morning reflections on Gwinnett County

There are cities that are written into life – I was just living in one of the most extraordinary of them, Paris. Natalia Ginzburg once remarked that Turin and Pavese were one – that walking in the city that always smelled of soot and train stations was, in a sense, walking in Pavese’s state of mind.

In Atlanta, they are celebrating the 75th year of Gone with the Wind, but it is impossible to think of Margaret Mitchell when strolling through downtown Atlanta – although it is a different story perhaps with Buckhead, with its fad for white columns. In Gwinnett County, where I write this, there is no organizing principle. Forget a novelist or poet – this expanse of land lacks even a defining mapmaker. Housing developments, shopping centers and roads that name themselves after already existing roads and under false premises wander impudently into necks of the cut down woods are the norm, here. So are churches. Chaos, it turns out, is imminently Christian. Gwinnett County is the kind of place that counters the “Jimmy Carter” bestowed as an honorific on this or that piece of Georgia roadway (for the logical reason that Carter is Georgia’s one and only president) with a Ronald Reagan Highway, which then generates a plethora of Presidential shopping centers. To write Gwinnett county, the poet requires a large magic marker, and a tank full of gas in his Cherokee.

There is something odd about all this, or so I am thinking this morning. When the New World was new to the old World settler, that settler brought not only his pair of eyes but his names and promptly set to work – first with his “New”, then with the names he thought he heard coming out of the mouths of the people who were already here. But it is difficult to learn a man’s language as you are shoving him forward with blows from a blunderbuss, so the Indian words were hit or miss, a very distant approximation of the songlines that once ran in the wilderness. Gwinnett, that odd looking word, came not from some Welsh savage but from Button Gwinnett, Georgia’s signer of the Declaration. According to his biographer, William Montgomery, Button Gwinnett’s name was a fake. Button was probably Bolton, and we have simply misread his signature. As for Gwinnett, his assiduous researches – at least in 1913 – turned up no Gwinnett in England. Interestingly, it turned up a character named Gwinnett, who figures in a text by Richard Steele. As for where he hailed from – it was certainly not the territory I can see out my window. As Montgomery found, Button Gwinnett’s property is as shaky as his name – did he first appear in Charleston as a merchant in the 1770s? Or was it Savannah? Did he own property on St. Catherine’s island? The man came out of the mist. The man came out of the Transatlantic mangle, he came out of pirates and imposters, he came out of the Age of Reason and was the second signer of the Declaration of Independence, but with his ridiculous paucity of credentials, he would never have been issued a license by the Georgia Department of Drivers Services in Gwinnett County, and his signature would surely never have graced a single legal document in our age of infinitely backed up legal documents. The lady at the counter in Lawrenceville would have told him, firmly, that he had to go over his checklist and find at least a paystub. And to top it all off, Gwinnett found a way to die of a gunshot wound in the Revolution without firing a shot at the British – he died in a duel with another Georgia politcian.

I find this lost soul, by one of the iron laws of cartographic poetry, the perfectly appropriate symbol of this county.