Stephen Basdeo is a historian and writer based in Leeds, UK. In this post he examines George R. Stewart’s post-apocalyptic pandemic novel Earth Abides (1949).
By 1949 humanity had experienced two world wars. In the wake of the First World War, historic empires such as the Russian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and Austria-Hungary had fallen by 1919 and after 1945 large parts of Western Europe had been laid waste. The British Empire and the French Empire were tottering. In the place of the old European empires two new superpowers had emerged: the United States and the Soviet Union.
Yet the prospect of a world war was not the only anxiety with which people had to contend. During the first half of the twentieth century humankind had also faced a further menace: a global pandemic in the form of the Spanish Flu which ravaged the world between 1918 and 1920 which, according to some estimates, killed nearly 50,000,000 people. The stable world of the nineteenth century had, it seemed, vanished for good.
It felt as though humanity had entered a new era and, as art and culture never emerge in a vacuum, it should come as no surprise that some fiction writers after the Second World War began to consider anew what might happen should humanity face ever come face to face with an even deadlier pandemic.
George R. Stewart (1895-1980)
One writer who did turn his thoughts to such a topic was George R. Stewart whose novel Earth Abides, published in 1849, grapples with the question of what shape human society would take after a pandemic had wiped the larger part of humanity from the face of the earth. As someone who was born in 1895 and died in 1980, he was a witness to the events described above.
Born in Sewickley, Pennsylvania, to middle-class parents, early in Stewart’s life his family removed to southern California to become citrus ranchers. The social class of these citrus rancher families ranged from the destitute Mexican immigrant to the wealthy landowner.
Given the Stewart family’s background in the professions, it is safe to assume that they were on the wealthier side of this community. Finding the life of a lemon grower not to his liking, Stewart went on to gain his BA from Princeton University before pursuing a Ph.D. at Colombia University. By 1923 Stewart had accepted the position of Professor of English at Berkeley.
Stewart’s scholarly output included writing monographs on niche topics such as the origin of American place names and surnames. He also turned his attention to fiction and wrote several unremarkable works, most of which, although they enjoyed moderate success, have not been reprinted.
However, Stewart made his mark with Earth Abides, which quickly became a landmark work in the history of post-apocalyptic science fiction.
The Pandemic Begins
The novel introduces readers to an anthropologist named Isherwood Williams, who emerges as the hero of the tale—much like Stewart the author, ‘Ish’, as he is known throughout, is an academic who is conducting research for his Ph.D. thesis in an isolated log cabin in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
While walking in the mountains Ish is bitten by a rattlesnake and, although the bite proves to be non-fatal, he does spend a number of days in bed recovering and drifting in and out of consciousness.
When he awakes he comes to the realisation that in the last few weeks he has not even heard a car drive by, which strikes him as strange. Once he is fully recovered, he decides to drive down to the convenience store halfway down the mountain to obtain supplies.
As Ish finds the convenience store abandoned, he decides to venture into the nearest town. It is then that the realisation dawns on him: something has happened, although he does not know what—most of the buildings are deserted and there are bodies lying in the street. He finds out the news from a newspaper dated two weeks previously:
The United States from coast to coast was overwhelmed by the attack of some new and unknown disease of unparalleled rapidity of spread and fatality … No one was sure in what part of the world it had originated; aided by airplane travel, it had sprung up almost simultaneously in every centre of civilization, outrunning all attempts at quarantine.
The idea that travel helps to spread disease is a trope that stretches back to Ancient Greek writers. Thucydides, when he was writing about the so called Athenian Plague, for example, stated that
It first began … in the parts of Ethiopia above Egypt, and thence descended into Egypt and Libya and into most of the King’s country. Suddenly falling upon Athens, it first attacked the population in Piraeus … and afterwards appeared in the upper city, when the deaths became much more frequent.
The medieval chronicler Henry Knighton likewise remarked that the Black Death initially appeared in England in the port towns of Southampton and Bristol, after which it spread through the whole island. Just as in the two major pandemic novels before Stewart—Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826) and Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague (1912)—the globalisation of trade, commerce, and travel has aided the spread of disease.
But if civilisation and globalisation had enabled the spread of disease and brought mankind to its knees, the central question for Ish throughout the whole novel was anxiety about the kind of society that would emerge in place of the old. As Ish asks himself:
‘What was going to happen to all that man had built up over the centuries and now had left behind him?’
Ish: The Modern Robinson Crusoe
Initially Ish feels like ‘Robinson Crusoe’ wandering on a deserted island and the famous title character of Daniel Defoe’s novel—a novel that Fiona J. Stafford argues marked the birth of the secular ‘last man’ myth—is invoked at several points near the beginning of the story.
