge fire in the Sierra Nevada, north of the Donner Pass region.  As in Storm, the fire becomes the protagonist, and human character is defined by how his characters respond to the great fire.  Again, he names the fire – Spitcat – although this time he also names most of the humans as well.

The book focuses a little on ecology than Storm does, opening and closing with events that reveal the interrelationships in the ecosystem.   It opens with a lightning strike, and closes with the fire-opened serotinous cones dropping their seeds to the ash-enriched, now-sunlit earth.   In one of the strongest passages, the old Ranger and the young Chief Ranger talk about the effect of the fire on one of the most beautiful parts of the forest – a glen, frequented by deer.  The old ranger is broken-hearted to see the glen burned over, and the deer killed.  It has been his wilderness temple.   But the young Chief Ranger tells him that seeing something as beautiful depends on our place in the ecosystem.  To a rabbit the brushy landscape that will replace the glen for a while is a place of great beauty.  The old Ranger, who grew up in the forest  is a Man of the Forest – he only knows that he has lost what he loves the most.  The Chief Ranger, college-educated, is the spokesman for the ecological view of Earth.  In their conversation, the reader, for the first time, feels the drama of the dawning of the ecological view of the world.

Fire is the only novel in which he repeated himself.  That is, he used similar techniques to tell a similar eco/geographic story, and set the story in what appears to be the same landscape, the central Sierra Nevada, where Storm is set. But Stewart challenged himself in writing the book. Although the novel is set in a national forest just north of Tahoe,  that forest does not exist. To make it seem real, he asked his son Jack to create a map of the forest, sprinkled with names on creeks and mountains and ridges and lakes; then had famous impressionist painter David Park sculpt and paint a model of the forest.  Working from the excellent map and model, he could easily visual the terrain of the fictional Ponderosa National Forest, and thus the events on that terrain.

People still look for the Ponderosa National Forest, but it is only to be found – like Middle Earth – between the pages of a book.

The book, like Storm before it, was both a best-seller and a Book-of-the Month Club selection.  And, like Storm, it would be filmed.  There are two versions of Fire – one, so corrupted by the Hollywood studio which bought the rights that it is unrecognizable, became Red Skies In Montana.  The other version was a TV movie done by Walt Disney.  While somewhat lightweight, A Fire Called Jeremiah kept the ecological focus of the book.

Disney was quite a fan of Stewart’s work.  Before Fire was written, Disney invited him to the studio to work as a consultant.  Stewart spent a few days there, working up ideas for educational films and a series of proposed series of films about American folklore.  Although never credited, I believe his influence can be seen in the folklore films – Song of the South, Johnny Appleseed, and the others – and the True-Life Adventure films.  Stewart and Disney had lunch together during Stewart’s studio time; and Disney sent a warm letter to Stewart after his visit.

With the publication and massive readership of Storm and Fire, Stewart had begun laying an intellectual foundation for the paradigm shift which led to the Environmental Movement, and the acceptance of environmental thinking by most people today.   But it was his next book which would cement that paradigm shift into the consciousness of humankind.  That third ecological novel, now considered one of the great American novel, and never out of print, is one of the great intellectual and literary accomplishments of the 20th century – and perhaps of the second millennium.

A Radio Interview on NPR about George R. Stewart

Recently, KNPR invited me to do an interview about George R. Stewart. The emphasis was on his Nevada-based work, but we also talked about Earth Abides, and about how GRS and I met. If you’d like to listen to the interview, here’s a link to the mp3 archive:

http://www.knpr.org/audio2012/SON-mp3/121010_d-scott.mp3

It’s a chance to hear some in-depth material about George R. Stewart

A New Title for the George R. Stewart web log

In honor of the publication of The Life and Truth of George R. Stewart:  A Literary Biography of the Author of Earth Abides, this web log has been re-named.  It is now The EARTH ABIDES Project.  The novel, Earth Abides, has had a profound and lasting effect on human culture, so it deserves this honor.  Hopefully, those who read Stewart’s great novel will find themselves on life-long saunters through new worlds of reading and thinking.

Link

Steve Williams' painting

This is English artist Stephen Williams’ painting which is used (thanks to Steve’s gracious courtesy) as the header for this log. The painting includes several of Stewart’s books, and the iconic Hammer of Ish from Earth Abides.

To see more of Steve’s work, click on this link:

http://www.thegalleryliverpool.co.uk/artists/steve-williams/steve-williams.html