George Rippey Stewart, 1895-1980, UC Berkeley Professor of English and author.
Why is Stewart interesting?
Stewart was deeply influenced by family cross-country driving trips early in
his life, developing an overriding interest in the concept place. This
central concept animates many (if not most) of his books, as he focusses by
turns on place names, modes of connecting places (usually roads
and trails), and phenomena that change and in some way destroy places. Stewart
had a very strong sense of the transitoriness of place: when observing a place,
he immediately considered its past and future as well, and his sense of history
was mature enough that he never fell into the trap of thinking his own moment
in it special.
Stewart was unfettered by the blinkers of professional
specialization. Nothing was so trivial as to pass unheeded before his intense
gaze, and he carried a vast knowledge about the natural world which he put to
the task of exposing the interesting and significant in everything he saw. If
he lacked a specialist's knowledge of many of the things he wrote about,
his powerful mind nevertheless often jumped instinctively to the right conclusion
(see on beaver dams, below). I take him as a model of the unpretentious, well-rounded
Stewart was born in Sewickley, Pennsylvania in 1895. His family moved before
long to Azusa, California, to take up Orange growing. He went east and took
his BA from Princeton in 1917, MA from Cal in 1920, and PhD from Columbia University in 1922. Having
married the daughter of the president of the University of Michigan, he began
work at UC Berkeley in 1924. He retired from Cal in 1962, but continued actively
publishing until just before his death. From this Stewart appears as an upper
middle class figure moving with some assurance in all the right places and marrying
Stewart's Year of the Oath (1950) describes McCarthyesque
intimidation at the University of California, his own refusal to take an anticommunist
oath of loyalty, and counters the objections raised by other faculty members;
from this we might guess at his liberal politics and be sure of his commitment
to decency and intellectual honesty.
Stewart and place names.
Stewart's focus may have been on place, but his great power was of observation
and the ability to perceive the unusual in the seemingly commonplace. He began
locally, with California, an interest which never left him (Ordeal by Hunger,
1936; Storm, 1941; Fire, 1948; The California Trail,
1962). His sharp eye and ear while traveling convinced him of the significance
and interest of place names, and his 1945 Names on the Land goes far
beyond being an etymological catalogue in seeking the methods by which names
were applied to places in the USA.
Stewart cleverly showed, for example, that an early French map
of the upper midwest carelessly showed the Wisconsin River as the Oarisconsint
with the -sint engraved below the rest of the word. The word was picked up for
use elsewhere as Oariscon, Oarigon, and the like, and this crystallized into
His great toponomy studies are:
Names on the Land. A Historical Account of Place Naming in the
United States (Houghton Mifflin, 1945; 2nd ed. 1958; revised Sentry edition
1967). How people named North American places.
American Place Names (Oxford UP, 1970). In lexicon format.
Names on the Globe (Oxford UP, 1975). A more general study of how and
why human beings name places.
To these titles might be added the related:
American Given Names. Their Origin and History in the Context of the English
Language (Oxford UP, 1979).
Stewart and the roads.
The most characteristic products of Stewart's genius are probably his brilliant
books of photo-essays covering three important roads. The first, 1953's US 40, retraced the route Stewart's own family had taken years
before from the east coast to Berkeley in two trips,
1949 and 1950. The book follows the entire route from Atlantic City, New Jersey
to its other end in San Francisco, California. Stewart took over a thousand
photographs en route, and from these photographs, Stewart selected 92 to be
included in a book with brief essays attached.
Stewart captivates and repays the reader with his essays. Reading his essays
carefully almost constitutes a course in learning how to look at things and
really see--perhaps only Sei Shonagon sees better, though not more knowledgeably.
Stewart focuses now on the road itself, admiring its engineering,
or beauty; now on the land beside or beyond the road, showing himself a keen
amateur geographer; on the volunteer trees and
weeds that grow beside the road, carried by cars and trucks from distant places;
on road signs, such as eastern Colorado's Firstview, the place offering the
first view of the Rocky Mountains to the westbound traveller; on the ancestors
of US 40 such as the great National Road, and Native American routes; monuments
and landmarks, such as the "Rabbit Ears" which mark one of the road's
crossings of the continental divide; and on innumerable everyday, human features
of the road (and, by extension, every road).
