NYRBThe 1945 cover of George R. Stewart’s classic work

In 1948, the year that Norman Mailer published The Naked and the Dead and Dawn Powell released The Locusts Have No King, an English professor at the University of California named George Rippey Stewart published a novel called Fire. The story of an imaginary blaze’s path of destruction through Northern California and the men who coordinate an attack to put it out, it closely reworked a book he had written seven years earlier, Storm. It’s not much of a fire–“any old-timer could recall a score of greater ones, and would only expect that the years to come would bring many more”–yet the charred trees, imagined as victims of a plague that spared adults and killed all the children, will have consequences for the land that “could be reckoned ahead in centuries.”

Fire was a bestseller and a Book-of-the-Month Club selection. Its popularity is easy to understand–in many ways it’s a potboiler, fast and dirty, with staccato dialogue and plenty of sweat and grime. Yet it contains passages of strange poetry, like this:

Humbug Point saw the blow-up, and Lovers Leap. Horse Mountain reported, and signed off, quoting Joel 2:30–“and in the earth, blood, and fire, and pillars of smoke.” Far to the north, Sheer Rock saw it suddenly above the high shoulder of Howell Mountain. Hamlin Point saw it build up above the round top of Cerro Gordo, like the towering smoke of a new-born volcano.

Within a few short paragraphs, the Book of Joel is a distant memory: “‘Good God!’ he was thinking, ‘that whole Ponderosa country is a tinder-box today. We’ve got to hit that fire with everything we can throw at it–and quick!'”

Stewart’s lyricism is fashioned from two materials: Old Testament fire and brimstone–a pervasive climate of environmental tempests and spiritual tests–and the incantations of names. The latter found their fullest expression in his most famous work, Names on the Land. Released three years before Fire, the book is a history of American place-names that retraces the paths of conquistadors, pilgrims, frontiersmen and merchants across the Lower 48. (A reissue added chapters on Alaska and Hawaii.) A ramble through the book’s index reveals the land’s rhythms and curiosities: Puget Sound, Pulaski, Pumly Tar, Punxsutawney, Purgatoire, Putah Creek, Putin, Puu. Toby’s Creek, Todd’s Corner, Togo, Tokio, Tokio River, Toledo, Tolo, Tolono, Tolstoi, Tomato Creek, Tomball, Tombstone. Bird-in-Hand, Deal, Fertility, Intercourse. Stewart was a poet, but he was a tough guy, too, like Mailer. Unlike Mailer, though, who fueled his machismo with flights of scotch, Stewart was a rugged survivalist, a social conservative who measured testosterone in miles hiked.

The author of twenty-eight books of history and fiction, Stewart has largely been forgotten. Unlike literary novelists, who self-consciously transcend the conventions of genre and reach a national or international audience, Stewart was a distinctly regional writer, specializing in the West generally and California specifically. But region was his strength, not his burden, and it’s the foundation of the genre he popularized: the environmental thriller, a carefully researched destruction story full of local color and organized around plagues, hurricanes, fires or subzero temperatures. Stewart is best known for four books in this vein: Fire, Storm, Ordeal by Hunger (1936), a history of the Donner Party, and the fantasy classic Earth Abides (1949), the first American postapocalyptic thriller. Man versus nature, and the ability of humans to cope under environmental stress, are Stewart’s two obsessions and the genre’s enduring conventions. (It doesn’t spoil the books to know that in this epic battle, man has a tendency to come out the loser.) The engineering of civilization–the maintenance of roadways, the running of telephone lines, the preservation of written knowledge–is of secondary interest to Stewart. He is at once a chronicler of the achievements and architectures of modern civilization and an ecological fatalist. The glories of men come and go, but the mountains last forever.

“A name could only live in continuing tradition, and a mere notation upon a map or in a journal–no matter how high-sounding–was only a hope of the man who wrote it,” Stewart notes early in Names. Unlike nature, which is indifferent to man, names must be uttered and shared to stay alive. This summer, New York Review Books rekindled this sentiment by reissuing Names on the Land, one of four books on place-names by Stewart, a founding member of the American Name Society; the others are A Concise Dictionary of American Place-Names (1970), Names on the Globe (1975) and American Given Names (1979), which appeared a year before he died. Published in 1945, and revised and reissued in 1958 and 1967, Names on the Land is considered the best of the quartet. It is an astonishing book, a sort of anecdotal encyclopedia that fairly explodes with facts of American life culled from WPA guides, state-name books, early directories, linguistic histories, explorer journals, news accounts and local histories. Stewart describes explorations, explains the etymologies of common place-name parts like “brook” or “ville” and provides a general sense of what certain categories of names indicate. Animal names, for instance, often arose from one memorable encounter (Wolf Meadow); plant names tend to commemorate an unusual growth, since a name like Pine Creek would only cause confusion in a region with an abundance of pines. (“Such names rarely sprang from incidents,” he writes, “because a man does not often have an adventure with a tree.”) Names celebrates the innovations of America and cheerleads for democracy, but ultimately it’s no WPA celebration of Americana. It charts the landmass like a verbal atlas. Stewart’s most cerebral environmental thriller, it preserves the distance between Americans and the land they took. The names are “on” the land, not “of” it.

