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 intellectual.

Stewart's life.

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 properly.

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 Oregon.

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 1957.

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 African-american woman.)

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. Bruska's biography of Stewart (with a photo) is very perceptive. He is the source for the information on Stewart's wife.
----------. 2002. 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.

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