George R. Stewart, 1948: Taking Stock

By 1949, George R. Stewart was successful beyond any possible imaginings he might have had in the early 1930s.  In those days, early in his writing and professorial career, he seemed stuck in a low-level academic position, held there by a particularly unpleasant English Department Head who had taken a dislike to him.  His only books were the sort of composition books expected of English professors – one on the Technique of English Verse, another on English composition.  His marriage was a great success – Ted (Theodosia) Stewart supported him as his best friend, and encouraged him to keep at the writing.  Although he would not have won any awards as parent of the year, his children were doing acceptably.

The situation with the English Department Head turned out to be a blessing in disguise.  Since he was apparently not going anywhere in the Department, he turned to writing instead – the writing of books that appealed to both scholars and the general literate audience – books that would sell, and sell well.  Since he enjoyed wilderness and history and the strange beauty of American names, he decided to write about those things.  Since many of his favorite colleagues were in the geography, history, or science departments, he decided to write about those areas of knowledge.

His first best-selling book, Ordeal By Hunger, introduced the Whole Earth Perspective – the understanding of Earth as one place, and as a system of ecological systems.  His first novel, East of the Giants, was about California history and told from the viewpoint of an independent California woman.    Storm was the first ecological (or geographic) novel.  Names on the Land – a remarkable and never-equaled book – was the first in the history of the Earth to tell the tale of national place-naming.   And Fire carried the ecological, geographic, cross-discipline methods used in Storm to new heights.

His influence was beginning to be felt, and honored.  He became a character in a radio play.  Disney invited him to the studio to help develop new types of films (and later made Storm and Fire into Disney movies.)  Stewart’s influence on his friend Wallace Stegner encouraged Stegner to begin writing the environmental/history works that would define much of Stegner’s later creative life.  Stewart won awards – both the silver and gold medals of the California Commonwealth Club.

During his service in World War II, writing up the Submarine Sailing Directions for the Navy, he had an encounter which showed him the influence of his work.  During a flight to Hawaii, he met Vic Moitoret, a young Navy meteorologist who enthusiastically shook Stewart’s hand and then told him a war story.  Moitoret kept a small diary of the books he’d read which he felt most influenced his life and career.  One of those was Storm.   Moritoret survived two aircraft carrier sinkings, once in shark-infested waters.  But he never lost that diary, which he showed  Stewart.  It was, in a way, a talisman or charm.  Later, Moitoret, who had gone to UC Berkeley and then on to the Naval Academy, would become the Chief Hydrographer of the US Navy.

Moitoret’s story was a great honoring of Stewart’s work.  Stewart received a high professional honor as well – he was invited to join the faculty of Columbia University – a high honor indeed.

Stewart did not go to Columbia.  His nemesis was no longer the Department Head, and the University admired him.  Besides, he loved the wild nature of the West.  And at any rate, he didn’t have the time for a major career move.

He had begun work on a third ecological novel.  This one would expand the ideas and the literary devices developed in Fire and Storm. This time, the protagonist would not be an event of the ecosystem, nor human character revealed by how someone reacted to a fire or a storm.  This time, the protagonist would be the ecosystem itself.  And the characters of its primary human characters would be revealed over the span of lifetimes.

By 1948, Stewart had achieved great things.  Now, he would achieve a pinnacle of human thought and literature of the late third millennium.

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.

Dr. John Stewart — Jack — has passed away

Jack Stewart passed away today.

Jack was infinitely helpful with the writing of the biography of his father, George R. Stewart.   He shared his memories in great detail, and (like his sister Jill Stewart Evenson), brought life into the book.)

Jack once said that it was hard to be the son of George R. Stewart.  He felt overpowered by his father’s ability to research and write works that helped define the twentieth century by popularizing the ecological view of human affairs decades before anyone else did so.

Yet Jack was as accomplished in the same general field, if in a more focused way:  Jack was THE USGS “Man” for Nevada.  He produced the USGS map of Nevada, and wrote the book that accompanied it.    Jack also helped his father with the research and photography for Fire, US 40 and Sheep Rock; so he is also an unsung hero in the work of George R. Stewart.

The incident which most shows how George R. Stewart felt about Jack is in the great classic, Earth Abides.   At the moving conclusion of the novelThe Hammer of Ish2 copy (which was dedicated to Jill), Ish, the human hero passes his hammer – symbol of power and leadership – to his descendant Jack.

There was a real hammer.  Jack inherited it.  So, in the real world as well as George R. Stewart’s world-changing book, Jack became the keeper of the Hammer of Ish.

One of my goals in writing the GRS biography was to produce a book that Jack  would feel did justice to his father, and the family.  He did get to see and read the book, enjoyed it, and bought copies to share with friends.  That is perhaps my greatest satisfaction from the entire project.

If you are so inclined, and find a moment to do so, please send some positive thoughts toward Jack, and his family.

Don Scott

Pre-publication announcement: THE LIFE AND TRUTH OF GEORGE R. STEWART

The Day after Beethoven’s Birthday and a week before Christmas Eve, a gift!

The George R. Stewart biography is now available for pre-order at McFarland or Amazon. It’s the first authorized biography, the work of years of research and writing.

Here’s the McFarland url:
http://www.mcfarlandpub.com/book-2.php?id=978-0-7864-6799-0