by George R. Stewart, introduction by Nathaniel Rich
(NYRB Classics, August 2021, 304 pp. US $17.95/$23.95 CAN)
by George R. Stewart, introduction by Kim Stanley Robinson
(Mariner Books, 2020, 426 pp. $15.99)
Names on the Land: A Historical Account of Place-Naming in the United States
by George R. Stewart, introduction by Matt Weiland
(NYRB Classics, 2008, 511 pp. US $22.95/$29.95 CAN)
Scale has long captivated literary theorists. In the seventh chapter of the Poetics, Aristotle saw a connection between beauty and scale: “A creature could not be beautiful if it is either too small—for perception of it is practically instantaneous and so cannot be experienced—or too great, for contemplation of it cannot be a single experience, and it is not possible to derive a sense of unity and wholeness from our perception of it (imagine an animal a thousand miles long).”1 Jump far ahead to Amitav Ghosh’s bold 2016 work of literary and cultural history and criticism, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable: “Here, then, is another form of resistance, a scalar one, that the Anthropocene presents to the techniques that are most closely identified with the novel: its essence consists of phenomena that were long ago expelled from the territory of the novel—forces of unthinkable magnitude that create unbearably intimate connections over vast gaps in time and space.”2
For Aristotle, the problem of scale was primarily a problem of fitting the literary work to human perceptual capacities. The concentration of tragedy is more perfectly attuned to human perception than the expanse of epic (but there is a tension: the greater the scale the better, provided it is still “possible to derive a sense of wholeness and unity”—hence his high praise for Homer). For Ghosh, the scalar problem has to do with literary tradition, which has circumscribed a “territory of the novel,” but like Aristotle he also recognizes a limit to the “magnitude” we can hold in our imagination, past which he suggests we will actually suffer; the suddenly “intimate connections” between distant points in time and space are felt to be “unbearable.” Where there is an imaginative problem, there may yet be an aesthetic charge. At its most acute, cannot art fortify us to experience what we know to be real yet cannot bear? Alice Oswald, in the introduction to Memorial, her “translation of the Iliad’s atmosphere,” defines the Greek word “enargeia” as “something like ‘bright unbearable reality’. It’s the word used when gods come to earth not in disguise but as themselves.”3 It is such a quality she sought to bring into her translation; that the “bright unbearable reality” might somehow be borne. Lucretius held that poetry could make bitter truths bearable, as honey makes foul-tasting medicine palatable, and that in such cases, the swallowers become “victims of beguilement but not of betrayal, since by this means they recover strength and health.”4 In this spirit, I ask: What is the literary form that makes this particular reality—ecological crisis—possible to bear?
The historian Dipesh Chakrabarty too has written about the difference between what we know about climate change and what we are able to experience; just as we know there is a human species, and yet we do not have an experience of ourselves as a species. Humans have gone, he writes, from being biological agents (like all forms of life) to being a geological force—and still, since that force only arrives at the global, species level, we do not have an experience of that shift in scale.5 In other words, if we have become a geological force, we are no better able to experience ourselves as such than we are able to experience other phenomena on a geological scale. We can know it in the abstract and still it does not become real to us.
The question of how literature and other forms of art might help us to see and respond to environmental crisis, and to register its scale, is an open one. If literature can help us at all here, I would hazard that not only contemporary literature can do so. Contemporary writers have the exclusive opportunity to respond directly to anthropogenic environmental degradation, awakened as we are to the human causes of climate change and cascading extinctions. But there is also a way that considering what’s not new can clarify things for us: if it cannot provide us with solutions to contemporary problems, older environmental literature can still do more than just represent to us where we ‘went wrong.’ Naiveté is not necessary to find visionary ecological awareness in Gilbert White’s 1789 Natural History of Selborne, or the 1827 Shepherd’s Calendar of John Clare, or Mary Austin’s 1903 Land of Little Rain. It is worth saying so, because unlike the progress of the sciences (if it is their accuracy in accounting for the physical world that you want from them), there is no such progress between Homer and Alice Oswald. This has been said before.
