Of FIRE and Flu

George R. Stewart was always interested in how humans react to ecological events, because he saw those reactions as defining human character.   Two of his best novels, FIRE and EARTH ABIDES, focus on such events – FIRE, on a great forest fire (and fire ecology); EARTH ABIDES,on a planet-wide disease epidemic which nearly ends the human species.

This last month California experienced fire, and some Californians had a lesson about disease.  There were massive and destructive fires, and a literary discussion of an epidemic which references Stewart’s EARTH ABIDES.

Build a home in the woods and, sooner or later, fire will come.  Defensible space is a great help; but in suburbia’s tiny lots, there can be none.   The fires of 2017 burned through the house-stacked neighborhoods so quickly that – as in the recent Oakland Hills fire – many people died trying to flee.   Entire neighborhoods were burned to cinders.   And it was lesson about the fragility of stuff – one video shows a classic, restored ’57 Chevy wagon, burned into eternity.

Anyone familiar with George R. Stewart’s work has probably read FIRE.  The novel of fire ecology, history, and fictionalized fire drama is one of his best – it, STORM, and EARTH ABIDES are probably his greatest ecological novels.  STORM ends with a reference to California history.  FIRE, with a beautiful passage about the role of fire in the ecosystem.

FIRE opens with a lightening strike in a mythical national forest set just to the north of the Tahoe National Forest.  Stewart’s forest is so well-developed – thanks to the help of his brilliant son, Jack, map-maker and geologist, and a colleague, a famous impressionist painter — that for years readers of the book would drive into that area, looking for the fictional National Forest.  In the same way, his story is developed.  It centers around people who seemed non-fictional – a young woman in a fire lookout, an old Ranger, and a young Forest Superintendent, and all those who fight the blaze – so the people read true, like the forest, and their drama brings us into the power of a California forest fire like the ones of this autumn of 2017.  By choosing rangers as key characters, Stewart is able to integrate the human drama with ecological science.  And, in his usual way, he also includes myth, broad science, place-naming, and history.

Walt Disney later filmed the novel for television, as “A Fire Called Jeremiah.”  It’s somewhat Disneyfied, but follows the novels ecological and human themes closely. Today, it seems somewhat old-fashioned and crude; but it shared Stewart’s dramatic presentation of fire ecology with millions of Disney TV viewers.

The TV film, like Disney’s TV version of Stewart’s STORM, is not available today.  When I asked old family friend, Disney Legend Bob Broughton, about the chances of getting a copy,  he said, “Don, the film is in The Vault.  And if it’s in The Vault, Walt himself can’t get to it.”  Needing to view the films for my George R. Stewart biography, I went on a quest – and actually found a copy in a university library (which shall be nameless); the university kindly set up their old Bell and Howell 16mm projector, and, after decades, I again saw Stewart’s work come to life.  There’s now a clip online, probably pirated, but you can watch it here.  (Paramount also made a version of the film – changed so much it bears no resemblance to the book. Here’s a clip, again probably pirated, so view at your own discretion.)

Fire appears in several George R. Stewart novels.  In EAST OF THE GIANTS, a cleansing fire provides closure to the chapters of the novel set on a Mexican rancho.  In FIRE, of course, a massive fire is the protagonist of the work.  And in Stewart’s EARTH ABIDES, a fire ends the story of Ish, and moves the story of The Tribe into some unknown, post-novel, new territory.

EARTH ABIDES‘s protagonist is a disease, a kind of super measles which wipes out most humans.  In these days of AIDS, Ebola, and the other plagues, the story has as great an impact on readers as it did in the days it was published or in the intervening near-70 years.

Stewart himself was the victim of a plague – the Spanish Flu Epidemic of 1918.  AIDS is a killer, with 38, 000,000 victims.  But the flu killed many more – perhaps 100,000,000 worldwide.  Stewart should have been safe – he was young, in excellent health, and isolated in World War I training camp where he was preparing to go overseas in the Ambulance Corps.  But the flu, ironically, hit the young and healthy with more fatal force than it hit the elderly or those in poor shape.  GRS got the flu.  He recovered enough to hitchhike halfway home from the East Coast to Pasadena.  But for the rest of his life, his lungs were always weak.

