George R. Stewart (1895-1980), American novelist, historian, etymologist, and much more, needs a recognition, a renaissance, a return, a rediscovery, a re-anything. No, that is not right. He doesn’t need it, the need is all ours; and for most of us, the re- can readily be removed from the -discovery.
Wallace Stegner, one of the most revered writers – and thinkers – of the American West (all should read The Big Rock Candy Mountain-1943), once mentioned that of Stewart’s twenty-eight books, Stegner owned seventeen of them. Most he had reread and three or four he couldn’t get along without and read all the time. “(Stewart) was thorough, objective, judicious, all qualities that are likely to get a man ignored in the book-news media”, Stegner wrote.
Today, Stewart’s only brush with any kind of wider fame, is his novel Storm (1941), in which he named a hurricane “Maria”. The National Weather Service took notice, and thus, Stewart is the originator of giving names to hurricanes. Putting it a bit pompously, one can say he started the religious practice of baptizing the weather. I’m not sure he would have approved. Stewart knew full well that nature is something that at times is in deadly opposition to any human system; and by naming a thing one seeks to control it, giving humanity a fall sense of security, of intimacy with this Other.
On the other hand, he also knew names and was familiar with the facility – and at times difficulty – of their implementation. Names of the Land, his 1945-“biography” of how America had been named and why, is just as much a study of the cultures that produce the names as an etymological treatise. “Once, from eastern ocean to western ocean, the land stretched away without names. Nameless headlands split the surf; nameless lakes reflected nameless mountains; and nameless rivers flowed through nameless valleys into nameless bays”, begins the book. Thus, questions are posed, if only by inference: What is the world when it is nameless and how does it change when people come and why do people need to name everything? Evidently it is a need inherent in humanity; nary a place where people have been is unnamed.
I first became familiar with Stewart’s writing by accident. Being a sucker for books about the end of the world, I picked up a copy of Earth Abides, Stewart’s 1949-classic about the breakdown of society following a plague that wipes out 99% of mankind, and the possibilities and ways of forming a new society. It was the only science fiction book he ever wrote, and is generally considered to be among the best of the genre. Stephen King has admitted that The Stand was heavily influenced by Stewart’s book. Earth Abides, though, actually says something about humanity and its place in the world, and manages to be far more succinct than King’s book in less than half the pages King treats us to. (This is not to say that King’s novel is without merit.)
The reason for this post, however, is Stewart’s second book, Ordeal by Hunger. The edition I read was the 1960-edition, which is identical to the original, but offers some supplemental material, such as a number of diaries of the participants of the Donner Party. For the few who have not heard about the Donner Party, it was among the first wave of immigrants leaving the east-coast to cross the continent in order to settle in California. The 87 men, women and children set out west in 1847, but unfortunately are given bad advice by a wannabe famous scout and trailblazer named Hastings – who had actually written a book on the subject of possible routes to California and Oregon. The route he presents them with turns out to be almost impassable, and as a result they arrive too late to cross the final mountain passes that would’ve led them to the safety of the greener pastures of the West. They are snowed in, and with provisions growing scarce finally must turn to cannibalism to survive (or simply to prolong their suffering, as it turns out for many of them).
Stewart’s book is a documentary, but reads with a fluency and urgency more associated with the best thrillers. For those of us who are not intimately familiar with the details of the case, the plight of the several rescue parties that are sent from the other side of the mountains, as well as the escape attempts of members of the Donner party themselves, are genuinely suspenseful. Towards the end of the book, when one of the more … hungry … cannibals is left alone with a few children and women, Stewart’s objective and neutral position serves to heighten the tension. I fear that in the hands of a lesser writer, such passages would have turned into sensationalism and melodrama (as was often the case in other accounts this early in the century).
Neither is he judgemental of any single person in the party, as many books of this famous incident of the westward expansion tend to be. I have browsingly in other works read descriptions of singular participants that accuse them of murder and inhumanity, but Stewart takes care to remind us that the situation is outside our sphere of experience, and as such outside of our moral jurisdiction. The German, Keseberg, is a case in point. While most accounts paint him as a murderer and beast, Stewart gives him the benefit of the doubt, and does not go out of his way to vilify him. Keseberg; one might interject, does a good enough job of that himself. When asked why – after having discovered a frozen cow – he still preferred to eat one of the women of the party, he is reported to have answered that “her flesh was much more tender” and that “human liver was better than lean beaf and the brains gave good soup”.
He is judgmental, though, in his treatment of some prominent members of the various rescue parties, especially of one, who, it turned out, later became a senator. This man preferred to sit warm and comfortable in his cabin, eating provisions meant for the Donner Party, while waiting for any member of the party to accidentally turn up at his cabin. This, while others dared raging snow storms and almost certain death, performing super human feats of strength while carrying children on their shoulders through snow that reached above their heads.
So there are heroes in the book, and perhaps one of Stewart’s strengths is that he manages to call these forgotten men and women back from a past that has swallowed them as surely as any avalanche, and hold them before us and with brief descriptions he is able to let us see them as full, well rounded characters that seem more than mere literary devices. Much the same can be said for the landscape. The West that Stewart describes is very much changed today, although some places along the route are left intact to the point that tracks of the wagon wheels can still be seen cemented on the mountain sides by more than a century of weather, but even the parts that are changed can stand before us one more time as they once were if we give this book a chance.