Another way of asking the question about which literature and how literature can help us—no, not help us, accompany us, perhaps clarify something for us—in ecological crisis, is to reflect on two divergent truths of scale: the magnitude of human ecological destructiveness, and human insignificance on a geological-evolutionary timescale. Politically, the former seems to have more urgency than the latter, resulting more immediately in an imperative to act (for if we are insignificant, we might feel that we are not to be held responsible). And if Chakrabarty is right, we have shifted in scale, at the species level, so that strictly speaking we are no longer geologically insignificant, having ushered in a new age, the Anthropocene. Yet there is an ethical level at which our insignificance persists, the level at which we are not, because of our supreme power to do harm, therefore more significant than the myriad other beings with which we share the earth. Our insignificance persists also at an existential level. We remain subject to the conditions that govern life on earth even though we have altered them.
Enter George Rippey Stewart (1895-1980), English professor at UC Berkeley for over fifty years. Not so timeworn as The Natural History of Selborne, nor yet writing of the self-aware “Anthropocene,” Stewart’s ecological novels of the 1940s arose at a time when, for instance, the use of DDT was expanding and largely unsuspected of harm (indeed, the infamous insecticide appears quite casually and benignly throughout Stewart’s Earth Abides).6 These are novels that conceive of natural forces without the moralizing that would come with the awareness of human disturbance on an ecological scale. Yet Stewart’s vision of human beings in ecological proportion suggests that disturbance is not the same as control; that what humans are able to ‘achieve’ through unintended consequences far exceeds in scale what they are able to organize and contain deliberately. Stewart’s craft of human character is consistently a craft of nonviolent abasement.
In Matt Weiland’s estimation, introducing Stewart’s spritely history of American place-names, Names on the Land, for NYRB Classics, the man was “a great and plain democrat,” a “generalist” (a toponymist and founder of the American Name Society as well as “a novelist, a travel writer, a journalist, a biographer, a popular sociologist, and an ecologist”). In August of this year NYRB, true to its knack for reviving remarkable out-of-print books, reissued Stewart’s Storm, first published in 1941, then reissued with a new introduction by the author in 1947.7 Last year, in light of newfound relevance, Mariner Books published a new edition of Stewart’s most popular book Earth Abides, a pandemic novel which has never been out of print since its first publication in 1949, with a new introduction by contemporary science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson.
While envisioning possible futures is one way literature can work through environmental crisis, the quality I find most compelling in George Stewart is not future-oriented or constructive; it is his sense of proportion, of scale. For in neither of these two novels does Stewart focus on anthropogenic disaster.8 Rather, he focuses on forces of nature that precede and overwhelm human agency. That “bright unbearable reality” of which Alice Oswald wrote corresponds in this case not to gods but to natural forces on a scale individual human creatures cannot experience. Though Storm is a novel of climate, there is no indication of what now presses upon us daily as an anthropogenic crisis of climate change. Stewart would have been ahead of his times if he had posited such a connection (not ahead of the science of global warming, but ahead of any general consensus about or public acceptance of the far-reaching meteorological effects of human actions). On the contrary, it is the storm’s inhumanity that makes it worthy of attention, and in the current moment it is clarifying to recall that the weather itself, though we have destabilized it catastrophically, is still not human, nor is it even a form of life, but a form of force that conditions all life.
Similarly, while we grow accustomed to daily reports of superlative climate events, the storm of Storm is resolutely unremarkable. Though it wreaks havoc, it breaks no records. Individualized but not exceptional, “as an elephant may be large but not among other elephants, so the storm was far from record-breaking among its kind.” (70) Stewart is an inspired writer not just of the unremarkable but of the undifferentiated, the unabstracted elemental: “As individual men move in a too well-known landscape without noticing its features, so man—fallaciously—takes for granted the all-pervasive air.” (20) “Pervasiveness” is the ecological reality Stewart tries to catch, at a formal level—thus his characteristic shift from “individual men” to “man” is a recognition of a universalizing condition, that of climate, rather than any effacement of cultural or individual difference.