Much of EARTH ABIDES is set in the Berkeley hills and the UC Berkeley campus.  So it is appropriate that Pat Joseph’s fine recent article, “In Flew Enza,” in the California Alumni Association magazine,  CALIFORNIA, describes the effects of the 1918 flu on the UC campus.  Murphy ends the article with a reference to Stewart’s novel, setting it in the context of Stewart’s experience with the flu.  Since Murphy has kindly allowed this post to link to the article, I encourage you all to read it.  Here’s the link

As Murphy writes,  Stewart always found hope, an optimism, even in the greatest of events called disasters by humans.  Whether he wrote about the benefits of fire to the ecosystem, or indomitable will to persevere after disease had wiped out most humans, Stewart always gives us hope.

 

 

 

GRS Supporter Michael Ward’s Wonderful Projects and Pages

Stewart fans owe Michael Ward a great deal.  He volunteered to create and post the George R. Stewart web pages, at his own expense.  The pages contain an excellent repository of information and links about Stewart and his work.  This blog reports the news about GRS; Mike’s pages are the best overview of basic information for Stewart.

We owe publication of the Stewart biography to Mike, as well.  Science fiction author G.D. Nordley, a fellow participant in the annual CONTACT conference,  suggested I contact Mike and his fellow organizers of the speculative fiction conference, Potlatch, to offer to participate on a panel about their Book of Honor that year, I jumped at the chance:  the book was Stewart’s Earth Abides. Mike, the panel organizer Tom Becker, and the others, graciously welcomed me to the program, and the panel.

One of the vendors there recommended submitting my book proposal to McFarland for consideration.  Agent Sally van Haitsma did so, and McFarland agreed to publish the book.

So it can be said that Mike Ward, his associates, G.D. Nordley, and Sally van Haitsma brought the GRS biography to life.

Now Mike keeps the GRS pages alive for our common interest.  Many of those who visit this weblog are directed here by Mike’s website, so he does a fine job of spreading the word about Stewart.

Mike has his own websites, and projects, and they are interesting and in at least one case wonderful research resources.

He has a site, Hidden Knowledge,  for the works of several authors, among those books the great adventure stories of Rafael Sabatini. Sabatini knew how to write a good tale.  Like C.S. Forester, Sabatini’s books are about the sea in the 18th century.  But Sabatini wrote pirate stories.  Like Forester, Sabatini’s work was filmed Captain Blood and and  The Sea-Hawk wonderful swashbucklers starring Errol Flynn, are probably the best-known.

(Please note that the links to buy the books no longer work.  So simply browse the site to learn more about Sabatini’s books, and the others Mike lists.)

Another of Mike’s sites is devoted to the art of magazine covers.  MagazineArt.org has more than 15,000 examples of cover art and magazine ads on the site – a virtual Smithsonian for the wonderful art of those printed wonders that enriched the lives of Americans and others before television or film or radio – and after, as well.

He has sites devoted to historic travels and travelers.  TravelHistory.org,  and another for the Trans-Siberian Railroad.  The many articles on the travel history page make for fascinating reading, allowing you to be an armchair traveler in the days of the web.

His pages link to other sites, about Burton Holmes, Rafael Sabatini, and George R. Stewart.

Thanks again to Mike Ward, whose GRS pages were the first major web presence for those of us who are fans of Stewart’s work.  Mike’s GRS pages bring others to this weblog.

His other pages are worth a browse.

The Annual George R. Stewart, Jimmy Stewart Christmas Post

If It’s a Wonderful Life can be a tradition at Christmas, why not this post from a year ago about the connections between that great film and George R. Stewart?  So here it is, with only minor editing to bring it up to date.

But it has a bonus at the end – a radio interview with one of the stars, who was – of course – doing charitable work in the Central Coast area when Tom Wilmer of local PBS station KCBX found him:

It’s A Wonderful Story

 

This is the time of year when most of us watch the classic Christmas movies.  A Christmas Carol with Alastair Sims, Miracle on 54th Street, A Child’s Christmas in Wales,   (An almost unknown gem, produced in Canada, starring Denholm Elliot); and, of course,  It’s a Wonderful Life.

