Saturday, August 27, 2005

The Great American Author You've Never Heard Of

If you've called the wind "Mariah" or heard about Hurricane Katrina or know of the ordeal of the Donner Party or heard a story where civilization is not destroyed by bombs but by a plague, then you know of the work of this man.

If you've ever read a book about how places got their names or where your name (or your children's names) came from, you know the work of this man.

But chances are you've never heard the name of this man: George R. Stewart.

Stewart died 25 years ago. He left a legacy of some 40 books that have influenced many of the major American authors whose works you probably do know (especially if you read a lot of science fiction): Wallace Stegner, Kim Stanley Robinson, Greg Bear. Stewart was friends with Robert Frost and Carl Sandberg. He was on the track team at Princeton with F. Scott Fitzgerald. His Ph.D. thesis identified the California landmarks Robert Louis Stevenson used in Treasure Island. He wrote a definitive biography of Brett Harte and his experiences in the American West. He was a Professor of English at U.C. Berkeley during the Depression, the War Years, the Loyalty Oath Years, and the Free Speech Movement.

Of the 40, Stewart's most well-known are Ordeal By Hunger (the story of the Donner Party), Storm (the storm, named Maria, is the main character), Fire (the story of how a fire grows and dies), Earth Abides (the fall of civilization), U.S. 40 (the first "road" book), and Names on the Land (the first book to look at place names and the reasons behind them).

Google "George R. Stewart". I got 7,750,000 hits.

My best friend read Earth Abides as a junior in high school and recommended it to me. My high school history teacher, who was working at the time as a State Park Ranger, met Prof. Stewart and his wife at a local State Beach. My teacher recommended Fire, Storm, and Ordeal By Hunger--which my mother read while camped near Donner Pass in California.

In honor of Stewart, Alan Kaplan, a naturalist at Tilden Park in Berkeley, gave a hike talking about the names of the local cities and features. He read excerpts from Names on the Land and The Concise Dictionary of American Place Names. Prof. Stewart's son, Jack--a Ph.D. in geology in his own right--was there, along with my former history teacher who is now writing a long overdue biography of Prof. Stewart.

Read Storm some day in January when snow and rain are swirling outside the window. Read Ordeal By Hunger when you feel overwhelmed by life. Read Earth Abides when you're not sure whether to fear the bomb or the bug. Do not read Fire when you are camped in the middle of a great pine forest (especially if you are in the Sierra). After you do, find the echoes of those books in art as diverse as a musical (Paint Your Wagon), a movie (Plague), a book (Robinson's Mars trilogy) or music (Philip Aaberg). He's there. And you never knew.