A few years after Names appeared, Stewart took the thriller genre into fresh territory. In 1949 the University of California Regents imposed a requirement that all university employees sign an oath denying membership in the Communist Party. The Berkeley campus erupted in protest over the oath, which was widely seen as a violation of academic freedom and an instrument designed to stir up a climate of fear and recrimination. The next year Stewart fired off a short history of the crisis called The Year of the Oath. We could call it a regional campus thriller, populated with “bare-handed men going in to fight against the men who held the guns,” where you might find yourself with a “knife at the throat–fighting on the edge of a precipice.” A narrative history, written in the first-person plural, the book tracks all the important meetings of the year and tries to reconstruct the moves of all the players–the Board of Regents, the university president, the various faculty factions. He imagines the professors as a tribe, the heirs to the Costanoans, who once lived on the site of the Berkeley faculty club, which he compares to the sweat house, where the Costanoans met to devise a plan for dealing with the Spaniards–the colonial version of the Board of Regents. The oath was extremely unpopular, but only 20 percent of the faculty refused to sign outright. Though The Year of the Oath is a defense of academic freedom and is often held up as a precursor to the Berkeley Free Speech Movement of the 1960s, its author sided with the majority. Stewart signed the oath–and according to Bob Blauner, a retired Berkeley sociologist who is writing a book about the controversy, “right away.”

It’s very much like Stewart to sign the oath and then write a book against it. He was a fierce individualist, American in a typical live-and-let-live way, but not one to risk it all on a gamble or garner undue attention for himself. Born in Sewickley, Pennsylvania, in 1895, he was the son of an engineer who worked on the railways around Pittsburgh. Raised in a Scottish Presbyterian home, Stewart used his writing to try to reconcile science and religion by refashioning his family’s Old Testament faith into a kind of ecological spiritualism, in which divinity is manifested in an all-powerful nature that humans can never hope to master. They can, though–and this is crucial for Stewart–accept their subordination and learn to live in harmony with the earth. When he was 12 his family moved to Azusa, California, and later he returned east for his education; he graduated from Princeton in 1917 and briefly returned to the West Coast to do an MA at Berkeley, then headed back east to do doctoral work in English literature at Columbia, which awarded him a PhD in 1922. While he was teaching at the University of Michigan the next year, he fell in love with Theodosia Burton, the university president’s daughter. Henry Ford was a guest at their wedding. In 1923 Berkeley offered Stewart a job, and he and Theodosia headed west, the first of the cross-country trips that inspired his road book, U.S. 40.

When Stewart was a senior in high school, he was asked to write a poem for a class assignment. He wasn’t fond of school, and he wasn’t particularly friendly. He wrote a poem about the hero of a football game. His teacher liked it, and he was asked to read it in front of the whole school of 1,500 students. He was met with an uproar of applause and was, he later said, “a marked man forever after.” This was quite a reception for someone who was more likely to be swept away by feeling the touch of something ancient during an epic hike, and whose first intense literary experience as a boy was reading a copy of Treasure Island he found in the attic. Later, he discovered that Stevenson based his setting on two California landscapes, including an abandoned mine in Napa Valley called Silverado.

Don Scott, who is writing a biography of Stewart, thinks these episodes dramatize Stewart’s life and work: the scholarly solitude of research, the sublime, quasi-religious encounter with nature and the joy of writing for a popular audience. (Scott read Earth Abides at age 12 and credits Stewart with his decision to become a park ranger. The two met one day when Stewart came to Scott’s post to sign a visitor pass.) These strands come together in Ordeal by Hunger, a definitive account of the eighty-seven emigrants who found themselves stranded in the winter of 1846-47 in the Sierra Mountains during their journey from Illinois to California, half of whom arrived in one piece. Drawing on methodical research into diaries, histories, maps and news stories, Stewart tells a cool, dispassionate and yet compassionate tale of the trial faced by people unprepared for the elements. The members of the Donner Party make a fateful error when they follow the advice of an adventurer named Lansford Hastings; instead of following the Oregon route, they take a “shortcut” and head south of the Great Salt Lake and across the mountains. And thus “the trap clicks behind,” Stewart writes–or does it?