There is a simultaneous mattering and not-mattering of individual suffering under the conditions the storm creates. The structure of the novel does not allow the mattering to linger, as it rhythmically intertwines the storm as a being in itself with its effects on disparate levels. If we experience the storm the way Stewart gives it to us to experience, its meaning for us can only be ambiguous. In a modest discursive section towards the end of the novel, we read the following plain, almost bland observation of fundamental ambiguity:
Beside these cosmic effects, the direct influence of the storm upon men seems small and secondary. Good and bad lose their meaning, and exist only according to point of view, within a limited range of vision.
Further down the page, after coolly rattling off some of the storm’s casualties:
As with the so-called bad, the so-called good was often far removed and difficult to appraise. Only a few entomologists realized that the rain, falling just when it did, destroyed billions of grasshopper eggs, and prevented a plague of six months later.
Even aside from its cosmic effects the storm had thus vitally affected, in one way or another, the life of every human being in the region. It had accomplished all this without being itself catastrophic or even unusual. (266)
What is “far removed and difficult to appraise” could well sum up the subject whose reality Stewart makes vivid to us throughout the novel. Unlike its immediate partial presence to each individual human character, we as readers are given this middle-distant view; far enough away to glimpse a form made of wind and water independent of its effects, close enough to see many different versions of creaturely contact with this body of wind and water.
Nathaniel Rich in his keen introduction to this edition expresses the following view: “While Stewart endows Maria with limbs, intelligence, and a personality, his human characters, some of whom only appear once or twice, are as faceless, anonymous, and freethinking as the ants they resemble when seen from the troposphere.” (viii) Undeniably, Stewart’s characters, human and nonhuman alike, are revealed in the novel’s universe as small, easily crushed. Yet I find the novel somehow manages to generate empathy for these specks. There is tremendous pathos to be found in the passages that follow Blue Boy, the boar, to his pitiful end; and in the passages following the search for a young man and woman who’ve gone missing, until at last, quietly, their fate is revealed. The novel itself does give the human-ant comparison in multiple passages, but it is part of a constantly shifting scale, not an objective sizing-up. Some workmen laboring to clear a snowslide “looked small and black as ants by contrast with the great white heap,” from the perspective of the Superintendent in charge of the operation. Johnny Martley of the French Bar Power-House descending into a hole to open the sluice-gates “was an ant crawling through some minute crevice of a great rock.” (252) Yet this marks the beginning of one of the more gripping and minutely recounted human mini-dramas in the novel, as Johnny Martley gropes his way in the dark and makes a narrow escape with his life.
As readers are likely to notice, and as both Rich and Stanley Robinson note in their introductions to these novels, Stewart is unusual among novelists, even now, for his focus on humans in the aggregate rather than as inviolate individuals. Amitav Ghosh grounded his recent diagnosis of the collective failure of imagination to reckon with climate change in the blinding stubbornness of individual freedom as a political (and literary) ideal. Stewart’s novels would be an exception to this general tendency, and they show what may be possible, in a world where individuals are not evacuated—as they continue to have thoughts, fears, misgivings, desires, a will to live—yet where they are regularly seen from a wider spatial and temporal perspective. This wider perspective reveals them to be unexceptional in the strictest sense, their individuality limited by patterns and repetitions, by their belonging to social groups, and beyond that, to a species. The future of human imagination as Stewart imagines it in Earth Abides is decreative rather than originating: “scavenging” is, quite naturally, a fundamental mode of human life in the post-pandemic world of the novel. Though the protagonist Ish (short for Isherwood) laments this as a regression, a way of life unbecoming human dignity, it turns out to be an essential phase of human recuperation, little by little clearing the excess of the previous civilization as they find another way of living on the earth. (Ish’s calm, wise, but unintellectual wife Em even articulates the view that despite the pride humans took, before their “Great Disaster,” in all of their great and sophisticated inventions and cultural objects, their way of life was already essentially scavenging—that they could create new things was always an illusion).
