Down the Home Stretch

We’re near the end of our discussions of the books George R. Stewart wrote.  At the end of his life, when I met him, he was working on the last one – American Given Names.  In the same short period, near the end of his life,  Stewart wrote two other names books:  Names On the Globe, and American Given Names.

He also wrote a manuscript that was never published.  Since that particular work, which is controversial, speaks to some of the same issues as The Year of the Oath,  subject of the last post about the courage of author James Sallis.  So this is a good place to discuss Stewart’s unpublished work.

The Shakespeare Crisis is an unpublished novel which takes us back to the same fictional university and many of the same characters as Stewart’s 1939 novel Doctor’s Oral. It is clearly inspired by events on the Berkeley campus in the post-Free Speech Movement era, when movements which had great campus support – if not government and university support – were joined by other movements which were often vicious, and counter to freedom and democracy.  Stewart had been a quiet supporter of some parts of the earlier movements; but he, like many of his colleagues, was appalled at the later movements, with their damaging of buildings, disruption of classes, non-negotiable demands for huge university programs with no accountability, and the like.  The novel is his answer to the gangs wandering the classrooms, breaking windows, and shouting disruptively. His villains are clearly modeled on the real villains – from across the spectrum – in the real movements.

The novel tells the story of two professors who get into a debate over the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays.  A young feminist journalist decides to hype the disagreement into an academic war in order to pad her resume.  As she scales up the argument a seller of theses, who is also an entrepreneur of chaos, sees it as an opportunity.  He gathers his regular protesters for a meeting and encourages them to make this a major war over books and learning.  As things escalate, the “journalist” makes sure that the entire world knows about it, the protesters disrupt the university, and the regents act abominably.  The climax is an assault on the Library by the protesters, who plan to burn its books.  And in one the great concept scenes in literature, the Librarians fight them off with the tools of their trade – staplers, books presses, and the like.  But one of the professors, depressed by it all, takes his life.  The campus holds a meeting.

A Professor Emeritus,obviously Stewart, rises to speak.

“In those eighty years that I remember, the world has not moved … in a way that
I, as an old man, now find wholly agreeable. The trust in reason, and the sway of
the intellect, seem to have weakened….

Like an old-fashioned preacher, I now present an anecdote that might be
called an emblem. When I took my modest walk, as I do twice daily on the campus,
I saw recently a word, POWER, illegally sprayed on a wall. Then, a day or
two later, it had been partially scrubbed away, and reduced to POW, the traditional
word having been transformed into a kind of semi-word, as if in replica of
our times, moving from reason to un-reason…. Then, this morning—again
walking—I saw it still further reduced to OW, a mere instinctual cry of human
confusion or distress, animal-like, lacking in what we once called reason. So have
my times gone!…

There was a famous saying … in my day … “The lamps are going out all over

Yet one of them never went out, though it flickered at times. And that was the
lamp of learning, which we sometimes envisage as a torch…. And always—or, at
least, in our times—the universities.”

In our time, as universities are assaulted with politically correct thought, hiring and promotion by standards other than academic, and repeated accusations of misbehavior which, with no hearings except in the press – in the manner of that feminist reporter in the novel – one might think that the universities have seen their lights dim and feel that Stewart, like that old professor, was right.

But, after all, Stewart’s manuscript is fiction, isn’t it?

Stewart felt so strongly about the issue that when the Librarians are assaulted one of them uses a profane phrase that is beyond the pale of Stewart’s usual dignified writing.  It’s almost as if one of those protesters had written that paragraph.  The word would never have appeared in a published novel – Ted (Theodosia) Stewart would never have permitted it.

But there was no need to censor a publication.  The book was not published.  Ted almost burned it, and only allowed it to go to the Stewart Papers after long and persuasive arguments by family and university colleagues.  She felt that the novel, with its condemnations of protest movements, sounded like a conservative rant.  And she, like her husband, were dedicated liberals.  (Ted was so progressive in her political views that she voted for Socialist Norman Thomas every time he ran for President.)  Ted and others also felt that it was not a worthy example of Stewart’s brilliant style.  He had bitten off more than he could chew in years when he was aging.  He was also angry, so the characters are cardboard and the novel reads more like a polemic than a work of tragedy or comedy.