Stewart loves the high-toned language of Old Testament calamity, but he also savors the drama of a good cliffhanger. Ordeal shoots the moon with a weird blend of inevitability, suspense and sudden contradiction. “So again Reed rode away from the adobe walls of Sutter’s Fort, this time heading south and west and soon leaving out of sight the baffling wall of mountains which might hide behind its imperturbable white expanse he knew not what horrors.” So ends one chapter. The next begins: “Actually that white wall hid as yet no horrors. If Reed instead of riding southward could have lifted himself to overlook the pass above the mountain lake, he would have seen the smokes of three cabins. The snow-trapped emigrants with the adaptability and hardihood of their pioneer blood had already established themselves.” It’s vintage Stewart: the romanticization of the pioneer spirit, the bird’s-eye perspective, the jamboree of disaster melodrama, Technicolor adventure and smoking chimneys on the frontier. A few chapters later we plunge back into the horrors, as the starving Mary Graves and William Eddy, having been reduced to eating boots and shoes, manage to kill a deer: “Then he and Mary falling together upon their quarry drank the warm blood as it flowed…their faces covered with blood.” We know what other kind of blood is looming and–well, the foreshadowing is not subtle, but it gets the job done.

Ordeal by Hunger is a remarkable book. It’s gripping and horrifying in spasms, but the bulk of it is unsensational, even dry–quite a feat for a story better known for people eating people. Plumbing the interior lives of characters is not Stewart’s strength, although he does succeed in drawing a few thumbnail sketches of pioneers on the California Trail. Instead, he focuses on the dynamics of the Donner Party and the fate of the human organism: how it frays and tears and ultimately turns on itself. He’s more interested in nature than humans, and in human groups more than individual psychologies. In Storm, he went so far as to write what he called a biography of the weather; indeed, nearly all the humans are known by their job titles–the Superintendent, the Chief Service Officer–while the storm gets a name, Maria.

In contemporary accounts of the environment and global warming, a benign earth is populated by harmful humans–flawed creatures with a talent for mucking up the planet and making it uninhabitable. But in Stewart’s work, the natural world is insensitive. The earth is in some fundamental way already uninhabitable, and humans are exiles in it. The social and the ecological can come into balance, but it’s an uneasy truce. It’s not just that man can’t ever dominate nature. It’s that one day, inevitably, a pitiless nature will bring him to his knees. In Ordeal by Hunger, freezing temperatures, howling winds and brutal snowdrifts lead to desperation. The pioneers were adaptable, but as Stewart repeatedly reminds the reader, they were also Midwestern plainsmen, novice mountaineers whose naïve mistakes cost them precious time and who perished for lack of knowing how to properly pack oxen or fashion snowshoes. Several years later, in Earth Abides, the exiles are humans who survive a plague and must remake society. The critical question is whether the “tribe” can plan practically and improvise in a crisis–and whether they have the will to cling to life by their fingernails. Stewart reveres people who labor with dignity and their hands, and he sneers at “the kind of man who naturally prospers in civilization”–the self-promoter, the salesman. Of Hastings, he writes, “the mountains and the desert are indifferent to even the cleverest talker…they possess what might be called a notably high sales-resistance.” The overwhelming impression created by reading Ordeal by Hunger and Earth Abides in succession is that one has a better chance of surviving a global plague that has wiped out almost all of humanity than going west in 1846 too late in the season.

In the preface to the 1957 edition of Names on the Land, Stewart wrote that the book was his favorite, for two reasons. First and foremost, he was “born with a love of names,” which I take to mean both an innate love of their poetry and a fascination with their history. Second, and perhaps more critical to understanding his project, he favored Names because “I feel that in spite of the difficulties I finally came closer to attaining what I set out to do than with any other of my books.”