This sense of human beings as essentially unexceptional also gives Stewart’s Names on the Land its irreverent mood, even in its great appetite for and curiosity about human history and the history of name-giving in the United States. It revels in arbitrariness, plainness, the coexistence of competing accounts, the loss of originals. “Such stories,” Stewart writes, “can best be told in connection with their later history rather than their first origin.” (10) Thus he renounces etymology, whose work is “to track every word to its deepest lair,” in favor of an indeterminate narrative of vanities, mistakes, corruptions. Underlying all is a sense of earth’s abidance before and beyond the names; it is partly a comedy, reveling in the very lightness of names upon the land. Of one of a famous man’s many acts of naming, he writes, “The name was forgotten, but even in this, John Smith did as later men would do, not copying him, but merely thinking the same thoughts for the same reasons.” (33) A bracing and breezy assertion of unoriginality, without judgment. What I gather from Stewart’s humbling accounts is not that human beings ought to be more original, but that individuals are often grossly deceived in the self-regard that makes them insist upon their originality (one of the dry comedies throughout Names on the Land is the vain, often pompous ceremony made of asserting possession through naming).9
As for the storm’s “personality,” I read the name (Maria) and character not as fixed by the outermost frame of the novel, but as issuing from the personality of a particular human character, the Junior Meteorologist who discovers her. It is true this human character never gets a name (often his title is even abbreviated to “JM”), but he does give a name, and we are privy to his intimate thoughts and feelings as he carries out his work. As he does with the namers of Names on the Land, Stewart gently, even affectionately exposes the common vanity of this young man:
He decided that in general Maria might be called a normal child […] Along her cold front she might be kicking up some respectable local squalls, but elsewhere ship-captains would log nothing more than Fresh Breeze and Moderate Sea. And as for size, a storm only a thousand miles in diameter rated in the Pacific as a half-grown child. Nevertheless, the J.M. still felt his paternal discoverer’s partiality: “A darn good little storm,” he felt himself wanting to say to someone. (38)
The JM is one of several characters named for a job or function. I should say this method is distinct from the effacement or anonymization that might effect a critique of the character’s society (for effacing and anonymizing the sacred autonomy of the individual, for instance). In general the human characters Stewart creates are portrayed as alive in their functionality, not trampled by it. For it is the inner life of a vocation, which is to observe and study the weather, that shapes his character. He is also, without contempt, written as the sort of man who, like John Smith, has thoughts similar to many other men in his position. His ordinariness happens to correspond with that of the storm he discovers; and like the unremarkable storm, which yet has devastating consequences on the scale of individuals, the unremarkable junior meteorologist yet has a kind of brilliance, a personality, a temperament.
That the novel makes the storm Maria into a “protagonist,” then, does not mean it personifies her in the conventional sense. There is no animist attachment to her fate, as though she were a suffering creature, the paternal fondness of the JM notwithstanding. Rather Stewart shifts the ordinary balance of fiction, making a condition of life, a force, into the primary focus, while the deliberate agents, who can only go about their lives, are secondary. Perhaps our ethical allegiance towards living things is so powerful it will not be swayed. But we are asked to enter into an order in which what we cannot control—that which determines and governs (and threatens) creaturely existence—captivates our attention, commands our interest.
In another of Storm’s discursive sections (the novel is part-essay), Stewart reflects on the diction of meteorology: “the use of such military terms as ‘front’ may be a chronological accident—that the theory was developed in the years following 1914, a time when such military expressions were still on everyone’s tongue.” He continues:
Had the discovery been made in more peaceful years, men (who involuntarily try to humanize nature) would perhaps have derived a term from marriage rather than war. This comparison also is apt—love, as well as hate, arises between unlikes, and love like hate breeds violent encounters. Best of all would be to use words unrelated to human feelings. Those great storms know neither love nor hate. (42)
The meditation moves from both to neither, without proposing what those other words, “unrelated to human feelings,” might be. In keeping with his diffidence about “tracking each word into its deepest lair” (the province of etymology), he intimates that the words given storms, like the “names on the land,” have all the ordinary unreliability and vanity of human beings.