The Shakespeare Crisis is now  only to be found  in the Stewart Papers.  I’ve read it, and it helped me write by biography of Stewart.  If you have the desire and wherewithal to travel to Berkeley and the days to read the manuscript in the Library, you may judge it for yourself.  But I would certainly not judge George R. Stewart by that book – it is far below the quality or the power or the importance of his great works like Storm or Earth Abides or Names On The Land.  Consider it an experiment, like his other books that weren’t published (at least three never saw the light of day).

The next posts will return to Stewart’s published works; to his final books, on names.

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.

The GRS Saunter

One of the gifts of the trip to the Western Literature Association (and there were many gifts) was the GRS Saunter.  Cheryll Glotfelty, who encouraged my attendance at the WLA, also suggested that we do some kind of a field trip to sites both literarily and academically connected with George R. Stewart.  I sent out an email to people who might be interested in such a trip, and had a good response.  Baiba Strads, Bancroft Librarian, enthusiastically agreed to coordinate the campus sections.  John and Angela Lucia helped with the Berkeley part of the trip.

So after staying a couple of days with John and Angela at their beautiful Sacramento home, and accompanied by John,  I drove the aging Chinook to the Berkeley Hills, to Indian Rock Ave, and to what (I thought) was Indian Rock Park, to meet Cheryll, Ross and Charlene Wilson Bogert, Willie Stewart and his mother Sallie, and GRS Scholar/Interpreter Alan Kaplan.  The plan was to do some readings from Earth Abides (which is largely set in that area) and have a small ceremony honoring the gathering.  And then to head to the campus, where Baiba had arranged a special showing of archival materials from the George Rippy Stewart Papers.

Well.  The Chinook had a few problems – couldn’t get up the Marin Street hill (which we, as college students, used to zip down in our mid-20th century cars).   I got lost.  And then, when we finally found the park no one showed up.  After a half hour, John and I walked around the Rock –  found the name of that park – Mortar Rock Park – and realized we  were in the wrong place.  John ran to INDIAN Rock Park, where everyone was waiting.  I was very apologetic.   But they didn’t mind.   They’d had a great time talking and enjoying each others company.

We read from Earth Abides, about the carving of “The Year I” in the rock, and the naming of that year.  Then poured some fine Laphroaig (a scotch founded appropriately by descendants of Clan Donald) on the rock in honor of The Year LXIV – which I hope could be named “The Year The Years Began Again,” since we discussed an annual gathering there in honor of Ish and Em.

The Year 64L-R:  Charlene Wilson Bogert, Angela Lucia, Ross Wilson Bogert, Alan Kaplan, Willie Stewart, Sallie Stewart, Cheryll Glotfelty.

Here’s another photo of Ish’s Country.  The fellow in the foreground is Donald M. Scott, author of blogs and biographies.  Photo by John Lucia.

Don at Ish's houseWe sauntered to the Bancroft, where Dee Lapachet Barney – Poet, an editor of the GRS biography, former student, and friend – joined us.  Baiba had arranged for the display of some remarkable manuscript items – GRS’s uncle’s Civil War Journal (written under fire), a hilarious sketch of the GRS – Theodosia wedding by one of Ross Bogert’s ancestors, a letter from Walt Disney to GRS praising his work, a 19th century family photo of the Wilsons, and a page from the manuscript of Earth Abides which showed Stewart’s corrections and re-writing.  There were a few other items.  We also showed the historic 1929 film of GRS, his parents, and the Wilsons, so kindly donated by Ross Bogert Wilson.

Dee and Cheryll had to leave after the Bancroft session.  The rest of us went to the Faculty Club – designed by Bernard Maybeck in the Arts and Crafts style and a model for National Park Service buildings –  where we had a fine dinner, some of the Club’s labelled wine, and a wonderful conversation.  It was the perfect end to a Grand Saunter.

I said farewell to the group, then headed to my motel.  The Golden Bear, on old US 40, was built in 1946.  It’s an icon of the U.S. Highway era and the golden era of motels.  Our family passed it on our adventurous 1949 trip from California to McConnellsville, Ohio.  Perhaps more important – Ish would have passed it many times after the plague; and it’s likely that the dying Ish was carried past it on his last trip, heading west, across the Bay Bridge.

Thus ended the Saunter.  Unless, of course, this becomes an annual event.


Stewart’s books, 1936 – I: English Composition: A Laboratory

In 1936, George R. Stewart would publish two books.  One would be the last of a type of literature required of him but which he did only reluctantly and under orders.  The other would be a breakthrough in literature; and it would change the world.  Today, I’ll describe the first book:  English Composition:  A Laboratory Course, Volumes I and II.

