Sentences — October 20, 2008, 4:05 pm

Little Men in Themselves

namesontheland

“A lexicographer has godlike powers,” wrote Guy Davenport in an an essay on America’s last and greatest such household deity, Noah Webster (1758-1843). Lexicographers, Davenport continued:

can, like Johnson, define Pope as “the bishop of Rome,” in grand dismissal of the word, or whig as “a faction.” He can omit noisome words, ride his hobbies (Webster defined democrat as “synonymous with the word Jacobian) [sic] in France”), and play not only tyrant but God himself creating the world.

In these final weeks before End Times are upon us; or, alternately, before we may reapply ourselves undistractedly to the enjoyment of the annual rotting of lifeless, colorless things unto the earth, we’re being subjected, daily, to definitions that none of us, no matter our ZIP code, likely well abides. New Hampshire, for example, which has the winning motto “Live Free or Die” and sobriquet “The Granite State,” has lately been called—along with Florida, Ohio, Colorado, et al—a battleground state. In 2004, it was slapped with the less bellicose and surely sweeter term of “swing” state.

Language takes the civic temperature as dependably as the back of a mother’s hand. These narrow, service-oriented definitions, like so many recent notional narrowings—hero; maverick; terrorist; socialist—drive me to distraction. This season’s most useful cure for a feeling I have three times a day to (rhetorically speaking) dive off my roof and disappear into the still colorful woods, is a book that takes as its task the expansion of our sense of what some of these states we live in were and are before they became nothing more than little levers to be yanked:

Once, from eastern ocean to western ocean, the land stretched away without names. Nameless headlands split the surf; nameless lakes reflected nameless mountains; and nameless rivers flowed through nameless valleys into nameless bays.

So begins George R. Stewart’s entirely diverting Names on the Land, recently reissued by New York Review Books. A compendium of nomenclatural gems that may be read with equal attention to its style, Stewart’s 1945 book was the work of a novelist pursuing an enthusiasm. I don’t know his novels, but plan on looking into this one. His writing in Names on the Land (which is to say his thinking) suggests time intelligently spent:

A war is always more than the battle-front, and so all over the colonies the wars affected the names. More and more towns and counties were named for governors and ministers of state. These men became symbols of national power and unity, although they were often little men in themselves.

Share
Single Page

More from Wyatt Mason:

Conversation October 2, 2015, 8:26 am

Permission to Speak Frankly

“By committing to the great emotional extremes demanded by Greek tragedy,” says Bryan Doerries, author of The Theater of War, “the actors are in effect saying to the audience: ‘If you want to match our emotional intensity, that would be fine.’”

From the October 2014 issue

You Are Not Alone Across Time

Using Sophocles to treat PTSD

From the February 2010 issue

The untamed

Joshua Ferris’s restless-novel syndrome

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

March 2016

Bird in a Cage

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Hidden Rivers of Brooklyn

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Save Our Public Universities

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Rogue Agency

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Mad Magazines

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Killer Bunny in the Sky

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Save Our Public Universities·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Whether and how we educate people is still a direct reflection of the degree of freedom we expect them to have, or want them to have.”
Photograph (crop) by Thomas Allen
Article
New Movies·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Force Awakens criticizes American imperialism while also celebrating the revolutionary spirit that founded this country. When the movie needs to bridge the two points of view, it shifts to aerial combat, a default setting that mirrors the war on terror all too well.”
Still © Lucasfilm
Article
Isn’t It Romantic?·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“He had paid for much of her schooling, something he cannot help but mention, since the aftermath of any failed relationship brings an ungenerous and impossible impulse to claw back one’s misspent resources.”
Illustration by Shonagh Rae
Article
The Trouble with Iowa·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“It seems to defy reason that this anachronistic farm state — a demographic outlier, with no major cities and just 3 million people, nine out of ten of them white — should play such an outsized role in American politics.”
Photograph (detail) © Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Article
Rule, Britannica·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“This is the strange magic of an arrangement of all the world’s knowledge in alphabetical order: any search for anything passes through things that have nothing in common with it but an initial letter.”
Artwork by Brian Dettmer. Courtesy the artist and P.P.O.W., New York City.

Number of people who attended the World Grits Festival, held in St. George, South Carolina, last spring:

60,000

The brown bears of Greece continued chewing through telephone poles.

In Peru, a 51-year-old activist became the first former sex worker to run for the national legislature. “I’m going to put order,” she said, “in that big brothel which is Congress.”

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Two Christmas Mornings of the Great War

By

Civilization masks us with a screen, from ourselves and from one another, with thin depth of unreality. We habitually live — do we not? — in a world self-created, half established, of false values arbitrarily upheld, largely inspired by misconception, misapprehension, wrong perspective, and defective proportion, misapplication.

Subscribe Today