Monday, July 2, 2012

American Names



American Names
-- by Stephen Vincent Benét

I have fallen in love with American names,
The sharp names that never get fat,
The snakeskin-titles of mining-claims,
The plumed war-bonnet of Medicine Hat,[i]
Tucson and Deadwood and Lost Mule Flat.[ii]

Seine and Piave[iii] are silver spoons,
But the spoonbowl-metal is thin and worn,
There are English counties like hunting-tunes
Played on the keys of a postboy’s horn,
But I will remember where I was born.

I will remember Carquinez Straits,[iv]
Little French Lick[v] and Lundy’s Lane,[vi]
The Yankee ships and the Yankee dates
And the bullet-towns of Calamity Jane.[vii]
I will remember Skunktown Plain.[viii]

I will fall in love with a Salem tree
And a rawhide quirt from Santa Cruz,
I will get me a bottle of Boston sea
And a blue-gum nigger to sing me blues.
I am tired of loving a foreign muse.

Rue des Martyrs[ix] and Bleeding-Heart-Yard,[x]
Senlis[xi], Pisa[xii], and Blindman’s Oast,[xiii]
It is a magic ghost you guard
But I am sick for a newer ghost,
Harrisburg, Spartanburg, [xiv] Painted Post.[xv]

Henry and John[xvi] were never so
And Henry and John were always right?
Granted, but when it was time to go
And the tea and the laurels had stood all night,
Did they never watch for Nantucket Light?[xvii]

I shall not rest quiet in Montparnasse.[xviii]
I shall not lie easy at Winchelsea.[xix]
You may bury my body in Sussex grass,[xx]
You may bury my tongue at Champmedy.[xxi]
I shall not be there. I shall rise and pass.
Bury my heart at Wounded Knee.[xxii]



[i] Medicine Hat is a city of 61,097people located in the southeastern part of the province of Alberta, Canada.  The name "Medicine Hat" is the English translation of 'Saamis' (SA-MUS) – the Blackfoot word for the eagle tail feather headdress worn by medicine men – or 'Medicine Hat'.  Several legends are associated with the name from a mythical mer-man river serpent named 'Soy-yee-daa-bee' – the Creator – who appeared to a hunter and instructed him to sacrifice his wife to get mystical powers, which were manifest in a special hat. Another legend tells of a battle long ago between the Blackfoot and the Cree in which a retreating Cree "Medicine Man" lost his headdress in the South Saskatchewan River.

[ii] Lost Mule Flat was presumably a settlement in Arizona, of a kind not dissimilar to Tuscon and Deadwood, and on the stage route between Albequerque, NM and Phoenix, AZ, along Lost Mule Creek.

[iii] The Seine is a river, which rises in Dijon, France, flows through Paris and empties into the English Channel.  For much of its length it is navigable. After the burning at the stake of Joan of Arc in 1431, her ashes were thrown into the Seine from the medieval stone Mathilde Bridge.  The Piave is is a river in north Italy which forms in the Alps and flows into the Adriatic Sea.  In Benet’s day is was famous at the time of World War One as being the site of the last major Austro-Hungarian attack on the Italian Front, the Battle of the Piave, which was the decisive battle of World War I on the Italian Front which failed after costing Austria-Hungary nearly 200,000 casualties…

[iv] The Carquinez Strait is a narrow tidal strait in northern California, part of the tidal estuary of the Sacramento and the San Joaquin rivers as they drain into the San Francisco Bay.  In the mid-19th century it was the gateway to the gold fields of the Sierra Nevada for prospectors (and, later, merchants) arriving from the East Coast or the Orient.  I used to drive over it regularly when I was in school at UC Davis and my parents lived in Walnut Creek.

[v] French Lick is a town in south central Indiana, founded as a French trading post near a salt lick.  A spa was later developed there, exploiting the curative properties of the sulfur springs found there.

[vi] Lundy’s Lane was (and is) an 18th century path near Niagara, Canada that was the site of the Battle of Lundy's Lane (a/k/a the Battle of Niagara Falls), which took place on 25 July 1814, in present-day Niagara Falls, Ontario. It was one of the bloodiest battles of the War of 1812 and one of the deadliest battles ever fought on Canadian soil.

[vii] The “bullet towns of Calamity Jane” refer to the lawless (hence, “bullet towns”) boomtowns of Montana and Wyoming (then, part of the Greater Dakota Territory) where Martha “Calamity Jane” Cannary (1852 -1903) grew up, principal among these being Virginia City, Montana where gold was discovered in 1863.

[viii] Skunktown (formerly Skunktown Plain) is a small settlement in Lander County, Nevada.

[ix] Rue des Martyrs (“Street of Martyrs”) is a north-south avenue in the Montmarte neighborhood of Paris, in the 18th arrondissement.   It’s name commemorates the martyrdom of Saint Denis in the fifth century for preaching the Christian Gospel. According to legend, Saint Denis miraculously picked up his head after he was beheaded and walked for miles before dying. During the Renaissance, the site of his beheading, on what is now the Rue Yvonne Le Tac, became a place of pilgrimage.

