George Rippey Stewart's Names on the Land republished

Historians in the News

On frozen winter nights in Minneapolis, I used to lie in the dark and listen to the high-school hockey scores. They were read out on the radio—hockey is always news in Minnesota—but I didn't much care who won. I was 10 or 11 years old, a little bit lonely and a little bit bored, and for some reason I found comfort and distraction listening to the names of towns and cities around the state. Hibbing, Cloquet, Eveleth: the pinch and chap of the Iron Range, with traces of the Finns and French who settled there. Crookston, Warroad, Thief River Falls: the dark romance of the forested northwest. Moorhead, Brainerd, Saint Cloud: the dull thud of the flat and unlovely middle and its Norwegian bachelor farmers. Pipestone, Owatonna, Blue Earth: the dreamy vowels of the riverine south. Did I want to go to these places? No more than I wanted to go to Narnia or Middle-Earth. But I found in their names a kind of secular liturgy, beautiful and full of promise. Only later, reading George Rippey Stewart's Names on the Land, did I discover that I wasn't alone. "Some are born great and some with a gift for laughter," Stewart wrote, trying to account for the origins of his own passion. "Others are born with a love of names."

Even those lucky in laughter or destined for greatness will recognize Names on the Land as a masterpiece of American writing and American history. First published in 1945 and about to be reissued in the NYRB Classics series, it is an epic account of how just about everything in America—creeks and valleys, rivers and mountains, streets and schools, towns and cities, counties and states, the country and continent itself—came to be named. Like other broad-minded and big-hearted works of American culture from the first half of the 20th century—H.L. Mencken's American Language, John Dos Passos' U.S.A. trilogy of novels, the Federal Writers' Project American Guide series, Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music—Names on the Land reflects a glorious union of two primal forces in the American mind. On one hand, Americanism: the inclination toward the large-scale and industrial, toward manifest destiny and the farthest shore, toward what a French critic a century ago called the American "worship of size, mass, quantity and numbers." On the other, Americana: the craving for the local and the lo-fi, for the inward heart of things, for the handcrafted and the homemade....
Read entire article at Matt Weiland in Slate

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