George R. Stewart: Earth Abides, His Most Famous Novel


Again from Wikipedia, regarding Earth Abides:

Earth Abides is a 1949 post-apocalyptic science fiction novel by American writer George R. Stewart. It tells the story of the fall of civilization from deadly disease and its rebirth. Beginning in the United States in the 1940s, it deals with Isherwood “Ish” Williams, Emma, and the community they founded. The survivors live off the remains of the old world, while learning to adapt to the new. Along the way they are forced to make tough decisions and choose what kind of civilization they will rebuild.

Earth Abides won the inaugural International Fantasy Award in 1951. It was included in Locus Magazine’s list of best All Time Science Fiction in 1987 and 1998, and was a nominee to be entered into the Prometheus Hall Of Fame. In November 1950, it was adapted for the CBS radio program Escape as a two-part drama starring John Dehner.

The book earned much praise from James Sallis, writing in the BOSTON GLOBE:

This is a book, mind you, that I’d place not only among the greatest science fiction but among our very best novels. Each time I read it, I’m profoundly affected, affected in a way only the greatest art — Ulysses, Matisse or Beethoven symphonies, say — affects me. Epic in sweep, centering on the person of Isherwood Williams, Earth Abides proves a kind of antihistory, relating the story of humankind backwards, from ever-more-abstract civilization to stone-age primitivism. Everything passes — everything. Writers’ reputations. The ripe experience of a book in which we find ourselves immersed. Star systems, worlds, states, individual lives. Humankind. Few of us get to read our own eulogies, but here is mankind’s. Making Earth Abides a novel for which words like elegiac and transcendent come easily to mind, a novel bearing, in critic Adam-Troy Castro’s words, “a great dark beauty.”

There’s a great deal more to be said, and Wikipedia (for example) says it at length; visit them for full synopsis. But what was Stewart trying to do when he wrote the book? Let’s consider.



Ish’s Hammer: Ecology and Symbolic Religion in Earth Abides


Ranked as high as number eight on the Amazon sales list for twentieth century U.S. fictional literature, George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides has a staying power equaled by few other books. Readers are enthralled by the book. Asked for reactions to the novel they usually say something like “It haunts me,” or “I couldn’t stop reading it.” What keeps Earth Abides sales so high, and readers’ reaction so strong?

There are the obvious reasons. It is a great adventure story, following Ish, the human protagonist, as he explores the post-apocalyptic United States, then leads the slow rebuilding of human society. The riveting way in which Stewart presents the grand sweep of a cataclysmic shift in Earth’s eco-system through the story of the small human microcosm of a community in Berkeley, California makes the book hard to put down. And the book is believable. There’s no deus ex machina for Ish or his Tribe, a handful of survivors of a super-plague, who simply muddle along as most of us would in the same situation — ordinary people made heroic by an extraordinary situation.

That also makes Earth Abides a very encouraging book. We know these frail, common men and women will persevere.

All good reasons for the book’s power. But I think there’s another one, more subtle: Stewart’s literary use of an ordinary hammer. As the novel opens, Ish has just found the hammer in the American River Canyon. At first, the hammer is simply a tool, a product of the technology and science of the now-vanished “Americans.” But later in the story, as the members of the Tribe begin to adjust to the post-apocalyptic world, the hammer undergoes a subtle change. It becomes a symbol of the courage of these humans to face the future. Thus, by using the hammer first as a symbol of twentieth century technology, and later as one of post-apocalyptic “primitive” faith, Stewart bridges the supposedly unbridgeable gap between the two cultures of science and religion.

Ish uses his geographer’s education ecologically, to observe the effects of the removal of humans from the ecosystem. As the story moves along, Ish (and Stewart) interpret several scientific concepts for the reader. The book also carries rich speculations about science, presenting post-plague changes to Earth from the viewpoint of human geography and ecology (even mentioning legendary geographer Carl Sauer along the way). So at the same time that a reader of the book is enthralled by the drama of the narrative, he or she gains a good understanding of “geography 101” and other science, probably without realizing it.

Earth Abides is also about Ish’s search for a faith that will see his Tribe through the post-American era. When Ish isn’t dealing with survival or observing the effects of humankind’s removal from the ecosystem, he seeks meaning in the events of his life. Ish decides that the cleansing plague has moved human religion from the New Testament twentieth century to the “man-against-nature” world of the Old Testament. He finally finds his meaning in Ecclesiastes, and the novel closes with a passage from the old Preacher. It is one of the great religious statements of humankind. But it is also an expression of an ecological faith — that “men go and come, but Earth Abides.”

Thus, as Stewart closes his great novel he has found a way to integrate the ideas of ecology with those of western religion. So, for all its science, and even though Stewart did not intend it to be so, Earth Abides is sometimes considered a religious work. Author Noel Perrin even called it “a new book of Genesis.”

As Ish lets go of the “American” past, embraces the world of the Tribe, and seeks his faith, the hammer begins to take on a spiritual quality. It becomes “Ish’s Hammer,” and others in the Tribe fear to touch it. If Ish forgets the Hammer, they remind him to carry it, but they will not take it to him. (One person ignores that rule — and his fate reinforces the Tribe’s beliefs.) By the end of the novel, Ish’s Hammer has become a powerful religious icon for the Tribe.

As Ish is dying, the Tribe’s males force him to bequeath it — and its power — to one of his descendants. When he gives it to one called “Jack,” the others back reverently away from the two men. Jack is the new bearer of the Hammer of Ish, and the new leader of the Tribe — a person, and perhaps a god-person, to be feared.

The novel's beautifully written mixture of adventure and encouragement and its presentation of a faith based on ecological science help give Earth Abides its power. But I believe that Stewart’s brilliant use of a common, ordinary, single-jack hammer to symbolize human accomplishment, human courage, and the integration of science and faith is a major reason for the book’s success with readers.


George R. Stewart’s hammer. Photo by Donald Scott; reproduction by permission of Jack Stewart.


James Sallis’s review originally appeared in the BOSTON GLOBE as “Earth Abides: Stewart’s Dark Eulogy for Humankind,” and is used here by permission of the author. “Ish’s Hammer: Ecology and Symbolic Religion in Earth Abides” © Donald M. Scott. Don Scott has written extensively about George R. Stewart.



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Update history: This page created 15 March 2011; latest update 17 December 2012.

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