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A “Killer-Type Virus” Ends the World!

June 11, 2020
by Pat Joseph
Image source: Marcus Manschen

Revisiting “Earth Abides,” the novel that inspired Stephen King and Jimi Hendrix

LATELY, I’VE BEEN COLLECTING NEWS of wildlife appearing in deserted towns and cities around the world: Wild goats roaming shuttered Welsh villages, jackals skulking in the streets of Tel Aviv, Indian bison ambling along vacant highways in New Delhi, coyotes howling in North Beach. As we shelter in place, the animals are rushing into the void. And not just the charismatic megafauna, either. Witness the legions of dumpster-deprived rats battling nightly on Bourbon Street. 

None of this would have surprised George Rippey Stewart, Berkeley professor and author of the 1949 novel Earth Abides, about a viral pandemic that wipes out most of humanity. In Stewart’s novel, animals emerge from the woods and the woodwork as if man had never existed. Likewise, wild plants overrun the cultivars and ornamentals, the wisteria bow to the weeds. At the funeral of Homo sapiens, Stewart writes archly, the three species of human lice will be the only “wholly sincere mourners.”

In February, before the coronavirus was declared a pandemic, I dug out my copy of Earth Abides and put it on the nightstand. Inspired by events, I was already re-reading Albert Camus’s 1947 epidemic novel, The Plague (La Peste), ostensibly about a plague-stricken town under quarantine in French Algeria, but really an allegory of the struggle against Fascism. 

“There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise,” Camus wrote. The Gitanes-smoking existentialist is speaking truth from the grave. When COVID-19 arrived on our shores, there were not even enough masks and gowns for doctors and nurses to protect themselves from infected patients, let alone ventilators to keep critically ill patients breathing. Our president, meanwhile, cast blame and aspersions while dodging responsibility and issuing dangerous medical advice from the White House lectern. Once again, we had been caught off guard. 

After finishing The Plague, I opened Earth Abides and read the opening lines: 

… and the government of the United States of America is herewith suspended, except in the District of Columbia, as of the emergency. Federal officers, including those of the Armed Forces, will put themselves under the orders of the governors of the various states or of any other functioning local authority. By order of the Acting President. God save the people of the United States …

The story is largely set in Berkeley, where George Stewart (1895–1980) earned his master’s degree and taught English for nearly four decades. The protagonist of his novel is a Berkeley graduate student in geography named Isherwood Williams.

Call him Ish.

As the story opens, Ish is conducting field research in the Sierra Nevada. Scampering down some rocks one day, he is struck by a rattler. Snake-bit and woozy, he stumbles to his cabin and passes out. After a feverish convalescence, he returns to civilization, only to find that civilization is gone. A single-page edition of the San Francisco Chronicle outlines the tragedy: “The United States from coast to coast was overwhelmed by the attack. … 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 center of civilization, outrunning all attempts at quarantine.”

Pat Joseph revisited George Stewart’s Earth Abides and Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague in the time of COVID-19. // Photo by Marcus Hanschen

Like the Bible’s Job, Ish alone is left to tell the tale. Or nearly so; other survivors will eventually join him to form a close-knit tribe in the Berkeley Hills and commence to repopulate the Earth, the subject of the second half of the novel.

Constitutionally, Ish is a loner, and thus a natural Last Man. He esteems man’s works (bridges, in particular, thrill him as testaments to “the power and the glory that had been civilization”), but sheds no tears for humanity, nor even for his dead parents. And after a fleeting bout of despair, he takes heart in his new role as observer. “Even though the curtain had been rung down on man, here was the opening of the greatest of all dramas for such a student as he. …What would happen to the world and its creatures without man? That he was left to see!”

This is a very Biblical book. No self-respecting English major could miss the obvious symbolism of the serpent in the wilderness. (Other equally obvious interpretations prove wrong, however. The name Ish does not derive from Ishmael of the Old Testament, nor from the narrator of Moby Dick, nor even, as others have speculated, from Ishi, the Yahi man who walked out of the California wilderness in 1911, last of his tribe. According to Stewart’s oral history at the Bancroft Library, Ish is Hebrew for “man.”) If the book is a retelling of Genesis, however, it runs in reverse. 