Stewart was still in his “eleven bad years,” under the thumb of the unsympathetic Department Head Montgomery.  Although there’s little detail about the reasons for this in the Stewart papers, some inferences can be drawn from what is there.   Stewart believed the most important role of a Department of English was the study, and creation, of literature.  Montgomery, as the University President’s company man, probably believed that the English Department’s job was to teach composition.   (This is similar to today’s conflicts between teaching critical thinking, and teaching to the test.)  Montgomery would have his pound of flesh, and thus Stewart would write books about composition.  This two-volume set is a result.  (Another was his Technique of English Verse, described in an earlier post.)

The title is interesting.  To call a composition course a lab course in those days was unusual.  But science was the great intellectual movement of the time, and Stewart had already written of the important connections between science and literature – notably in his ground-breaking article in the forerunner to Science magazine, Color in Science and Poetry.  UC Berkeley, where Stewart taught, was a pioneer in the study of experimental physics and life sciences;  a “lab course” would be likely to appeal to science students taking a basic composition course as part of their general education requirements.  As Stewart writes, in the Preface, “The teacher of the composition course is conceived as the director of a laboratory who assigns definite exercises to the class, and observes the working out of these exercises.”

The first volume presents the theories of composition.  Chapters include “The Beginning and the Ending,” “Punctuation,” “Usage,”  and so on.  But even in this somewhat formal text, Stewart inserts his pungent observations in a way that brings life to the work and encourages honest and useful prose.  Here’s one example: “…be effective even at the cost of being incorrect.  After all, grammatical correctness is only a negative virtue based upon a changing convention, but effectiveness is positive and practical….”  That sentence is one of many which probably yanked Montgomery’s chain:  It was good advice, couldn’t be argued with,  but it advised breaking the rules.

The second volume — a paperback volume, was the practice volume.  It was meant to be used — written in — and then thrown out.  As a result, it is almost impossible to find a copy today.  (One was available a few years ago from legendary (and now defunct) Serendipity Books for a couple of hundred dollars.)  My copy is a gift from Stewart Scholar Robert C. Lyon — and it is George R. Stewart’s personal copy, with his pencil markings throughout.  Thanks to Bob, I can describe the book for you.

Stewart presents exercises in topics like “Punctuation,” “Words,” “Sentence-Structure,” and so on.  Interestingly, his exercises use both student essays and milestone works of literature.  So the King James version of Ecclesiastes is here, and Bacon’s Of Studies. So are student essays on The University Library and The Advantages of Sororities.   Even though this is a somewhat technical work, Stewart still encourages critical thinking as opposed to lecturing — suggesting that student solutions to the lab problems be put on the blackboard, and discussed by the students.

The term “facilitator” became a buzzword a half-century later; but Stewart is suggesting in this book that the Professor should facilitate student thought and discussion.  As always, he was decades ahead of most people.

At the conclusion of the Volume I, Stewart makes a point which both teaches good English and contradicts the narrow minds of those who would “train” (literally “drag along behind”) rather than “educate” (literally “lead out”):  “…a mistake in usage is generally the violation of a definite convention, and thus can be precisely labeled as wrong.  The red-penciling of such mistakes becomes the occupation and the pleasure of many people who cannot recognize a badly constructed sentence but gloat over a ‘mistake of grammar’.”

It is a comment addressed to students — and the Montgomerys of the world.

Stewart had given his pound of flesh to the “compositors” in English departments.  It helped him keep his job, but did not bring him a long-overdue promotion to Associate Professor — and tenure.  He would not, in fact, get that promotion until 1937, after 14 years in the department even though his excellent teaching record, and the publication of two books should have earned a promotion much earlier.  (He did not get the promotion from Montgomery, either; it came about because a group of his colleagues went around Montgomery, to the University President.)  But in a way, Montgomery had given Stewart a great gift:  He decided to forget writing along traditional English professor lines, and instead to write for a popular audience.  “What did I have to lose?” he said, years later.

So in the same year that he wrote and published the books on composition, Stewart wrote a history —  still in print, still a page-turner — which would change our world.  And change us.


A new Facebook page about the Stewart biography

This link will take you to the new Facebook page which contains updates about the George R. Stewart biography.  If you’re a Facebook regular, you can find book updates and other news on the new pages.  Now you’ll have two ways to follow the progress of the book.

The Life and Truth of George R. Stewart:  A Literary Biography of the Author of Earth Abides is scheduled for publication in June or July of 2012.  It can be pre-ordered at Amazon.