George R. Stewart’s Life and Work
Stewart spent a lifetime wandering through the American landscape, wondering about its geography and history, and writing books about it.
He was born in Sewickley, Pennsylvania, in 1895. But the family soon moved to Indiana, Pennsylvania, where Stewart spent his boyhood; then, when he was 12, to Southern California. Hiking through the San Gabriel and San Bernardino Mountains, Stewart developed a passion for California’s history, natural history, and landscapes.
Stewart loved to travel, by foot or road. When his mother insisted he attend Princeton, family legend suggests that he traveled, at least part of the way, by “riding the rods” — traveling on a rod underneath a railroad passenger car. In 1919, barely recovered from pneumonia, he hitchhiked west on the National Old Trails Road (later U. S. 40 and Route 66). After World War I, in 1922, he bicycled more than 3000 miles through Europe — including an icy passage over the Alps. His honeymoon trip with wife Ted (Theodosia Burton Stewart, daughter of the President of the University of Michigan) from Michigan to his new job at UC Berkeley was a cross-country drive on the primitive roads of 1924. (The guests at the wedding, appropriately, included Mr. and Mrs. Henry Ford.)
UC Berkeley was one of the most remarkable wellsprings of ideas and institutions this world has known. The National Park Service (founded by Berkeley graduates) established its educational and research headquarters on the campus, E. O. Lawrence split the atom, Aldo Leopold’s son Starker wrote the classic report on wildlife in National Parks, Carl Sauer developed new directions for the study of geography, Chiura Obata taught new, Asian methods of painting to his students, Bernard Maybeck designed classic Arts and Crafts buildings. (And the list goes on.) Stewart learned well from colleagues, especially those, like Sauer and Leopold, in geography and history; then wove their knowledge into his works.
Stewart was a exceptional scholar-author, described by his friend Joseph Henry Jackson as a “poet and precisionist.” He invented several types of books — the microhistory, the ecological novel, the place-names history, the highway-as-guide book. The popularity and influence of his works is widespread: One of his works, Earth Abides, has been in print for 60 years and is now available in twenty languages.
Another, Storm, is the book which popularized the practice of naming storms.
So although many don’t know his name, everyone knows at least one thing that Stewart did — he gave us the practice of naming storms. And, since he named his storm “Maria,” “They call the wind Maria.”
An academic biography of George R. Stewart, written by Dr. Frederick Oswin Waage, was published in 1980, reissued 2006. Yet Stewart is not well-known, by the literati of today. That is beginning to change, and these pages are designed to accelerate the change, and bring Stewart and his works to the wide reputation that are deserved.
“ ...If there is to be a poet in these modern times, he must go out for himself and must gain much wisdom. He must look deeply into the world, and far into time, even though he sees both the world and time from some little microcosm like Sheep Rock Spring.”
Biographical notes © Donald M. Scott.
Information Links: Biographical Data on George R. Stewart
Update history: This page created 15 March 2011; latest revision 17 December 2012.
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