Saturday, November 29, 2008

My Favorite Work of American History

I’m a professional historian. I am not really supposed to have a favorite book. I read American history for quantity , not quality. My favorite book is the one I have just finished reading, another notch in my belt, and I move on. Love and leave ‘em, I always say. Favorite books are like best friends, something suited to one’s intellectual adolescence, not to one’s historiographic maturity, where you have a group of books you value more than others, but singling one out seems a bit, what to say, overwrought and precious. Besides, when you’re a professional historian, the better the book, the more “important” it is, the more likely you are to want to take notes, evaluate it in terms of other books in the field, to study it, to admire it, rather than really like it. And important books are generally read only once, and thereafter only occasionally consulted, while it gathers dust on your book shelf.

The most important quality of a favorite book is that it is read often, repeatedly. It is a book that you want to read, not merely a book you have to read. At the same time, a favorite book has to have some depth. I have found myself, in a year of sorrows, repeatedly reading the Bertie and Jeeves stories of P.G. Wodehouse this past year; very funny but quite insubstantial. Not enough there for a “favorite book.”
But despite all these structures, I think I do have a favorite book in American history, and I was reminded of it this past week, reading a wonderful review of a reissue of it by Christine Smallwood in the Nation (have you noticed that the book review section in the Nation is getting better and better?) And the book is Names in the Land, by George R. Stewart, originally published in 1945, a history of geographic naming practices from first European contact to the middle of the 20th century. I have read it, I suppose, four or five times, and have heavily thumbed a companion volume of sorts, American Place Names, a sparkling short encyclopedia of 11,000 place names published in 1970. George R. Stewart was not a historian, but a professor of English at Berkeley, a fairly well-known novelist in his time (“Storm” and “Fire,” gripping reads both, are probably the best known, accounts of men and women in extreme circumstances), along with some first class historical narratives on westward expansion, of which the best known is his 1936 Ordeal by Hunger, a still unmatched account of the travails of the Donner Party. And Names on the Land, while it certainly is non-fiction, is probably best taxonomized as historical geography than history proper.
So why do I like Names on the Land so much? I can’t think of any other work that quite captures the teeming heterogeneity of American history, the slice after slice of early settlers and their practices that left an onomastic mark on the physical landscape of America, Indians, Dutch, French, Spanish, English in several varieties, places named after great persons, great events, things very real and things imaginary, names graphic and euphemistic, people who left only their names, and people who went out of their way to eliminate all traces of their predecessors. America’s place names captures this chaotic complexity perhaps better than any other single marker. Of course, since the frontier has been closed since 1890 or so, the pace of naming has perhaps slowed down a bit, though with new streets and subdivisions, there will be never a lack of new things to name, or old things to rename.
Names on the Land has a bit of a WPA feel to it, inclusive and broadly non-judgmental, a popular front in which Indians and conquistadors, slaves and their masters alike all had their roles to place in naming America. It is a story in which accident and happenstance play as big a role as the big determining forces of history. I think that more often than not, this is how things actually happen, and Names in the Land is a history of America somewhat distractedly and eccentrically putting itself together and naming itself. My favorite chapter, “Of Ancient glory renewed” is on the vogue of classical place names that got its start in 1790 when the New York State settlement of Vanderheyden’s Ferry rechristrened itself Troy. (Another good chapter, on the myriad Columbii and Columbias that dot the American landscape, is called “American discovers Columbus.”) Perhaps the accumulation of odd facts that fill the book can best be loved by a compiler of encyclopedias, but I think it remains one of the best introductions to the cultural history of the American people ever written. Anyway it was has been reissued in a new edition by the NYRB press, and I urge anyone who has never cracked its pages to give it a try.

No comments: