Waiting with Bated Breath: Will We Hear George R. Stewart reading his manuscript of Earth Abides?

UCB_Doe_7The Bancroft Library, nestled between the Campanile and the Doe Library,

University of California, Berkeley

Photo copyright: MikkiPiperImaging.com   Used with permission.

 

The Bancroft Library will digitize recordings of several manuscripts recorded by George R. Stewart.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, GRS decided to record his drafts.  (Before this, his drafts were written with sharp pencils, so he always kept a wad of sharpened pencils near his desk).  Since tape recorders were not available,  we believe he used the Dictaphone or a similar system.

Over the years of researching and writing about Stewart and his works, the idea of finding those recordings and digitizing them never went away.  But the big question was whether or not the Bancroft Library had the ability to digitize fragile recordings from an “ancient” format – if they existed and could be found.

Then, this week, a message came from the Bancroft Library:

I am happy to let you know that we are finally moving forward with digitizing the SoundScriber discs created (we believe) by George.  The process has taken quite awhile as we switched from our original plan of having them digitized by our normal vendor to having them digitized by a somewhat new and much less invasive process.
Our normal audio vendor is set up to digitize physical audio formats, like the SoundScriber discs, by playing the disc on a machine with a stylus, much like you would listen to a record a home.  The player is connected to some fancy equipment that records a digital file of the audio.  The SoundScriber discs are extremely fragile and their inherent fragility means that playing them once might completely erase the audio.  We were very nervous about the fragility and spent some time researching other methods of digitization that could mitigate the harm to the physical media.  Luckily for us UC Berkeley is the home to Project IRENE, which is a project team that works on digitizing obsolete media using optics.  
 
They have spent the last few years working on wax cylinders from the Phoebe Hearst Museum and the Library of Congress.  We brought the possibility of the SoundScriber process to them and they were excited for a new challenge.  They have now purchased new equipment to allow for their existing equipment to “play” SoundScriber discs and we plan to start digitizing the George Rippey Stewart discs soon.
 
As you can see from the Project IRENE website, they make as much of the material they digitize available as possible.  We would like to know if you would be amenable to us making the material available to researchers in the following ways:
 
1. in the Reading Room at The Bancroft Library
2. on the internet at one of our collection sites and/or through the Project IRENE site (without downloading capabilities for researchers)
 
The material has not yet been digitized so we still do not know what is actually on the recordings.  Please let me know what questions, comments, concerns you may have about making this material available to researchers.
MML,
Permission and Access Officer

The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley
lange@berkeley.edu

 

The answer to the letter was a resounding “YES!” — from the GRS family and those of us sharing George R. Stewart with scholars, artists, and the general literate world.

And so it begins.

Ø Ø Ø

The backstory of events that brought us to this point is full of twists and turns.  It depended on the hard work of GRS Helpers, including Michael Ward, Keeper of the George R. Stewart Wikipedia pages.

I had contacted the Bancroft as a somewhat-anonymous scholar wondering about digitizing the recordings. But Stewart left strict instructions with the Bancroft:  No one was to listen to those recordings without his specific written permission.  When GRS passed away in 1980, permission would need to come from the family’s holder of copyright.

The Bancroft Librarians began searching for the family keeper of permissions.   Discovering Mike’s excellent GRS website they contacted him, asking if he could direct them to the person who could authorize the digitization and sharing of the recordings.Mike directed the Bancroft to me.

I connected them with Ed Stewart, GRS’s grandson, who manages permissions since his father Jack Stewart’s death.  Ed quickly gave his ok.

The Librarians began the process of finding the best and safest way to transfer those fragile old recordings to modern digitized form.   The letter explains the next steps they’ll take to preserve those treasures of literature.