Here in Arroyo Grande, the local theater,  owned by a man who loves movies, shows one of those classics each Christmas. The admission is a can of food or a toy, to be donated to those in need – in the spirit of the movie.  …To see such a film on the big screen, surrounded by local neighbors of all ages – to see how the children love the film – it is a reminder of what we’ve lost.  Now we watch movies on TV, but usually alone, and always less intently – a kind of a digital sampling of the films.  Like a CD, we miss much when we do that.  But in the theater watching Miracle on Thirty-Fourth Street  we missed nothing.  And – how long since you’ve experienced this? – the audience clapped and cheered when the judge decided that, yes, Kris Kringle was indeed Santa Claus.  It was a fine traditional twentieth century American Christmas experience.

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For most of the people I know, It’s a Wonderful Life   is the Christmas movie.  So those who are George R. Stewart fans should know about the connection between that classic film and GRS.

George R. Stewart was raised in Indiana, Pennsylvania, where his mother’s family lived.  His maternal grandfather, Andrew Wilson,  planned to be a teacher, and even helped found a school nearby (which would become the prestigious Kiski School).  But he couldn’t earn enough to support his family; so he went into the mercantile business.  He  had a hand in a hardware store there, owned by another Stewart.  That Stewart’s son was James Stewart, also born and raised in Indiana.

George and Jimmy looked alike.  With all the similarities in family history, geography, and physiology, you’d expect they were related.  But they  shared only one possible distant relative.  And they lived in different worlds, in Indiana.  The George Stewarts went to the middle-class Presbyterian church on the flats; Jimmy Stewart and his parents went to the upper-class Presbyterian church on the hill.  GRS went to a public high school out west, Jimmy to a prestigious private school in the east.

Still, the lives paralleled in remarkable ways.  GRS and his family moved to Pasadena; he went to Princeton; and after marriage moved his family to Berkeley, California.  Jimmy went to Princeton, then moved to Pasadena; and spent his life in Southern California.  GRS wrote books, two of which were filmed.  Jimmy made films, like that grand Christmas classic we all love.   GRS worked at the Disney studios for a time, an advisor to Walt himself.  Jimmy worked at many studios, creating characters and stories that touched the hearts of millions.  Ironically, GRS did not like the media, and apparently did not attend movies often, if at all.

Their paths apparently never crossed.  GRS and his family left Indiana for California in 1905, when he was 12.  That was the year James Stewart was born. Out west, nothing in their interests or their work brought them together.  Since the film we now consider a classic failed in its initial run, it is unlikely GRS would have seen it even if he did go to the movies.

Yet, in this Christmas season, we should remember there is one thing they shared; and thanks to the film, we share it with them:  The experience of life in a small American town in the early 20th century.  Like a trip to Disneyland, a viewing of It’s a Wonderful Life enfolds us in such a place.  For a time, we walk the streets and meet the people of the town and the time where both boys grew up.

Here’s a passage from my book about Indiana, Pennsylvania, as Bedford Falls:

George R. Stewart’s boyhood town was so archetypically American that it could pass for George Bailey’s “Bedford Falls” in Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life. In fact, the town was “Bedford Falls” – at least for the movie’s male star. Indiana, Pennsylvania, was also the boyhood home of James Stewart, who played “George Bailey” in Capra’s film.   Although the movie’s “Bedford Falls” was built on a studio backlot in the San Fernando Valley, Jimmy Stewart said that when he walked onto the set for the first time he almost expected to hear the bells of his home church in Indiana.

Each year, Indiana holds an It’s a Wonderful Life Festival, with a parade, hot chocolate,  tree lighting, and continuous showings of the film at the Jimmy Stewart Museum.  It’s a winter festival; so the people lining the streets in their warm clothing bring life to a snow-bound town, like the movie brings life to the streets of the movie set town.

(The film’s Producer Director, Frank Capra, apparently modeled his set on the upstate New York town of Seneca Falls; but for Jimmy Stewart, star of the movie, Indiana, Pennsylvania, where he and George R. Stewart grew up, was the place he kept in his heart when he brought George Bailey to life.)

This Christmas, when you watch Capra’s great film (which, by the way, is playing here Christmas Eve, this year of 2016), give a thought to the boyhood of George R. Stewart.  Keep in mind that GRS celebrated his Christmases in a town which for Jimmy Stewart was the model for iconic, American, Bedford Falls.