[x] Bleeding Heart Yard is a cobbled courtyard off Greville Street in the Farringdon area of the City of London. The courtyard is probably named after a 16th century inn sign dating back to the Reformation that was displayed on a pub called the Bleeding Heart in nearby Charles Street. The sign showed the heart of the Virgin Mary pierced by five swords.

[xi] Senlis is a French commune and a medieval town located in the Oise department near Paris. It has a long and rich heritage, having traversed centuries of history. The monarchs of the early French dynasties lived here, attracted by the proximity of the Chantilly forest.

[xii] Pisa is a city in Tuscany, on the right bank of the mouth of the River Arno on the Tyrrhenian Sea. Ancient Roman authors referred to Pisa as an old city.  Virgil, in his Aeneid, states that Pisa was already a great center by the times described.  Owing to the complexity of its river system it was much more easily defended against invasions than most other Italian coastal cities.

[xiii] An oast (or oast house) is a building designed for kilning (drying) hops as part of the brewing process. They can be found in most hop-growing (and former hop-growing) areas. 

[xiv] Harrisburg and Spartanburg are two cities significant in the American Civil War.  Harrisburg, of course, is the capital of the State of Pennsylvania and many Union Army training grounds were established there.  Spartanburg, South Carolina, suffered the fourth highest deaths-per-thousand rate in the Civil War. 

[xv] Painted Post is a village in Steuben County, in south central New York.  It’s name commemorates Andrew Montour (a/k/a  Captain Montour, Sattelihu, and Eghnisara) an important métis interpreter and negotiator in the Virginia and Pennsylvania backcountry in the 1750’s and 1760’s.  His mother was Madame Montour, a well-known, influential interpreter of French and Native ancestry who spoke several languages and often served as an interpreter between Europeans and Native Americans.  His father was Carondawanna, an Oneida war chief. In the summer of 1779, a party of Tories and Indians, under the command of a loyalist named McDonald, returned from an incursion into the Susquehanna settlements, bringing with them many of their number wounded.  At the confluence of Tioga and Conhocton Rivers, Captain Montour, a Seneca chief of great promise, died of his wounds at the age of 52. His comrades buried him by the riverside, and planted above his grave a post on which were painted various symbols and rude devices. This monument was known throughout the Genesee Forests as 'The Painted Post.' It was a landmark well known to all the Six Nations, and was often visited by their braves and chieftains.

[xvi] Henry Brooks Adams (1838 –1918; normally called Henry Adams) and John Quincy Adams II (1833 –1894) were brothers, born in Boston, Massachusetts, the sons of Charles Francis Adams Sr. and Abigail Brooks, the grandsons of John Quincy Adams, and great grandsons of President John Adams.  John was an American lawyer and politician, the grandson and namesake of president John Quincy Adams and the great-grandson of President John Adams.  Henry was an American journalist, historian, academic and novelist, best known for his autobiography, “The Education of Henry Adams,” which was commercially published posthumously a year after his death in 1918, and was awarded the Pulitizer Prize.   Both brothers were anglophiles.

[xvii] Nantucket Light, a/k/a Great Point Light Great is a lighthouse located on the northernmost point of Nantucket Island. First built in 1784, it sits on a thin spit of beach where the currents of the Atlantic Ocean and Nantucket Sound meet, and is visible across the Sound from Boston.

[xviii] Montparnasse is an area of Paris on the left bank of the Seine, centered at the crossroads of the Blvd du Montparnasse and the Rue de Rennes.  Beneath the ground are tunnels of the Catacombs of Paris.  The name Montparnasse stems from the nickname "Mount Parnassus" (In Greek mythology, home to the nine Greek goddesses – the Muses – of the arts and sciences) given to the hilly neighbourhood in the 17th century by students from the nearby universities who came there to recite poetry.

[xix] Winchelsea is a small village in East Sussex, England. During the mid 13th Century, incursions by the sea destroyed much of the town until a massive flood completely destroyed it in 1287.

[xx] Sussex is an historic county on the south coast of England corresponding roughly in area to the ancient Kingdom of Sussex.  Sussex has been a key site of major invasions, including the Roman invasion of Britain and the Battle of Hastings.  It is dotted with battlefields and ancient cemetaries.

[xxi] “Champ” is a French word for field, a defined space and open plot of cultivated land or land reserved for a specific activity. Example:  the Champs de Mars, a large public garden in the 7th arrondissement, at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, which was established as a parade and drilling, ground for the military.

[xxii] Wounded Knee (in Lakota: Čaŋkpé Opí) is a small village in Shannon County, southwestern South Dakota.  The town is named for the Wounded Knee Creek, which runs through the region. The bones and heart of the Sioux chief Crazy Horse were reputedly buried along this creek by his family following his death in 1877.