Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Five Years of Forgotten Books: Day 16: MIlton Burton

Milton T. Burton was born and raised in East Texas. He has been variously a cattleman, college history teacher, and an aide to the Dean of the Texas House of Representatives. His third crime novel, "Nights of The Red Moon," is due for release from St. Martin's in December. (Milton Burton is now deceased)

Earth Abides

by George R. Stewart
This magnificent and compelling book is a post-apocalyptic novel that burst on the American scene to critical acclaim in 1949. No doubt inspired by concerns over the advent of the atomic bomb and the coming nuclear energy, it is the story of a small group of survivors trying to maintain civilization in the wake of a pandemic that has killed off the vast majority of mankind. Its author, George R . Stewart, was a longtime English professor at Berkley with a scholar's interest in the etymology of place names. Among other books on the subject, his 1970 A Concise Dictionary of American Place-Names is considered the standard work in the field. 
Earth Abides follows the story of Isherwood "Ish" Williams, Emma, the woman he takes as his wife after the plague has passed, and a small group of survivors who gather around them as a community. With the best of intentions, Ish, a scientist and intellectual, tries to educate the subsequent generation in order to revive and perpetuate civilization. Without giving away too much of the plot, I will only say that he meets with less than success. 
This wonderful but sad work, now largely forgotten, was something of a cause celebre in its time and garnered much critical praise. James Sallis, writing in the Boston Globe, said:
This is a book, mind you, that I'd place not only among the greatest science fiction but among our very best novels. Each time I read it, I'm profoundly affected, affected in a way only the greatest art — Ulysses, Matisse or Beethoven symphonies, say — affects me. Epic in sweep, centering on the person of Isherwood Williams, Earth Abides proves a kind of antihistory, relating the story of humankind backwards, from ever-more-abstract civilization to stone-age primitivism. Everything passes — everything. Writers' reputations. The ripe experience of a book in which we find ourselves immersed. Star systems, worlds, states, individual lives. Humankind. Few of us get to read our own eulogies, but here is mankind's. Making Earth Abides a novel for which words like elegiac and transcendent come easily to mind, a novel bearing, in critic Adam-Troy Castro's words, "a great dark beauty."
One of the most interesting and insightful moments comes when, after many years of marriage, Ish realizes that Emma is part black. With the vast bulk of the human race gone, race had ceased to matter even to the point that it was not noticed.
Also interesting is that Stephen King cited this work as the inspiration for his epic novel, The Stand. Indeed, the mood is almost the same in both books.
At the end of Earth Abides, Ish, now ancient and a figure of legend---"The Last American" the young men call him---dies. But the earth abides and the human race goes on. Esh's last thought is the hope that the world young people build is better than the one destroyed by the pandemic.
Get it and read it. You will not be disappointed.

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