Sunday, June 26, 2005


George Rippey Stewart (1895-1980)

George R. Stewart, author, toponymist, and professor of English, was born in Sewickley, Pennsylvannia on May 31, 1895. At the age of 12 his family moved to California, an area that Stewart would use as the setting for his 1949 novel, Earth Abides.

Stewart had a keen interest in US history, name places, and ecology. In 1951 he became the founding member of the American Name Society. Stewart believed American toppnymists put a greater emphasis to "the motivation of the namer" and to "the human activity of naming." This belief is evident in Earth Abides when Ish and Em decide to name each year after an activity or event from that year (Year of the Baby, Year of the Fires, etc.). The naming of the year, and the chiseling of the number into stone, became a tradition and ritual for Ish and the tribe. The naming of each year became important to the tribe, just as the names of places were important to Stewart.

It is Stewart's keen interest and knowledge of names that leads one to examine his choice of name for his protagonist in Earth Abides. Georges T. Dodds, in a 2000 review of Earth Abides, draws a comparison between Ish and Ishi, the last of the Yahi tribe "discovered" by Dr. Alfred Louis Kroeber* and his associates at The University of California in Berkeley. Stewart, who received his MA from there and also returned to teach English at Berkeley in 1922, would have known the story of Ishi.

First of all, Ishi simply means "a man." In Earth Abides, Ish is representative of [hu]mankind. Both Ishi and Ish emerge from the mountains or woods, hence the name Isherwood. Ishi enters a new world of industry and science, while in contrast, Ish enters a world where industry and science are things of the past. Interestingly, both men have difficulty coming to terms with their new worlds and being the centre of attention. Both men are curiosities to the people they encounter as Ishi is the last of his tribe and Ish is "the last American." It is interesting to note another parallel Stewart draws, both men teach those around them how to make a bow and arrow. Stewart's comparison may be lost on some of his readers but to those in the know it is a clear message that "man" can survive.

Just as this comparison may not be as well know to some, George R. Stewart himself is relatively unknown to most readers. It is his influences influences and accomplishments that are more well known. His 1941 novel, Storm, featuring a Pacific storm called "Maria" as the protagonist, inspired the National Weather Service to use personal names to designate storms. This same book was made into a Disney movie, and became the inspiration for the song, "They Call The Wind Maria" for the sound track of the movie, "Paint Your Wagon."

Though not among the list of top authors in popular culture, Stewart is much respected by his peers. His friend, Wallace Stegner descripes Stewart as a "poet and precisionist." In Donald M. Scott's 1996 biography on he explains how Stewart loved travelling by "foot or road" and how he had "spent a lifetime, wandering and wondering." It is Stewart's "wonder" that created his only science fiction work, Earth Abides. It is through his work that he has been able to accomplish what his protagonist Ish was unable to do, pass on his knowledge to a new generation.

*Interesting tid bit, this is Ursula K. Le Guin's father!

(FYI: the first link doesn't seem to work.)

Great stuff; the material on Ishi is particularly interesting.
The first link is now working. Thanks for the heads up.

I also found the information on Ishi interesting and at times somewhat disturbing. It must have been fascinating for the folks at Berkley to learn about Ishi, his language, and his culture but at the same time it seemed to me that they did not truly respect or honor Ishi as he seemed to be treated more as a museum artifact than a human.

The photo captioned, "Ishi is joined by Saxton Pope and family at a dedication of a monument to Native Americans," is particularly disturbing to me. First of all, I do not believe it was Ishi's idea to pose for this photo so how can they caption it "Ishi is joined," when it is more like "Ishi is posed" (perhaps even forced?). When I look at the look on Ishi's face in this photo it does not look much different than the one when he was first "discovered". And what about the suit he has on? If they truly want to honor Ishi's way of life then why not allow him to more accurately represent that life?
Nice and well researched article. I found it searching for ISHI as I am a traditionalist and believe in the attitude of ISHI as a way of life.
I have read the story of "A man between two worlds" by Dr. Alfred Louis Kroeber twice and have always hated what man has done to the natives of this great land. ISHI and his way of respect for others and his poeple became to us traditional archers a sample of what was teaching us to be better human beings.

I also went to UNB, and came there from finishing school in Nova Scotia. (back in the 70's)
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