Yet Earth Abides is not actually a ‘last man’ novel like Mary Shelley’s eponymous tale for there are quite a few survivors. Having spent a few years travelling around the deserted United States in a rickety truck, Ish finds another survivor—a women named Em—and the pair of them agree to settle down together in Ish’s childhood home San Lupo Drive. They have children. Eventually other people join their community and they have children as well.
The Growth of the Tribe
Ish, because he was an academic, feels that his duty is to somehow carry the torch of modern civilization and pass it to the new generation. This is one of the reasons why, over the years to come, he often visits the local university library on his own—he has a compulsion to carry on learning.
This is why, because of his brains, he is looked to as the community’s natural leader. As for the others in the community, they are drawn from the working classes, the men being either tradesmen and so are useful to the community in some way.
Of course, the concept of social class in the post-pandemic world is meaningless. When this classless community comes together early on, it marks the beginning of a truly new world.
A Simpler Way of Life
This is given symbolic credence when the community agree to abandon the ‘old’ calendar and begin a new one. Although the community’s adoption of a new calendar seems like a trivial act, it is a revolutionary one for calendars dictate
How people experience time and how they organise their life. In the most general sense, they have to do with how humans orient themselves in both the natural, physical, and metaphysical world … The calendar after all is an artefact that has synthesised scientific knowledge, religious belief and political will for millennia in almost all cultures and civilizations around the world.
Thus the calendar the community chooses begins with Year Zero. The community will look forwards, not backwards. Gradually members of the community discard the old western ‘civilised’ ways. For example, one member of the community named Ezra decides to take three wives to himself. Ezra is happy with this state of affairs and so are his wives and although Ish and Em are monogamous, they do not object to Ezra’s set up. As Ish remarks to himself: ‘plurality of wives had been an accepted part of great civilisations in the past and might well be again in the future’.
Another aspect of the community’s gradual discarding of the old ways comes when they adopt the name of ‘The Tribe’ for themselves. Initially it was a joke, but the community’s adoption of the term signifies that they have ceased to think of themselves as a ‘nation’ or even as Americans—for neither of those things exist anymore and they are, socially and indeed politically, a less sophisticated unit of people than exist in a state or nation.
This lack of sophistication is readily apparent when the reader realises that, as the years progress, they have only vague rules instead of laws. When an outsider named Charlie appears in their camp and threatens to molest one of the original survivors—a young woman named Evie (who has severe learning difficulties)—and when Charlie jokes about knowingly infecting her with a sexually transmitted disease, then the tribe’s justice is severe and swift: Charlie is hanged. There is no trial with an independent judge overseeing matters, as would happen in a modern nation state. Instead Charlie’s fate is decided by the adult members of the tribe.
The idea of justice, therefore, has truly regressed to the state that it was before sophisticated systems of government and law had developed.
Tribal Mysticism and Superstition
This simple tribe, it transpires, has very little need of organised religion. Although in the early years Ish holds some basic church services—which involves little more than reading a few passages from a Bible and a prayer book on a Sunday—the Christian religion is soon abandoned.
But when the some of the tribe’s post-pandemic babies grow into young adults, certain superstitions arise with regard to certain tools that the ‘Elders’ use. This is particularly the case with Ish’s hammer which the younger tribe members only ever see at grand events—at the end of every year, for example, Ish uses the hammer to chisel another year marker on the stone calendar.
The superstition grows to such a degree that soon the children dare not touch the hammer, thinking that it is imbued with some mystical power that can be wielded only by the ‘Elder’ Ish. The hammer has become what is called a ‘fetish’—prior to the evolution of the word’s use in a sexual context (most definitely a product of the late twentieth century), ‘fetish’ referred to an object that was venerated by primitive tribes who invested it with magical powers.
Although the tribe is not religious in a conventional sense, then, the enlightenment values of rationalism and reason are dying with Ish—the ‘last of the Americans’.
As the years progress the physical signs of civilisation begin to crumble. Cars grow rusty and useless; dams break and rivers resume their natural courses; trees, and other forms of wild vegetation, invade and despoil the American suburbs’ well-kept lawns; and animals adapt to a world without a significant human population and indeed become more numerous than humans.
Over the years the tribe’s life ceases to be governed by the hours of a clock and the working day is dictated by when the sun rises and sets. After twenty years when the plumbing breaks down due to rusty underground pipes, the tribe quickly build and begin using outside toilets.
