News About U.S. 40 and Earth Abides

Christmas and New Years are over, so there’s time to bring everyone up to date about recent George R. Stewart-related events.  The Donner Summit Historical Society reports some major work on US 40, a Route 66 leader has connected with this site through his interest in U.S. 40,  and there’s a new French translation of Earth Abides.

In the January issue of the Donner Summit Historical Society’s excellent online magazine, Donner Summit Heritage, Editor Bill Oudegeest includes articles on U.S. 40; one carries news about plans to upgrade the Historic Route over Donner Summit.   On page 14, there’s a review of a book about early travel over the road; on page 18, various items about U.S. 40, which begins with the notice of the road upgrade.    The current issue isn’t yet posted on the main DSHS pages; but will be soon.  However, if you become a paid member – and you should! – you’ll get the Heirloom every month.

U.S. 40 was, if any road was, the George R. Stewart Highway.  He hitchiked the eastern section in 1919, when it was still the National Old Trails Road, often drove it across the country, and finally wrote a classic book, the first popular “odology” (road geography) book, U.S. 40.  Stewart’s book led to another classic, Vale and Vale’s U.S. 40 Today:  Thirty Years of Landscape Change in America; the authors followed old U.S. 40 in 1983, re-photographing as many of his original locations as they could, describing landscape change in the thirty years since Stewart’s book was published.  A few years later Frank Brusca posted his wonderful U.S. 40 pages, with even more information about the historic highway and its current character.  Recently, in Roads To Quoz, William Least Heat Moon includes an entire section on Stewart and U.S. 40, opening the section with a quote from Stewart.

Finally, earlier this month, Fred Cain contacted me via Michael Ward’s wonderful George R. Stewart Wikipedia pages.  Fred is working on a plan to re-authorize U.S. 66 as a marked highway, not simply a series of older sections of the now-deauthorized highway.   As it turns out, Fred is also a great fan of Stewart’s U.S. 40 and Vale and Vale’s U.S. 40 Today.  We’ve been in an email conversation which includes Bill Oudegeest about getting better signage for the historic U.S. 40 Route.

Here’s a bonus for U.S. 40 historians and fans – a test photo for the book, never published. It’s from the Anna Evenson/George R. Stewart Family Collection, published here with permission.  (Please don’t republish it without Anna Evenson’s permission.  I can forward a request to her if you wish to use the photo.)

us 40 trials 187

 

GRS used a Rolleiflex twin-lens reflex to take his photos.  The Rolleiflex is one of the great cameras of a great era in photography, when Edward Weston and Ansel Adams were creating their best works.  Stewart knew Adams, and there’s a letter in the GRS papers from Ansel Adams to Stewart.

The Rollei’s format is square, 2 1/4 by 2 1/4 inch, so the photos in the book are in that square format.  (35 mm and most digital cameras have a format that is longer than it is high.)

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Here’s the cover page of the new French translation of Stewart’s great novel, courtesy of Philippe Grand.

La-terre-demeure

Earth Abides, abides.

George R. Stewart: A Founder of the Environmental Movement Turns Road Scholar

Today, many people see a conflict between the environmentalist view of the world and the engineered view of the world.  Roads are often seen as threatening the environment.

George R. Stewart didn’t see it that way.  So after he helped create the Environmental Movement with Storm, Fire, Earth Abides, and Sheep Rock, he turned to writing about odology – the study of paths.  Doing so, he created a new kind of literature – the odological book.

Stewart had often considered writing about US Forests – a book that would be a kind of a wayside introduction to them.  But his friend Wallace Stegner, now a regional editor for the publisher, Houghton Mifflin, suggested that he focus on highways instead.  Stegner’s suggestion made sense, since hundreds of thousands of Americans were now taking to the road in cars, rather than using the train. A book that explained America from the roadside should be a big seller.

Stewart was convinced, and went to work. Since U.S. 40 went from Atlantic City to San Francisco on a central route, he chose that road.  Today, many people consider Route 66 more important – it’s the Mother Road.  But U.S. 40 is in fact much older and much more important.  In the east, 40 followed the route of the first Federally-funded road, The National Road.  That was also the eastern route for the first transcontinental highway, the National Old Trails Road, established and signed before the Lincoln Highway was founded.

In 1949, the year of Earth Abides‘ publication, and the Year of the Oath,  he took the first of two coast-to-coast research trips to gather material for his book.  Ted accompanied him on one trip.  His son Jack, who was turning out to be a good map-maker and photographer, joined him on the other.  The family presence helped; he listened to their ideas, which improved the book.

