A MetaFilter post by the consistently interesting Kári Tulinius, aka Kattullus, alerted me to Writers on America, an online book sponsored by the U.S. State Department with essays by “American poets, novelists, critics, and historians what it means to be an American writer.” Some are better than others, of course, but I was particularly struck by Michael Chabon’s Maps and Legends, which nicely brings together two recent LH posts, on Chabon and on street names, not to mention my love for maps. Chabon grew up in a planned community, Columbia, Maryland:
The power of maps to fire the imagination is well known. And, as Joseph Conrad’s Marlow observed, there is no map so seductive as the one, like the flag-colored schoolroom map of Africa that doomed him to his forlorn quest, marked by doubts and conjectures, by the romantic blank of unexplored territory. The map of Columbia I took home from that first visit was like that. The Plan dictated that the Town be divided into sub-units to be called Villages, each Village in turn divided into Neighborhoods. These Villages had all been laid out and named, and were present on and defined by the map. Many of the Neighborhoods, too, had been drawn in, along with streets and the network of bicycle paths that knit the town together. But there were large areas of the map that, apart from the Village name, were entirely empty, conjectural — nonexistent, in fact.
The names of Columbia! That many, if not most of them, were bizarre, unlikely, and even occasionally ridiculous, was a regular subject of discussion among Columbians and outsiders alike. In the Neighborhood called Phelps Luck, you could find streets with names that were anglo-whimsical and alliterative (Drystraw Drive, Margrave Mews, Luckpenny Lane); elliptical and puzzling, shorn of their suffixes, Zen (Blue Pool, Red Lake, Spiral Cut); or truly odd (Cloudleap Court, Roll Right Court, Newgrange Garth). It was rumored that the naming of Columbia’s one thousand streets had been done by a single harried employee of the Rouse Company who, barred by some kind of arcane agreement from duplicating any of the street names in use in the surrounding counties of Baltimore and Anne Arundel, had turned in desperation from the exhausted lodes of flowers, trees, and U.S. presidents to the works of American writers and poets. The genius loci of Phelps Luck — did you guess? — was Robinson Jeffers.
The combination of the last two quoted sentences seems to imply that “Phelps Luck” is from the work of Jeffers, but apparently it’s just near Jeffers Hill; this site says “‘Phelps Luck’ is a modification of the original land grant, ‘Phelps His Luck’, a 238-acre plantation patented by Walter Phelps on December 10, 1695.”
I also recommend Bharati Mukherjee’s On Being an American Writer; I’m still working my way through the others.