Late in Earth Abides, Ish, by now the only person in his “tribe” left from before the “Great Disaster” reflects on a conversation he has had with a younger man: “He had asked him ‘Are you happy?’ And the young man had answered in such a strange way that Ish had doubted whether he had understood what the words meant.” Then Ish articulates a thought that might be shattering in another context, but in Stewart’s sensibility comes across quite plainly, undespairingly:
That was the way the things happened over all these years; though the language itself had not changed more than a little, yet there were ideas and differences that had gone out of people’s thought. No longer perhaps did they make that sharp distinction between pleasure and sorrow that people had once made in the times of civilization. Perhaps other distinctions too had faded out. (411-12)
One of the extraordinary features of Earth Abides is the way it manages to conceive, sadly but without bitterness, of a world in which what we tend to regard as civilization’s most exquisite achievements no longer have any power. Ish tries to teach the post-pandemic children to read and write and do some basic arithmetic, but most of them have no interest in his lessons. He places all his hope for the future of civilization in the one child who demonstrates bookish aptitude. When that child dies of illness, he relinquishes the idea of school (class dismissed, for good and all), and with it the idea of books as anything but beautiful, useless remnants of a vanished way of life. His pleasure in them becomes for himself alone. The UC Berkeley library crumbles, and Ish must accept that for future generations the books it holds may be good for nothing other than feeding fires. All that had accumulated in value is wiped clean, and the letting-go is brutally undifferentiated for the surviving individual who can never let go.
Stewart’s vision is ecological because he resists the privileging of certain individuals over others, even as he makes plain and palpable the joys and sufferings of individuals, makes them plain but does not make them ends in themselves. There are sudden, searing pains and deaths of individuals in Storm: an owl is scorched by an exposed copper wire; a man named Oscar Carlson despairs of his failing wheat field and hangs himself; on the northern plains, temperatures below freezing, “Five persons, foolish or unlucky, had been caught in the open and frozen to death; more than fifty others had been killed or injured in accidents attributable to the blizzard.” (98) In addition to these laconic death scenes, there are fates narrated in a more protracted and periodic fashion, interwoven with others. As Adam Phillips wrote of Darwin, we could say that Stewart “is shuffling the traditional hierarchies; not cutting men down to size, like an arrogant deity, but trying to get them the right size.”10
Kim Stanley Robinson characterizes the enduring appeal of Earth Abides, even as the book itself throws into question whether books will endure in times of acute crisis, as Stewart’s “seeing things whole and taking the long view.” (xix) The same holds for Storm, and makes Daniel Defoe’s first full-length book, The Storm (1704), a literary precedent. Whether or not Stewart read or deliberately drew upon it, Defoe’s The Storm is an early experiment in bringing together many voices and geographical perspectives, on land and at sea, in order to reconstruct a force of nature too vast for any individual person to apprehend in its totality. Defoe sought to make an account of the historic storm of November 1703, and explains his method thus:
When the Reader finds an Account here from Milford-haven in Wales, and from Helford in Cornwall West, from Yarmouth and Deal in the East, from Portsmouth in the South, and Hull in the North, I am not to imagine him so weak as to suppose all the vast Interval had not the same, or proportion’d suffering, when you find one Letter from a Town, and two from a County, it is not to be supposed that was the whole damage in that County, but, on the contrary, that every Town in the County suffered the same thing in proportion; and it would have been endless to the Collector, and tiresom to the Reader, to have Enumerated all the Individuals of every County; ‘twould be endless to tell the Desolation in the Parks, Groves, and fine Walks of the Gentry, the general havock in the Orchards and Gardens among the Fruit Trees […]11