Stewart wrote a few introductory essays, essays introducing each section of the road, and a concluding essay about road signs.  Most of the book, however, consisted of photographs of geographically-representative sections of the road and precise (rather than literary) descriptions of the scenes.  There were beautiful maps and small expository drawings by the great mapmaker Edwin Raisz placed appropriately throughout the book.

U.S. 40 was published in 1953.

Stegner was not happy with the result.  He felt it was too academic. Yet the book was a success.  It helped Americans traveling through their country to understand its geography and history.  At least one owner wrote the date pf their visit by each place visited.  It was, that is, a roadside interpretive guide to the USA in the mid-twentieth century.

The book also had a great influence on others.  William Least Heat Moon was inspired in part to write Blue Highways by Stewart’s book; and in researching Roads to Quoz, Least Heat Moon took U.S. 40 Scholar Frank Brusca along, eventually adding four chapters about GRS and U.S. 40.  German film Director Hartmut Bitomsky, who had been commissioned to do a movie about the trails of the Westward Movement, chose instead to produce “U.S. 40 West” after reading Stewart’s book. A copy of U.S. 40 is visible in some scenes of the movie, which has become a German classic.  And Tom and Geraldine Vale produced  the first book to “descend” from a George R. Stewart book, U.S. 40 Today.  Following Stewart’s route, the Vales photographed and described as many of the original Stewart locations as they could find, commenting on landscape change between 1953 and 1983.

Stewart liked the book, and its approach.  It was successful enough that he was encouraged to write more odological works.  N.A. 1 Looking North (more properly N.A. 1 Looking North: The North-South Continental Highway) and N.A. 2 Looking South were the result.  These were a two-volume examination of a highway which existed partly in the imagination – a Highway that would go from Alaska to the Panama Canal.  Stewart traveled from the Canadian border north to the road’s end 50 miles north of the Arctic Circle for the first book; and from the Mexican/U.S. border to the impenetrable jungle north of Panama for the second. It was a much more adventurous pair of drives than those for U. S. 40; but on the other hand the proposed North-South Continental Highway was no more rugged than the National Old Trails Road Stewart hitch-hiked in 1919.

Were the road books anti-environmental?  Had Stewart abandoned his great Whole Earth vision?  In a passage from the southern highway book, Stewart makes clear that  highways aren’t the problem – it’s the TYPE of highway:

  …freeways…almost brutally imposed upon the face of the countryside…the driver and his passengers alike lose the sense of a countryside, because it has literally been steam-rollered away….

… in Mexico or Central America … if [the road] winds through a canyon, you still know that a canyon is there.  It does not by-pass all the villages and towns, and so you see what they are like. And, all the time, you know you are really driving a car and feel the pleasant sense of achievement that goes with that….

So even here, in arguing for a gentler highway which follows the contours of the land and takes the traveler into that land, Stewart sees such a road as an introduction to the ecology and geography of a place.  He is suggesting that travelers who are enjoying their journey – as opposed to tourists rushing to some heavily-advertised vacation spot – should follow what Least Heat Moon calls the Blue Highways.  Thus even in a car on a highway, we can choose to be environmentalists, and Stewart is showing us how to do that.

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

ea-cover-copy1.jpg

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.

Earl Swift’s BIG ROADS — a good read for lovers of the American road

Big Roads, by Earl Swift, is a fine history of the US highway system as it evolved from mud trails to interstates.   Along the way, the system changed from privately developed named highways like The National Old Trails Road and the Lincoln Highway to the federal/state U.S. Highway system (the Route 66 era) before it became today’s interstate system.  The book describes how the hard work of dedicated engineers and community leaders – sometimes in conflict with each other – resulted in both a fine highway network AND a growing realization of the human and ecological cost of highways.

Although George R. Stewart wrote several of the first American Highway books, including U.S. 40, he isn’t mentioned in Swift’s book.  But his ideas — that highways should travel through rather than over the land, and that travelers benefit by visiting  the communities along the old highways, a mile or two from the offramp (an idea taken up beautifully by William Least Heat Moon in Blue Highways and embellished, with the help of Frank Brusca in Roads to Quoz) — are similar to the ideas Swift lays down in his  last chapter.

a good read, and highly recommended for anyone interested in the history of the American roads, or any traveler driving those roads.