In the beginning, Ish is like Noah after the flood, fated to rebuild civilization from the surviving remnants. He takes pains, for example, to seal the University Library against the elements and make it a sacrosanct repository of “all the knowledge.” Slowly, he becomes a kind of Adam, resigned to watch the world grow wild and his offspring revert to illiteracy and primitivism. “From the cave we came, and to the cave we return.” 

George R. Stewart is now largely forgotten, but he was a bestseller in his day. Two of his novels were turned into Disney films. And though shunned by the Academy, he enjoyed literary admirers of the first order, including Carl Sandburg, Larry McMurtry, and Wallace Stegner. The latter wrote that his books “teach us who we are, and how we got to be who we are.” Like Ish, Stewart observed the world from an analytical remove. As Stegner remarked: 

George Stewart was about as far as he could get from the rebellious and dissatisfied stance that in the twentieth century we have come to associate with writers. Changes in society did not fill him with despair or indignation—he expected them, his view of history incorporated them. … He took the long view, with a vengeance. …  

As eclectic as he was prolific, Stewart produced an idiosyncratic body of work. His books—more than 30 in all, including seven novels—ranged in subject from California history (Ordeal by Hunger, his first bestseller, told the story of the Donner Party) to roads (he wrote a sort of interpretative guide to U.S. 40) and place-names; Stewart considered his 1945 study of American toponymy, Names on the Land, to be his finest work. 

None of his books has been as enduring or exerted as much influence across the years, however, as Earth Abides. Translated into more than 20 languages, it has never gone out of print. The novel reportedly inspired Jimi Hendrix to write “Third Stone from the Sun,” and Stephen King to pen his end-times epic, The Stand. As King tells it, he was stalled out on a planned novel about Patty Hearst and the SLA when he recalled Stewart’s “fine book.” Inspired though he was, the King of Horror found the second half of Earth Abides insipid—“too much ecology, not enough story.” His own recipe spiced things up considerably. In The Stand, the survivors are loosely modeled on the SLA. The virus is no naturally occurring pathogen, but an escapee from a bioweapons lab. King’s plot builds to a battle royal between good and evil.

Stewart painted with a finer brush and a palette less black and white than gray. Ecology was indeed important to him, and he produced a series of novels in which nature itself is the chief protagonist. These include Fire, about a California wildfire, and Storm, about a blizzard in the Sierra called Maria. (We have Stewart to thank for the modern practice of naming hurricanes.) Even the Donner Party book takes a kind of ecological approach to its subject, beginning as it does with a view of the American West from low-Earth orbit, decades before the first astronauts went to space. 

In keeping with Fire and Storm, Earth Abides might have been called Virus, but Stewart found a better title in Ecclesiastes: “Men go and come, but earth abides.” He took the epigraph for Book 1 of his novel from a less inspired source: the December 22, 1947, edition of Chemical & Engineering News: 

If a killing type of virus strain should suddenly arise by mutation … it could, because of the rapid transportation in which we indulge nowadays, be carried to the far corners of the earth and cause the death of millions of people.

The person quoted is Wendell Stanley, the Nobel Prize winner who founded UC Berkeley’s Virus Lab. 

SARS-CoV-2, the pathogen that causes COVID-19, is a virus of the “killing type.” As these words go to press, there are more than 4.7 million confirmed cases around the globe and more than 300,000 dead. Sadly, we will see worse, as did Stewart in his lifetime. Far worse, in fact. In 1918, while a uniformed soldier in the Ambulance Corps, he contracted the Spanish flu, which killed an estimated 50 to 100 million people worldwide. In the United States, the average lifespan was shortened by 12 years. Young Stewart survived but suffered dearly, ultimately losing a lung to the disease. 

