The greatest rumination on the nature of American place names comes in the opening passages of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, when the Californian author considers the tacit remembrances baked into the landscape of his youth: “When the Spaniards came they had to give everything they saw a name. This is the first duty of any explorer — a duty and a privilege. You must name a thing before you can note it on your hand-drawn map.” Steinbeck notices many Spanish names for saints and many for animals. And then “the Americans came — more greedy because there were more of them. They took the lands, remade the laws to make their titles good.” From here, he sees the continuity of this history extending into his present, and into the land’s past, because Steinbeck is very good at seeing through words.
And he knew, as all Americans know, the point that his fellow American literary great and Hamptons resident Kurt Vonnegut expressed when he wrote: “1492. As children we were taught to memorize this year with pride and joy as the year people began living full and imaginative lives on the continent of North America. Actually, people had been living full and imaginative lives on the continent of North America for hundreds of years before that. 1492 was simply the year sea pirates began to rob, cheat, and kill them.”
East of Eden was published in 1952, and the Vonnegut quote comes from 1972. Yet cultural and political discourse today sometimes proceeds as though we only discovered that the color of the American story is often blood red in the 2020s. Today, we have a fundamentally less lettered conversation about how America came to be the way it is and how it came to be named by the words it is named. In November, the official Twitter account of the Women’s March apologized for so much as mentioning the year Vonnegut took pains to reframe: “We apologize deeply for the email that was sent today. $14.92 was our average donation amount this week. It was an oversight on our part to not make the connection to a year of colonization, conquest, and genocide for Indigenous people, especially before Thanksgiving.” Perhaps you find the very idea Vonnegut expressed to be bleeding-heart silliness. But it is inarguably less silly to make the argument his way than to consider the sequence of four digits unmentionable.
Relatedly, in a December Washington Post article about “offensive place names” that “dot the American landscape,” we find some American arrivistes did not discharge the duty and privilege to name American places up to modern standards. Chinaman Gulch, Negro Mesa, and Redskin Mountain are among those up for consideration for changes. Negro Mesa seems to have been named for the Spanish word, not the slur, and "Chinaman" only became a derogatory word for Chinese person much later, having previously been much more like “Frenchman.” But all right. I have no strong opposition to the changes, which may be another part of the American story.
The overall project of these renamings is politically and intellectually misbegotten, though — incoherent in its application and overly focused on the merely symbolic. Surely having a state named after William Penn (with the Latin suffix “sylvania” for “woods”) on stolen land is in the same category of upholding the crime that began in 1492, if you see things that way. Words are only symbols denoting reality, and changing reality is hard, where changing words is easy. Changing the past is impossible. American brutality will not be undone with pleasantries — it will only be obscured. If our names are such unpleasant reminders of our story, it’s a case-by-case judgment call whether it is wise to change them. But if you believe that the first duty of an explorer or a sea pirate who made America what it is was actually to turn around and go home, you will not put things right with a more polite map.