Merry Christmas to all.

PS.  And here’s a Christmas gift, for 2016 readers – a link to the radio interview with “Tommy Bailey,”  one of the Bailey children growing up in Bedford Falls, setting for It’s a Wonderful Life. 

 

The Scholar in the Kingdom of the Mouse

Although George R. Stewart was not a fan of the audio visual media of his day, after World War II he would find himself deeply involved in radio and film.  He became a character on a radio mystery show (more about that in a later post); and he spent a week in the Kingdom of the Mouse – the Walt Disney Studios – helping Disney develop new ideas for films.  Years later, that would lead to the production of two Disney movies based on two of Stewart’s best-selling novels.

Disney was a Stewart fan – that’s clear from the letters Disney wrote to Stewart.  The two men thought along similar lines, at least in terms of the relationship between humans and nature, and in the types of art that communicate those ideas.

Disney was working on Bambi while Stewart was writing StormBambi, which views the world from the perspective of non-human nature and  portrays Man as dangerous to non-human nature, has many parallels with Storm. It is likely that Stewart did not see Bambi, since he was not a film-goer. But it is likely that Disney read and enjoyed Storm since he was a voracious reader and the book was a well-publicized best-seller.

Stewart’s next best-seller was Names On The Land.  With its history of American ways of naming things over time, the success of the book indicated that readers were interested in Americana.    Disney was also interested in Americana, and in presenting it in Disney cartoons.

World War II was hard on the Disney studios.   Pinocchio and Fantasia lost money due to the loss of the European market.  Disney also turned over most of the studio’s facilities to the production of training films for the military, who did not pay the studio very well.  And after a bitter strike, the studio became a union shop with increased salaries for the animators.

After the war, Disney scrambled to find new types of films that would bring in the kinds of money returned by Snow White and the Mickey Mouse cartoons.  He thought there would be a huge market for civilian educational films, modeled on his war training films.  Disney also believed that movies based on Americana themes would be popular, since the country was tired of war and would be looking for reassuringly sentimental films.

Impressed by Stewart, he invited him to the studio for a short time.  He asked Stewart to prepare suggestions for educational films.  He also wanted to hear Stewart’s recommendations for films based on Americana.

Stewart went to the studio, talked with animators and producers, and wrote up his ideas for Disney Producer Ben Sharpsteen. Although there’s no record (outside of Disney Archives) for Stewart’s recommendations about educational films, there is a record of his Americana thinking.  He suggested  a series of animated movies about American folklore; and that it begin on the East Coast with early tales, moving west and forward in time as the series progressed.

Before he left, Stewart had a fine lunch with Walt Disney.  After he returned home, Disney sent him a personal letter:  “The type of work you are doing is of much interest to us,” he wrote, “and I hope when you do have the time you will visit us again.”  Stewart never returned to the Studio.  But Disney did make a series of cartoons and films based on American folklore or fiction that is folkloric in nature – Song of the South, Johnny Appleseed, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.  Carl Carmer is credited as the main consultant for the films, so Stewart’s influence was probably minor.

Yet, if Stewart was not the primary influence on Disney’s Americana films, he had influence.  The True-Life Adventure Series and the Americana films at least show that the two men  had  similar ways of thinking. But Disney’s greatest compliment to Stewart and his work came a decade later.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Disney produced film versions of Storm and Fire for The Wonderful World of Color.  A Storm Called Maria was a good made-for-tv version of Storm.  Its use of documentary footage and real people playing their own roles gave the movie believability.  A Fire Called Jeremiah was also realistic – except for a few Disney “cute” touches – and it closely followed the ecological sense of Stewart’s novel.  (A version made by another studio strayed exponentially from Stewart’s Fire, mentioning nothing about ecology.)

So the short visit between George R. Stewart and Walt Disney, spent in the Kingdom of the Mouse at the Disney Studio, led to film versions of Stewart’s work with would teach his ideas to millions of Disney TV viewers.  It was another example of the far-reaching influence of George R. Stewart, scholar and author, who did so much to change our way of thinking about our Earth, and its culture.