Each of Stewarts’s thrillers is a microhistory of a whole world at work. Names is a bigger, bolder book because it has a much grander scope–not just the physical expanse of the American land but the whole vista of American migration. Reading Names today, when hardly any corner of the United States remains to be developed, much less explored, is a journey back to a time when “perhaps the streams still ran high from the melting ice-cap, and strange beasts roamed the forest”–strange beasts here, where the subdivisions sprawl and skyscrapers sway. With the constant chatter about which of our politicians loves America the most, or how we are all one America, or two Americas, or a variously colored jigsaw America, “America” has long since become a sound bite, a talking point. To the question What is America?, Names answers, Not the leader of the free world and not the scourge of the world but a history of settlement.

The thrill of Names is not of destruction but discovery. There’s not one overarching suspense plot. Instead there are a million civic minidramas–will the townspeople succeed in changing the name of Mount Rainier to Mount Tacoma?–and the satisfaction of coming to understand the patterns and habits of naming on a national scale. Names chronicles the human history that Earth Abides demolishes. The conventions are still man versus nature and people under stress, but the stakes are greater than the life or death of any one individual. They’re the fate of maps and return addresses, of highway exit markers and, ultimately, cultural memory. Every place-name we know was given by someone to commemorate something. Names is the work of an ace detective.

The novelist Russell Banks recently scrutinized the shaping of the country in Dreaming Up America, a chatty essay drawn from remarks he made during an appearance on French television about prominent American myths. In the book’s first section Banks discusses the three mythological locales that drew Europeans to the continent: El Dorado, the City of Gold, pursued by Cortés and Pizarro; the Fountain of Youth, dreamed of by Ponce de León; and the City on the Hill, the Puritans’ New Jerusalem. Banks’s conceit is a useful key to Names on the Land because the place-names that Stewart maps reflect these dreams–to get rich, to rejuvenate oneself, to practice one’s religion freely–as well as their migration across the continent, from Mount Sinai westward to Gold Hill. Stewart begins the book with a Genesis-style invocation:

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.

Tribe gave way to tribe until “a people calling themselves Americans held the land.” (Here the word “held” masks the brutal suppression of Native Americans, though at other moments Stewart turns his attention to their plight.) But when “the names lay thickly over the land,” Stewart continues,

the Americans spoke them, great and little, easily and carelessly–Virginia, Susquehanna, Rio Grande, Deadman Creek, Sugar-Loaf Hill, Detroit, Wall Street–not thinking how they had come to be. Yet the names had grown out of the life, and the life-blood, of all who had come before. From the names might be known how here one man hoped and struggled, how there another dreamed, or died, or sought fortune, and another joked, twisting an old name to make a new one–Providence and Battle Mountain, Hardscrabble, Troy, Smackover, Maine, Elrio, Pasadena, Troublesome Creek, Cape Fear, Nashville, Lincoln County, Fourth Crossing.

A variety of factors make it hard to piece together the “one man” here and the “one man” there into a definitive picture. Names is light on plot and heavy on data, organized chronologically into chapters like “How the Names Became More English and Less English” and “Melodrama in the Forties.” Stewart is just as interested in the names that didn’t survive as he is in those that did: it is the process of naming that intrigues him and that he charts in exhaustive detail. How did Pennsylvania come to be named after the modest William Penn, who loathed self-aggrandizement and preferred the more anonymous “Sylvania”? Why was it that “Philosophy River degenerated into still another Willow Creek; Wisdom, into Big Hole River”? How did Minnehaha Falls (the Sioux means “water-waterfalls”), called Laughing Water, become Minnehapolis and then Minneapolis? The image of the land that emerges over 500 pages in Names is like a Chuck Close painting–swatches of information coalesce into a montage of a face we know.

Names tell stories, and they speak loudest of the namers. American toponymy is a history of ignorance, ingenuity and sensibility. (The one place Americans haven’t found inspiration for place-names is literature–“Americans either did not read much or were not much influenced by what they read.”) The names evolve as the needs and fashions of the namers change: early names are descriptive (the Blue Ridge Mountains), or they pay homage to European towns (Plymouth). They honor saints and, later, war heroes, frontiersmen and local big men and their families. The relationship between the white settlers and the Indian names is particularly vexed: often the Indian names were kept, then abandoned and then, in the mid-nineteenth-century passion for all things exotic, restored. Most Indian names that remain are not indigenous–and there are a lot of them. (If there was one thing Americans liked more than getting rid of the Indians, it was naming things after them, like Indiana.) The names tell jokes and note insults; they go west, reminding settlers of eastern homes. They lie and record battles, and they are always political: as Stewart tells us, where Indians killed whites, it was a massacre; where whites killed Indians, it was a battle. They issue warnings: according to Stewart, no one is known to have died at a Lovers’ Leap, though someone might. And sometimes they keep their secrets.