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Heller Reading Room, The Bancroft Library

The Bancroft Library is one of the great literary repositories on Earth.  Their collections include ancient papyrus texts, 49er diaries and journals (including those of the Donner Party), the Papers of the founders of the National Park Service and the Wilderness Society, and Mark Twain.  (Clemens’ family insisted on the Bancroft.)  And  the Bancroft holds the Papers of George R. Stewart, soon, we hope, to include his recordings of several of his manuscripts.*

Of course, as the Bancroft Librarian says, we don’t yet know exactly what’s on those recordings.  But there is good evidence that some of them contain GRS’s reading and verbal notes on his great epic, Earth Abides.  That novel, never out of print, influenced writers like James Sallis and Stephen King (who based The Stand on Earth Abides), and composer-musicians including Phillip Aaberg and Jimi Hendrix (Hendrix was inspired to write Third Stone from the Sun by Stewart’s book). Stewart’s novel is one of the great inheritances from our time, to all time.

GRS Composer/Scholar Philip Aaberg’s new video from Montana’s HiLine, honoring the Montana Farmers’ Union.

The hope we may soon be able to hear GRS reading parts of the novel in draft form is, well,  stunning.  The idea that the Bancroft will share that with the world’s scholars is a credit to them and the tools of this age.

It has been a long journey, indeed full of twists and turns, aided along the way by critical helpers, as our small band of scholars seeks the holy grail:  To teach the literate world and the STEAM-thinking world about George R. Stewart’s books and his ideas.  Now, at a summit on the Stewart Trail, we appear to be close to receiving a boon.  That boon – hearing Stewart read his manuscripts –  will be shared with the world.

Whatever is on those recordings, I am infinitely grateful for the hard work of all who have brought GRS and his works to this point.

As digitizing progresses, I’ll send updates. Stay tuned.

Bancroft Ranger          National Park Service Ranger ready to do NPS research at the Bancroft Library

 

*The Bancroft uses donations to fund such special projects, and also accepts donations of exceptional items that are within the purview of their collections.  You might consider sending them a donation .

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.

The Year Of The Oath is Not Over

In 2014, this weblog reviewed George R. Stewart’s classic work, The Year Of The Oath, a book about the loyalty oath controversy at the University of California, Berkeley.  The faculty won their battle to have the oath removed.  But oaths, pernicious and unconstitutional, still abound in public employment – even for teaching and research positions.

This past week, in one of the less-pleasant small world stories connected with Stewart and his work, another author in another college resigned when he was ordered to sign such an oath – years after he began teaching there.  James Sallis is by coincidence a George R. Stewart scholar who wrote  likely the best essay about Earth Abides for The Boston Globe. Sallis, who also wrote Drive, made into an award-winning movie starring Ryan Gosling; and he’s now written Driven, a sequel.  Sallis is a poet, a novelist, and – until recently – a teacher at Phoenix College in the city of that name.

His work in the classroom drew students from a wide geographic area.  He was an excellent teacher, who knows how to write well, and to sell his writing.  The chance to have this man as a mentor was a great boon to the apprentice wordsmiths.  But the administrators of the College – who Sallis says were professional, and asked him to stay  – said he couldn’t teach without signing.  He chose to follow his conscience, and resigned.  The administrators, when contacted by news organizations passed the buck, in this case to the Arizona legislature who authored the oath long ago.  Even local Arizona media found the entire story incredible.

Fortunately, his act of courage is having a far reach, and may eventually help result in the tossing of the oaths.

Sadly, the Year of the Oath is not yet ended.  Citizens would be well-advised to put their energies into correcting that rather than various red herring issues they seem to focus on.

(Disclaimer:  I refused to sign both the US Army oath – which had already been declared illegal by the Supreme Court – and the California Standard Secondary Credential application oath without qualifying statements discussing the oaths’ illegality and unethical qualities.  That meant deferring teaching for a while, until the state oath was tossed out by the State Supreme Court.  As for the army oath – I have the rare distinction, during a time when protesters were trying to shut down the Oakland Army Induction Center, of keeping it open and keeping employees there long after they wanted to leave.)

“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.