Most of the tribe, especially the younger ones, adapt to this new way of life, as they do when they learn to shoot animals with bows and arrows after stocks of bullets dwindle or the ammunition in them loses its potency.
The Fall of the Old Civilization and the Birth of the New
Amidst this decline of civilisation is Ish, the intellectual, who burdens himself with planning for the future and the fact that other members of the tribe are happy to just live simple lives, scavenging what they need, growing where they must, hunting what they can, and building what they require, is a source of frustration.
Unsurprisingly for the reader but to Ish’s great annoyance, the children are uninterested in learning mathematics and geography, while few of them have any great need or desire to become fully literate—even Ish’s own daughter, despite his best efforts, has poor writing skills. Reflecting their increasingly simplistic ways, younger members of the tribe are incapable of producing art; instead the only cultural output that the children create are simplistic wood carvings.
Typhoid fever strikes the tribe and upon the death of Ish’s favourite child Joey—who out of all the children was intelligent and might have carried the torch of learning to the new generation—Ish decides to stop fighting the inevitable and he ceases trying to ensure that the old civilisation will be rebuilt. His first symbolic act is to suspend all school teaching. The pandemic ceases to be, in Ish’s mind, a
‘disruption’ to the progress of civilization but the chance to completely start anew: ‘The Tribe was not going to restore civilization. It did not want civilization.’
He is of course the last character to grasp this, the other ‘elders’ had unwittingly known this all along in their own simple way. The tribe will hunt. They will farm. And the group will probably develop several more superstitions. It will then develop as it should and no amount of ‘pre-direction’ from Ish was of any use. In some ways, Ish is mentally liberated of his anxieties when he realises this.
Stewart’s story of course bears many similarities to Jack London’s pandemic novel Scarlet Plague. Both of the heroes in it are academics—people who can, presumably, be trusted to relight the torch of civilisation after society’s collapse and both ‘Grandseer’ in London’s novel and Ish in Earth Abides fail to do this.
In both novels, the collapse of civilisation leads to the emergence of simpler societies. Yet both stories give radically different outcomes of the breakdown of civilisation. London’s vision of the future is pessimistic: Grandseer’s boys are violent and stupid, and they have very little respect for old Grandseer. They represent London’s own pro-eugenicist fears of the degradation of the human race.
In contrast, Stewart’s depiction of a future, less sophisticated society is optimistic. Although Ish’s tribe do adopt simpler ways of life, its members are not violent savages and Ish is highly respected among all of its members.
The final break with civilization comes over forty years after the pandemic when Ish, now an old man in every sense a sage, is living with the tribe (who have joined with another tribe) and they abruptly have to move from San Lupo Drive when the winds spread a forest fire towards their community which eventually destroys it.
They take shelter in the mountains but the exertion has been too much for Ish—he is dying and does so in a matter of hours. Nothing of the old world will survive the fire and its after effects. The new society, indeed the earth itself, will go on without him.
 ‘Influenza’ [online], Centres for Disease Control, 20 March 2019, accessed 7 July 2021. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/flu
 Laura Gray Turner, ‘Citrus Culture: The Mentality of the Orange Rancher in Progressive Era North Orange County’, Unpublished MA dissertation, California State University, Fullerton. 1995, p. 3.
 George R. Stewart, Earth Abides (London: Gollanz, 1999), p. 13.
 Thucydides [online], ‘Plague at Athens: 2.47-54’, The Latin Library, accessed 7 July 2021. Available at: http://www.thelatinlibrary.com/.
 Elizabeth Kimball Kendall, Trans. Source Book of English History (New York: MacMillan, 1900), p. 102.
 Stewart, Earth Abides, p. 23.
 Fiona J. Stafford, The Last of the Race: The Growth of a Myth from Milton to Darwin (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994), p. 56.
 Stewart, Earth Abides, p. 35.
 Stewart, Earth Abides, p. 99.
 Sanja Perovic, The Calendar in Revolutionary France: Perceptions of Time in Literature, Culture, Politics (Cambridge University Press, 2012), p. 23.
 Stewart, Earth Abides, p. 122.
 ‘Tribe’ [online], Oxford English Dictionary, accessed 11 July 2021, available at: http://www.oxforddictionaries.org.
 William Pietz, ‘The Problem of the Fetish: I’, RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, 9: 9 (1985): 5–17.
 Stewart, Earth Abides, p. 268.
Categories: 20th Century, Earth Abides, Essay, George R Stewart, History, Literary criticism, Pandemic, Plague, Science Fiction, Stephen Basdeo