Names by themselves have never seemed particularly important to me, which is why I’m all the more struck by how much I enjoyed George Stewart’s 1945 Names on the Land, reissued in 2008 by New York Review Books. Stewart traces the process of place-naming in the U.S. from pre-Columbian Native Americans to the then-present of WWII-era America (and later updated the book in 1958 and 1967.) Stewart wasn’t exclusively a historian—his books also included works on environmentalism and novels in genres including science fiction—and his scholarship may very well have been superseded since. Just in telling my father about passages dealing with the area where he grew up, New York’s Adirondack Mountains, he differed with several of Stewart’s points (is Bloody Pond, near Lake George, named for being the resting place of fallen French soldiers, or of the colonists they massacred?)
The book’s strength is its wealth of stories explaining place-names, not necessarily true ones as Stewart acknowledges, but attached to those places nonetheless. The stories begin with the spiritual pretensions of Spanish conquistadors, go on to the classical pretensions of Founding Fathers, and end with the low-down maneuvering of American politicos. Stewart is very good on both the sensory pleasures of names—he writes that Mississippi “is a serpentine and uncouth hiss, like brown water eating at a levee bank” and their underlying functions, proposing that place-names, especially American ones, tend to originate for essentially pragmatic reasons and only later become poetic. Stewart himself has been credited with inspiring the tradition of assigning storms people’s names. He also celebrates the democratic and diverse nature of place-naming in the U.S., and of the country itself, with a sincerity obviously stemming from his historical moment, and hard not to envy in today’s divided America.