In the case of Defoe’s book, many readers now may feel the representative reports do become monotonous, “tiresom,” as we grow accustomed to the succession of fallen church spires and chimneys, so many roof tiles blown off and thatch repaired with reeds or some other substitute, so many trees uprooted; even inherently dramatic events, such as people jumping out of bed, narrowly escaping death by burial in the rubble of their houses, grow repetitious. Yet the whole does create an effect of collective witnessing, and sometimes a fact leaps out of the monotony and pinches us: That sea-water was carried far from the sea, making all vegetation taste salty, so that sheep and cattle could hardly bear to feed; the description of “a Spout marching directly with the Wind” resembling “the Trunk of an Elephant”; or a crisp turn of phrase, such as that of a Mr. Thoresby, who recounts “at Leedes a much greater Storm the Night preceding the Fast, and a stronger Wind that Day, than when the fatal Storm was in the South; but a good Providence timed this well, to quicken our too cold Devotions.”12
Defoe’s assertion of representativeness for his selections—that every place in between those represented has “the same, or proportion’d suffering,” “the same thing in proportion,” etc.—makes a claim of scale, placing the repetitiveness of individual suffering in quasi-universal perspective. Similarly Stewart, without ever discounting the sting or worse of individual suffering, shows it to us as part of a natural order, rather than disruptive of order. Each individual’s lot however charged with pathos recedes in the structure of his novel behind a collective existence only united by the storm.
In the introduction to Storm Rich characterizes Stewart as “a poet-ethicist […], a dramatist of the natural order and our fragile standing within it.” (ix) It is in dramatizing the natural order that Storm makes an apt prelude to Earth Abides. The former develops an account of human proportions which can exist only in ecological relation, while the latter imagines what it might be like if humans were forced or stimulated to learn how to live in a way commensurate with their proportions (the later novel’s sudden contraction of the human population gives these proportions a concrete dimension).
Stewart was evidently a great reader, and both novels are full of references to literary tradition, even as Earth Abides entertains the possibility of a human future where books die a quiet death. Ecclesiastes, from which Earth Abides gets its title and epigraph, is the book Stewart returns to most faithfully, a book rich with melancholy and resignation in the face of a cosmic order indifferent to human ego and desire. That “earth abides” in marked contrast with human achievements is the truth the individual must learn to bear in Stewart’s work.
The forbearance this entails isn’t an answer to human recklessness and ecological destruction, but it is perhaps a parallel searching that belongs alongside the search for practical solutions—a radical “longer view.” These are the twin truths Stewart comes back to again and again: nothing is ever new, and nothing ever endures. The penultimate subsection of the last chapter of Storm is Ecclesiastes 1:6, without commentary: “The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits.” Even two sections earlier, the words of Hamlet, “If it be now, ‘tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come; the readiness is all” echo Ecclesiastes 3:15 (“That which has been is now; and that which is to be hath already been…”). (278-9) Except in the biblical version the temporal humbling is more acute, since present, past and future are brought into identity rather than mutual exclusion; in every direction is the already-created (“nothing new under the sun”).
These are words that might go some way towards curing us of the illusion of human exceptionality on Earth, temporally and spatially. The mode of direct quotation is one of Stewart’s many means of approach, and here at the end of the novel he has the confidence to let it stand alone, without the premise of a fictional speaker or reciter, not trying to make new but to suggest that the creative power of the novel has been reiterative, scavenging, rather than original (as if to say, yes, you have heard this somewhere before…). In the final section the narrative threads, engrossing as they have been, recede, making way for a sudden reversal, a view of the earth from Venus where “a watcher of the skies (if such we may imagine) viewed it as a more brilliant planet than any to be seen from the earth. It gave no sign that storms or men disturbed its tranquil round.”(279) We are arrested by a sudden loveliness excluded from our view, a beauty we are not so much a part of as swallowed up by.