I just had the oddest experience.
A few days ago I re-read George R. Stewart’s U.S. 40 (1953), a great American book you may never have heard of. The meat of it is a collection of 92 short essays, each keyed to a photograph Stewart had taken during cross-country trips on old U.S. highway 40 in 1949 and 1950.
I picked up a copy for one dollar at a sale in the Providence Atheneum on April 30, 1988. I’d walked across College St. from the Classics Department at Brown University where I was just finishing my first year of graduate school.
Stewart was an English professor at U.C. Berkeley and is probably best known for his post-holocaust novel Earth Abides (1949) and perhaps for his landmark study of American toponomy, Names on the Land (1945). Sixteen years ago I wrote about him here. There’s a book about him here. I love his mid-20th-century American voice, and his general competence in understanding what he saw as he crossed the continent.
In 1988 I was well into a period of my life in which I crossed the country regularly by car, and although I was never as competent as Stewart, and had never heard of him, I immediately recognized him as a kindred spirit on that late-April day in 1988. I had already learned that hours of driving could be made interesting by a knowledge of geology and cloud formations, but Stewart taught me that nothing is beneath notice and thoughtful consideration.
Some years later I held a position as graduate assistant at a research center in Washington, D.C. I had just been notified that I was to become a fellow of the American Academy in Rome, and so I used part of my time in Washington in systematic exploration of an American city I didn’t know. The idea was to train myself for Rome, which I knew would be radically unfamiliar. The most important part of this training was learning the topography of the city and its monuments.
One of the tools I used was James M. Goode’s indispensable book, The Outdoor Sculpture of Washington, D.C. (1974). It is the best book of its kind, and in its way the essays about the various sculptures he discussed are reminiscent of Stewart’s work. Like Stewart, Goode was an academic (a History professor at George Mason University), so some similarity might be expected on those grounds. If you follow Syngrammata you will find Goode cited and sometimes quoted (always in his 2008 update, now titled Outdoor Sculpture of Washington, D.C.) when I have talked about sculpture in the District of Columbia.
Fast forward, and newly-married, I was spending part of the summer in San Diego, at my mom’s house, in 2000. By then the interwebs were a thing, and I discovered online and for sale U.S. 40 Today. Thirty Years of Landscape Change in America, by Thomas R. and Geraldine R. Vale (1983). The Vales saw that the value in Stewart’s photo-essay format went far beyond the purely literary or geographical and they made it a project to retrace his route across U.S. 40 in 1980, thirty years after Stewart’s crossings. To the extent possible, they carefully rediscovered, lined up, and re-photographed Stewart’s views, and they sought in their own essays to match Stewart’s learning and power of observation and echo his interests. There is something elegiac in the book, too, because Stewart had died in 1980.
In running through Stewart’s book I was reminded that there was a 1916 book by Robert Bruce, The National Road. It is not clear to me that the Vales had seen the book, though Stewart said that some of his photos were taken at the same sites as some of Bruce’s. This adds a layer to the story, and I finally found a copy online a couple of days ago and it’s en route to me as I write.
But I digress. I never re-read Stewart’s book without immediately re-reading the Vales’. Yet I had never looked inside of the back cover of my used copy until today. A bookplate there revealed that it had belonged to the library of—and been sold through the auspices of an architectural book firm belonging to—our old friend Goode (figure 1).
Of course Goode’s essays reminded me of Stewart! One would not possess the Vales’ book unless one had come to it via a thorough appreciation of Stewart’s.