The wars killed even more. Given that he was writing in the wake of the firebombings of Tokyo and Dresden and the obliteration of Hiroshima, it may seem surprising that Stewart focused on disease, not nuclear Armageddon for his vision of the end. It was intentional. “Mankind had been trembling about destruction through war, and had been having bad dreams of cities blown to pieces,” Stewart writes early in Earth Abides. And later: “What you were preparing against—that never happened! All the best-laid plans could not prevent the disaster against which no plans had been laid.” 

There is more to the story Ish tells than just the resurgence of nature. There is also the slow devolution of human infrastructure as his beloved bridges rust, water mains burst, and reservoirs run dry. Cars become useless not for lack of gas so much as lack of tire pressure and roadways made impassable by fallen trees. Toilet paper barely gets a mention in Earth Abides, but the lack of running water signals an unwelcome return to the outdoor privy. And while food is plentiful, refrigeration and ice are things of the past. The electricity blinks out slowly. Time is marked by the sun, the record of years chiseled into stone. 

While most of the damage is slow (what Ish calls “the fire of rust” and “the fire of decay”), some is sudden and catastrophic, caused by earthquakes and periodic wildfires (“the fire of the flames”) that ravage the landscape unchecked, choking the air with acrid smoke. This will be familiar to contemporary Californians, as it was to Stewart. In 1923, the year he started teaching at Cal, a fire swept out of Wildcat Canyon and burned down nearly all of North Berkeley. Campus was spared when the winds changed, but in Earth Abides, fire rages across the University grounds as well. 

Ish looked around, and saw by the gutted ruins of a great building that they had camped on what had long ago been the campus of the University. Though he was still tired, he stood up curiously, and made out the shape of the Library a hundred yards or so distant. The trees around it had burned, but the building itself was still intact. Nearly all of its volumes, the whole record of mankind, would probably be still available. Available for whom? 

All of these ingredients—the resurgent wilderness, the crumbling of man’s handiwork, the rampant fires, even the Berkeley setting—are also features of a much earlier post-apocalyptic novel called The Scarlet Plague, by Jack London, Cal’s most famous dropout. In London’s short novel, first serialized in 1912, a pandemic in the year 2013 decimates the world population, which the author, remarkably, pegged at a nearly accurate 8 billion. London’s protagonist and narrator, James Howard Smith, is a former Berkeley English professor, who mourns the end of the University as much as he does the end of civilization. 

Everything had stopped. It was like the end of the world to me—my world. … For a century and a half had this university, like a splendid machine, been running steadily on. And now, in an instant, it had stopped. It was like seeing the sacred flame die down on some thrice-sacred altar. I was shocked, unutterably shocked. 

The novel opens 60 years after the pandemic, when Smith is an old man dressed in skins and known to his feral grandchildren as Granser. “Lord! Lord!—think of it! Sixty years ago and I am the only person alive today that lived in those times.” Like Ish in Earth Abides, he struggles in vain to educate his benighted descendants in the ways of the “time before.”

Stewart told his biographer Donald Scott that while he had read a considerable amount of London in his youth, The Scarlet Plague did not have any conscious influence on him. It’s hard to believe, considering the parallels. But even if it did, London himself had borrowed heavily from Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death (1842), and Poe, in turn, had been inspired by Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826). As Ecclesiastes said, “Nothing is new under the Sun.” In fact, the chain of begetting goes back to the Bible and beyond, for apocalyptic writing is as old as writing itself. The Epic of Gilgamesh—the earliest literature known to man—contains an account of the Great Flood that is so close to the Genesis version that the latter smacks of plagiarism. If hope springs eternal in the human breast, so too, it seems, do premonitions of doom. 

All of which raises the question: Why? Why are we drawn to apocalyptic literature in the first place? Is it a cautionary story that we seek or just a good scare? 