A characteristic example: in photo essay 67, "Beaver Dams," Stewart
notices a dammed stream near Soldier Springs, UT. A hill topped with
aspen trees rises behind the road; in the middle ground is a pair of dams in
a stream created by beavers. Between the dams and the aspen tree line are
some dozens of meters of bare ground littered with tree trunks (the beavers,
of course, only cut off and use smaller branches from the felled trees, eating
the bark, for example). The beavers had cut the aspens starting at stream level
and had by 1950 cut the forest back severely. Stewart notes that "a civilization
is about to fall," because new trees can now be reached only over substantial
distances travelled over open terrain full of predators--a critical point, where
the need for wood would just be balanced by a prudent refusal to run the risk
of fetching it.
In 1980, a University of Wisconsin geographer named Thomas Vale and his
wife Geraldine retraced Stewart's route, seeking to take photographs at the
same places and publish an update commenting on changes. Many of the changes
could be traced to the creation of the parallel I-70 which had
relegated US 40 to secondary road status with attendant economic withering.
The Vales published a photo of the beaver dam, and sure enough, it had been
abandoned, its ponds filled in by silt into meadows. It is not that Stewart
saw anything not well-known to naturalists, but rather that he took the trouble
to stop and think--and the quality of his thought was posthumously proven by
the Vales' observations.
Stewart also produced two volumes on important north-south roads which indicated
his ready willingness to look beyond the United States:
N.A. 1. The North-South Continental Highway. Looking North (covering
the so-called Alcan Highway which connects the continental
United States with Alaska), and
N.A. 1. The North-South Continental Highway. Looking South (from the
Mexican border to Costa Rica). Both were published (as a pair) in
Stewart also produced a volume on the luckless Donner (emigrant)
Party, members of which had to resort to cannibalism when caught at the top
of the snowy Sierras in 1846-47 (Ordeal by Hunger,
1936); this standard study, together with Stewart's known interest in toponomy
and California history led to a peak in the Sierras 0.8 km from Donner pass
being named for him.
Stewart on things that affect places.
Stewart's interest in things that affect and shape place is documented in his
1941 Storm, which not only showed how and explained why
heavy weather hits California (within the framework of a fictional novel), but also led
to the popularization of the system of naming hurricanes; and Fire
(1948). The latter (fictionally depicting the fight against a major California
forest fire) brings us into the realm of eco-catastrophe, which is ironically
the reason Stewart's name is still widely known.
His Earth Abides (1949) is widely held to be the finest post-apocalypse
novel ever written. Everything Stewart was interested in is somehow brought
into the book, as he fictionally tears down civilization (to show what was important
even though we never thought about it) and then begins to build it back up.
The virus that rapidly kills most of humanity has usually led critics to point
to Stephen King's The Stand (uncut ed. 1990) as an obvious heir;
and to Robert R. McCammon's Swan Song (1987), though the latter
is a post nuclear holocaust novel. But Richard Matheson's post-viral I
am Legend (1954) is clearly another important follower of Earth Abides.
(Matheson and co-writers openly nod to Stewart in making the strong female protagonist
of the film adaptation of I am Legend (The Omega Man) an
Earth Abides, written in 1948, on the cusp of his great treks in preparation
for US 40, pregnantly looks forward: as Ish, the protagonist, lies
dying, he looks up and sees the fragmentary remnant of an old road sign that
marks the path his "tribe" is following (after a major fire!) to a
new place to live:
The renaissance man.
Here I have only touched upon what I perceive to be the three main themes in
Stewart's published books. Like all efforts at categorization, this imposes
a schematic simplicity on something far more complex. Stewart wrote a fantastically
large number of books and papers touching upon an astonishing variety of topics
from university governance to strategic predictions in World War II.
Stewart was quite conscious of man's effect upon nature, and vice versa, and
how that relationship might go horribly wrong. Nevertheless he never sank into
a misguided hatred of technology or progress, which makes the adoption of Earth
Abides by the Green movement a bit paradoxical. Stewart loved nature
and the world enough to make very detailed information about natural history
central pieces of his mental furniture; but at the same time, his essays in
US 40 (and N.A. 1) show his fascination with civilization and technology--he
loves the road as a mark of humanity, and dwells on its engineering the way
an artist might cherish the colors in a favorite painting. This balance is emblematic of the mental clarity
of one of the twentieth century's great underrated intellectuals.
A few URLs.
Bruska, Frank X. 2002. http://www.route40.net/history/whos-who/george-stewart.shtml.
Bruska's biography of Stewart (with a photo) is very perceptive. He is the source
for the information on Stewart's wife.
----------. 2002. http://www.route40.net/history/whos-who/vales.shtml. A brief
discussion of the Vales.
Bibliography (Stewart's bibliography in the body of the writeup).
Vale, Thomas and Geraldine. 1983. US 40 Today. Thirty Years of Landscape
Change in America. Univ. of Wisconsin.