In 1948, the year that Norman Mailer published The Naked and the Dead and Dawn Powell released The Locusts Have No King, an English professor at the University of California named George Rippey Stewart published a novel called Fire. The story of an imaginary blaze’s path of destruction through Northern California and the men who coordinate an attack to put it out, it closely reworked a book he had written seven years earlier, Storm. It’s not much of a fire–“any old-timer could recall a score of greater ones, and would only expect that the years to come would bring many more”–yet the charred trees, imagined as victims of a plague that spared adults and killed all the children, will have consequences for the land that “could be reckoned ahead in centuries.”
Fire was a bestseller and a Book-of-the-Month Club selection. Its popularity is easy to understand–in many ways it’s a potboiler, fast and dirty, with staccato dialogue and plenty of sweat and grime. Yet it contains passages of strange poetry, like this:
Humbug Point saw the blow-up, and Lovers Leap. Horse Mountain reported, and signed off, quoting Joel 2:30–“and in the earth, blood, and fire, and pillars of smoke.” Far to the north, Sheer Rock saw it suddenly above the high shoulder of Howell Mountain. Hamlin Point saw it build up above the round top of Cerro Gordo, like the towering smoke of a new-born volcano.
Within a few short paragraphs, the Book of Joel is a distant memory: “‘Good God!’ he was thinking, ‘that whole Ponderosa country is a tinder-box today. We’ve got to hit that fire with everything we can throw at it–and quick!'”
Stewart’s lyricism is fashioned from two materials: Old Testament fire and brimstone–a pervasive climate of environmental tempests and spiritual tests–and the incantations of names. The latter found their fullest expression in his most famous work, Names on the Land. Released three years before Fire, the book is a history of American place-names that retraces the paths of conquistadors, pilgrims, frontiersmen and merchants across the Lower 48. (A reissue added chapters on Alaska and Hawaii.) A ramble through the book’s index reveals the land’s rhythms and curiosities: Puget Sound, Pulaski, Pumly Tar, Punxsutawney, Purgatoire, Putah Creek, Putin, Puu. Toby’s Creek, Todd’s Corner, Togo, Tokio, Tokio River, Toledo, Tolo, Tolono, Tolstoi, Tomato Creek, Tomball, Tombstone. Bird-in-Hand, Deal, Fertility, Intercourse. Stewart was a poet, but he was a tough guy, too, like Mailer. Unlike Mailer, though, who fueled his machismo with flights of scotch, Stewart was a rugged survivalist, a social conservative who measured testosterone in miles hiked.
The author of twenty-eight books of history and fiction, Stewart has largely been forgotten. Unlike literary novelists, who self-consciously transcend the conventions of genre and reach a national or international audience, Stewart was a distinctly regional writer, specializing in the West generally and California specifically. But region was his strength, not his burden, and it’s the foundation of the genre he popularized: the environmental thriller, a carefully researched destruction story full of local color and organized around plagues, hurricanes, fires or subzero temperatures. Stewart is best known for four books in this vein: Fire, Storm, Ordeal by Hunger (1936), a history of the Donner Party, and the fantasy classic Earth Abides (1949), the first American postapocalyptic thriller. Man versus nature, and the ability of humans to cope under environmental stress, are Stewart’s two obsessions and the genre’s enduring conventions. (It doesn’t spoil the books to know that in this epic battle, man has a tendency to come out the loser.) The engineering of civilization–the maintenance of roadways, the running of telephone lines, the preservation of written knowledge–is of secondary interest to Stewart. He is at once a chronicler of the achievements and architectures of modern civilization and an ecological fatalist. The glories of men come and go, but the mountains last forever.