Katherine Snyder is a Berkeley professor of English who has taught survey courses in apocalyptic literature in the past and is planning another in 2020, when, as she puts it, “the world of pandemic is too much with us.” Her course will pull from classics of the genre, starting with Boccaccio’s The Decameron (about the Black Death in Florence) and DeFoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (about the Great Plague of London), before moving on to more contemporary works such as Tony Kushner’s Angels in America (about HIV/AIDS) and Station Eleven, the 2014 novel by Emily St. John Mandel (about a fictional virus called Georgia Flu).

“But in the end, it is not the novelist’s job to strictly heed the plausible. With the suspension of disbelief on the reader’s part comes the freedom, on the author’s, to think the unthinkable.” // Photo by Marcus Hanschen

Vicarious thrill is certainly a part of the apocalypse narrative’s appeal, Snyder says. She adds that the thrill has at least two components. “One is the feeling of terror or horror: that ‘Oh my god, that could happen to our world, that could happen to me’ feeling. And this is part of the ‘cautionary tale’ function—we have to act before it’s too late, at least if the looming danger is something we can act upon, like climate change. But the other component is, paradoxically, reassurance: ‘Well, that hasn’t happened here, to our world or to me,’ or even ‘that couldn’t happen here, what a relief.’ I think readers often ricochet back and forth between these antithetical responses.” 

In truth, the scenario described in Earth Abides and The Scarlet Plague, in which something like 95 percent of humanity perishes, probably couldn’t happen. A pathogen that killed so quickly would tend to burn itself out before it could infect such a broad swath of humanity. Even the 1918 flu had “only” a 2.5 percent mortality rate. The Black Death of the Middle Ages—the deadliest pandemic in human history—wiped out a third of humanity, but the die-off occurred across a decade, not weeks, as in Earth Abides. While it’s true that high-speed global travel hastens the spread of disease, the speed of information and the efficacy of modern medicines including vaccines and antibiotics should, in theory, forestall the very worst. 

But in the end, it is not the novelist’s job to strictly heed the plausible. With the suspension of disbelief on the reader’s part comes the freedom, on the author’s, to think the unthinkable. The exercise is not pointless. Apocalypse comes from the Greek, apokalypsis: to reveal. The spinner of apocalypse tales is like the hacker paid to expose flaws in a system, and hopefully, suggest fixes to the code. This is another attraction of pandemic narratives, says Snyder: “the fascination of seeing how writers imagine the rebuilding of society. In what ways does it merely recapitulate the woes and joys of our present world, and to what extent does it reinvent human families and governments, for better and/or for worse?” 

Here, readers of Earth Abides and The Scarlet Plague may be disappointed, as rebuilding is not in the cards in either. Both Ish and Granser struggle to preserve the light of civilization but their efforts are in vain. The main symbol in Earth Abides—an object of totemic power for the tribe—is Ish’s hammer, which he keeps with him at all times. Tellingly, it’s a miner’s hammer not a carpenter’s—better for demolition than building. “Let there be no light,” Ish says ruefully as the electricity goes out for the last time. “And there was no light.” 

Finally, as he lies dying, Ish muses at the sight of his descendants squatting around him with their bows and arrows: 

They were very young in age, at least by comparison with him, and in the cycle of mankind they were many thousands of years younger than he. He was the last of the old; they were the first of the new. But whether the new would follow the course which the old had followed, that he did not know, and now at last he was almost certain that he did not even desire that the cycle should be repeated. He suddenly thought of all that had gone to build civilization—of slavery and conquest and war and oppression. 

And here is Granser’s lament at the end of London’s tale: 

The gunpowder will come. Nothing can stop it—the same old story over and over. Man will increase, and men will fight. The gunpowder will enable men to kill millions of men, and in this way only, by fire and blood, will a new civilization, in some remote day, be evolved. And of what profit will it be? Just as the old civilization passed, so will the new. It may take fifty thousand years to build, but it will pass. All things pass. Only remain cosmic force and matter, ever in flux, ever acting and reacting and realizing the eternal types—the priest, the soldier, and the king. 

Humans come and humans go, in other words. Earth abides. The long view, with a vengeance.  

Pat Joseph is editor in chief of California.

From the Summer 2020 issue of California.

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