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.


  1. The father of a friend helped build Columbia. I met him around 1964, before it was finished, and he was quite proud of the place.

  2. A local cartoonist did an “investigative cartoon” about Columbia – oh, probably 20 years ago now, I’ll have to see if I can find it when I get to work. One of the panels had a list of phrases you were supposed to sort into Columbia street names or Twyla Tharp dance routines…

  3. Terry Collmann says

    Roll Right Court would have been named after the Roll Right Stones, a Neolithic stone circle close to the Oxfordshire/Gloucestershire border in the Chilterns with a mass of mythology about them (no one is ever supposed to count the stones and come up with the same number twice running, for example)
    And a garth is a Scandinavian place-name element found in Britain and meaning “enclosure”, more specifically a “grass enclosure adjacent to a farmhouse”, while a grange is a country house with farm buildings attached … so not so odd for a placename, in fact …
    Now had there been somewhere in the town called Neaves Pightle …

  4. Hello from Maryland – love your blog, of course!
    The town (unincorporated, technically) is infamous for the strange names of roads and also for visitors getting lost, due to the lack of traditional long roads, very strict architectural set-back rules, a preponderance of curved roads, those non-semantic, non-directional road names and the total lack of geometrical sense of the place.
    Sadly, this unusual layout hinders one of the goals of the original project by the Rouse company: efficient mass transit. The ideal mass transit city is shaped like a toothpick; the next most ideal one is shaped like an “X” with one interchange. One shaped like a cobweb spun by a crackhead spider resist efficient transit geometry, though they try. With 100,000 people living in Columbia between the two cities of the “double star”, 4th largest metropolis in the country, transit is a serious unresolved issue in the land of “Ring Dove Lane” and “Snowden River Parkway” in a city with no doves and no Snowden River.

  5. Interesting stuff, though I’ve a hard time imagining a town shaped like a toothpick. Judging by how the next examples is an “X” shape, would I be right in guessing that a ‘toothpick-shaped’ town is a linear settlement – A single straight road with building on each side?

  6. That’s how I took it, and there are plenty of towns like that along roads (I presume in such cases “mass transit” would involve a bus or streetcar shuttling between one end of town and the other).

  7. Just so. Of course you can scale up from the line or X to the full gridiron without losing much. As for the Rollright Stones, Tolkien mentions them in Farmer Giles of Ham, “away beyond the Standing Stones and all”.

  8. This is completely tangential, but your title “Phelps his Luck in Columbia” makes me think of Edmund Phelps who had a lucky year at Columbia University in 2006: he was the sole winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics.
    Silly consonance. OK, back to the regular discussion.

  9. Hank Roberts says

    > mass transit
    Do they have footpaths/sidewalks/stairs between houses, to let people walk more directly to transit stops?
    I live in a part of Berkeley build up in the 1920s, which for drivers is a maze of twisty little streets, all alike. For pedestrians, it’s wonderful.
    When developed, the area was advertised as having “no home site more than a fifteen minute walk from the train” — an electric trolley, which met the ferry to San Francisco, and later had a dedicated deck of the Bay Bridge. Far faster than driving, then or now, door to door.
    Now, the old Key Route is just a wonderfully wide but trackless street.

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