In his 80s, George Stewart was a tall, slender gentleman with white hair and white moustache carefully trimmed, in a businessman’s style. I thought his observant blue eyes were his most interesting feature. He wore his years elegantly and spoke carefully, with a great concern for accuracy. In his speech, as in his writing, he was clearly not a man given to verbal extravagance.
A year after his death, Wallace Stegner wrote of George Stewart as “a much more important writer than the general public knew.” The editor of an anthology of California literature described him as a “revered professor of English.” He was both, but his fiction and non-fiction writing carried his words far beyond the classroom. One of his novels actually changed how we talk about t he weather.
Born in Pennsylvania, Stewart (1895-1980) attended Princeton in the era of Edmund Wilson, John Peale Bishop and F. Scott Fitzgerald (he didn’t speak well of Fitzgerald’s college novel, This Side of Paradise). He served in the Army A mbulance Corps during World War I and, after his discharge in 1919, he came to Berkeley for graduate studies. Looking back in 1970, he gave us his first impression of the campus:
“On what was, if I remember correctly, a fine August morning I came upon the campus by one of the west entrances, looking for the place to register—a tallish young man, wearing glasses, on the slim side. I had recently been seriously ill and I doubt if I gave much impression of energy and durability ... I found the registration desk ... near the present bridge across the creek, not far from the northeast corner of the present Life Sciences Building ... my credentials from Princeton had not arrived, and I had brought my diploma along ... The girl looked at it, and found it all in Latin, of which she did not read a word. But she could see the orange-and-black ribbon. She said, ‘That’s a pretty one!’ And so I was admitted, without the aid of a computer.”
He studied with Chauncey Wells, who “did much to inspire and shape my style of writing,” and with the historian Herbert Bolton. “Out of [Bolton’s] course,” he wrote, “has sprung about half of all that I have ever written.” His M.A. thesis was “Robert Louis Stevenson in California.” Stevenson spent a lot of time around Monterey in 1880, and it occurred to Stewart to go there, looking for people who had known him 40 years earlier. Of course he didn’t find anyone, as he told me, but he did meet an elderly woman who might have seen Stevenson for a few moments. Little as it yielded, S tewart enjoyed the experience and it whetted his appetite for “the pleasures and possible rewards of field work, as opposed to library work.” Going to the scene and meeting people who knew the place became a basic part of his method as a writer.
Stewart left Berkeley long enough to get a Ph.D. at Columbia, teach at Michigan for a year, and marry Theodosia, his beloved wife. They returned to Berkeley in 1925, and he began a teaching career which lasted into the 1960s.
His career as an author began with The Techniques of English Verse (1930). His second book was Bret Harte, Argonaut and Exile (1931) a biography; his third, English Composition (1936), a useful text on writing; and his fourth, Ordeal by Hunger (1936), a history of the Donner Party. Each w as well-received.
“But it was the universal ambition in my generation, at least,” he told me, “to write novels.” He achieved this for himself in 1938 when he published East of the Giants, a historical romance set in early California. For his second novel, Doctor’s Oral (1939), he chose an academic setting, presenting a lightly disguised picture of his own Ph.D. exam as something akin to an auto-da-fe.
Then, in 1941, at the age of 46, he published Storm, the strikingly original novel that made him famous. The storm is the protagonist, and the story is its biography, telling of its birth in the mountains of Asia, its growth as it travels across the Pacific, its power as it inundates the Bay Area with wind and rain, and the beginnings of its death as it travels into the Midwest. The storm is named Maria by an anonymous junior meteorologist, who follows its progress from beginning to end, but who never speaks its name to any of his colleagues. In the aftermath of Storm’s success, real weather forecasters all across the country began naming storms for the public. Every time you hear a reference to “Tropical Storm Alice” or “Tropical Storm Fred,” you hear life imitating the art of George Stewart.
Storm pits the power of the storm against life, human and animal, and the shape of the land itself. The fortunes and misfortunes of individual truck drivers, electrical linemen, wild pigs and birds caught in Maria’s path demonstrate its all encompassing force and power. The storm is opposed by people as soci al beings, doing their best, performing their duties as well as they can.
Following the practice begun with his quixotic quest for signs of Stevenson in Monterey, Stewart prepared for Storm by doing research and getting to know the people and places he proposed to write about. He made a study of meteorology, and then (he wrote later) “When a bad storm broke, I took to the road—up to the Pass, out with the Highway Patrol, through the flooded Sacramento Valley. I talked with the men and saw what they were doing, and I was sometimes cold and wet and hungry along with them. Not the least among my later pleasures was to get comments and letters from men who...knew the book to be genuine.” Storm is a singular act of imagination disciplined by research, humane observation, and participation. Everything in the story could have happened as described. He used no tricks or special effects.
Brilliantly clear and accurate as it is, Storm was an unlikely best-seller. Perhaps its popularity stemmed from being the rig ht story at the right time: storms traditionally symbolize turbulence in human affairs. He has told us he wrote some of Storm’s bleaker passages in 1940 “during those grim and terrible months of Dunkirk and the fall of France.” I think this novel, which shows people working together against vast adversity, struck a note readers responded to spontaneously in those last troubled months before Pearl Harbor.
In Fire (1948), Stewart dealt once more with a natural catastrophe—a California forest fire—and the ordinary people caught up in it. Earth Abides (1949), which takes place largely in Berkeley, gave us his version of how our society might come to an end. To his surprise, the novel developed a cult following. He told me young people came to see him for years after its publication, eager to sit with him and discuss the concerns it caused them.
In his final novels, Sheep Rock (1951), and The Years of the City (1955), he explored the unchanging permanence of nature, and the rise and fall of a civilizations. “I wrote seven novels in fifteen years,” he said to me, “and after that, I just didn’t have the drive to write another.” Subsequently, he concentrated on non-fiction, notably Not So Rich as You Think (1967) and American Place Names (1970).
I asked him whether he had ever considered leaving the university to devote himself to writing on a full-time basis. His answer was, “No. I do not consider myself to be a good money writer.” He added that he was glad he had not done so because he valued the freedom the University gave him to write as he pleased and because he also really enjoyed teaching.
His Qualities as a Writer
Stewart possessed an exceptional ability to choose subjects and themes that caught the attention of large numbers of people and touched them deeply. In retrospect, his choices often seem obvious. Storms and fires, for example, are common enough. Weather is one of the staples of ordinary conversation, and in any vicinity where there has been a fire, people talk of it for weeks and months afterwards. It takes penetration of a peculiarly lofty kind to find riches in such apparently threadbare topics. His ability to focus on the commonplace and to find something new in it may be his most remarkable quality. Beginning with simple materials and commonly accepted assumptions, he creates effects which are powerful and strikingly original.
He was not a technical innovator. His influence on writers has been exemplary and indirect. In an amiable celebration of his work, Wallace Stegner spoke for a lot of authors: “Of George Stewart’s twenty-eight books, I find I have seventeen on my shelves. Some of them I have read only once. Eight of them I have just reread to remind myself of George’s historical and fictional methods. Three or four of them I read all the time, and refer to, and quote, and steal from, and couldn’t get along without.”
For his eightieth birthday, the Bancroft Library honored George Stewart with a comprehensive exhibition of his writings. Visiting it, I found myself da zzled both by the abundant quantity of his work and by the number of languages into which it had been translated. The display made it clear that his audience was world-wide, transcending cultural differences, class lines, and ideological barriers. Even now, people in all walks of life continue to discover his books, read them, and keep them in memory as vital parts of their experience.