Given the twisty back roads on which names travel, it’s a wonder that any have survived at all. Stewart is particularly good on the humor of translation. He cites three ways a name can pass from one language to another. A name can be listened to and written down phonetically–which, given that spelling in the colonial period was hardly codified, opens another trapdoor. A name may be listened to and then half translated into English, as in “Westkeag” or “Longacoming” and “‘Scape-Whore.” Finally, a name might be translated into English. One name in Pennsylvania took all three routes. “The Indian word itself survived in Chindeclamoose Run; by clipping and folk-etymology it became Moose Creek; and in translation, Clearfield.” Along the Arkansas River, “L’eau Froide, ‘cold water,’ became Low Freight, and Chemin Couvert, ‘covered road,’ became Smackover.” Stewart treasures these accidents of language: “With such names folk-etymology became veritable poetry. They might well be declared national property, to be preserved like peaks and waterfalls for the perpetual delight of all lovers of names.”

Stewart occasionally asks the names to do too much. He writes that “the evidence of the names indicates that the American people have always held Union most dear. Liberty has been a bad second; Freedom and Independence have trailed far behind.” But the fact that his survey of place-names turned up 110 Unions, forty-four Liberties and fourteen Freedoms doesn’t suggest anything about the number of people who hold any of these principles dear; it suggests which people held them dear. I find it hard to believe that in the post-Civil War era, emancipated slaves prized freedom and liberty less than union. I do believe, however, that they were not frequently asked to record their preferences for posterity.

In 1972 an interview with Stewart was published by Berkeley’s Regional Oral History Office. At the beginning of the conversation, the interviewer remarks, “You are so understanding of yourself and your family, and yet you seem to want to get on to talking about places and away from people pretty quickly.” Stewart replied: “There are certain things I shied away from, though, I think, certain kinds of emotional involvements. I think it’s all right…. That Presbyterian-Scottish background is strongly disciplined, somewhat repressed, and I think that’s what you are seeing.”

Stewart was certainly buttoned up, but he wasn’t above a quiet joke now and again. Sly references tie together his books for the close reader. “There ought to be a law against books about the Donner Party,” the Superintendent thinks in Storm. And naming recurs as a theme. “Although they figure little in the story,” he says of minor characters in Ordeal, “they should be recorded, if for nothing else, merely for their fine old English names.” In Earth Abides, the protagonist, Ish, directs two young men of the new tribe as they set out to explore the continent. Recalling names like Bakersfield, Route 466 and Tehachapi Pass brings tears to his eyes. “The names, it must have been, that did it! Burbank, Hollywood, Pasadena–once they had been living towns. He had known them. Now coyotes hunted jack-rabbits through their drought-stricken parks and back lots. Yet all the names still stood out black and plain on the maps.” He gives them directions, and one boy interrupts: “What’s Arry–? What is it?–Arry-zone-a?” The question stumps Ish: “What Arizona once had been–even that was a hard one.”

The most important characteristic of a name might be the one least suited to a toponymic encyclopedia: its sound. A really musical name will upend the language, make it sound utterly strange and new. It will reduce–or exalt–the name’s meaning, melding sound and sense in sheer musicality. What makes American English sing? Aesthetic formulas are out of fashion, but Americans seem to fancy long vowels that extend the length of a word, like Dakota, Mississippi, Ohio, Topeka and Reno. One syllable or two are satisfactory, but we seem to prefer three or four–the better to croon, preach or stump with. The sound of America is the sound of Wyoming, Arizona, Yosemite. It’s the sound of Poughkeepsie, Minnesota, Lincoln and Washington. Cuyamaca, Daufuskie, Allegheny. Sassagoula, Washoe and Stinking-water.

The names won’t abide. The maps might last a while longer, but with no one to read, much less care, for them, they too will disintegrate. Territories are seized and ceded, Indian to white man, tribe to tribe, and names are preserved, revamped or vanish; in the end, the land, with it storms and fires and blizzards and plagues, will outlast the names and all their namers and namesakes. But for the moment, while we have them, the names are beautiful to read and even more beautiful to hear. A good name tingles when it rolls off the tongue and reinvigorates the language each time it is spoken, a reminder of all that words can do. A great name is poetry, and through its poetry it embodies memories and smells, vistas attained and journeys never taken, and conjures, briefly, lives long since passed. In Names on the Land, Stewart explores it all with unflagging curiosity. He passed the same signs a million other people did, but he pulled over to find out where they came from.