Check out the Wall Street Journal Book review of Justin Martin’s new Frederick Law Olmsted biography, Genius of Place:
Yo-Yo Ma once asked how a symphony by Shostakovich could exalt Joseph Stalin and on an entirely different level mock him. How can a single sequence of notes convey the most toadying bombast as well as a scornful critique of that bombast? But a work of art, like any other human creation, cannot but be charged with the emotional life of its originator, which does not always align neatly with the public life. This is the undertone that we sense throbbing beneath great works, however serene their surfaces. Even where those surfaces consist of nothing more than trees, meadow and water, as they do in the case of New York’s Central Park.
Frederick Law Olmsted was America’s first landscape architect (a term he invented), and Central Park was his first great work. After designing it in 1858, he would go on to create many of the country’s loveliest parks, including Chicago’s Riverside Park, Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, the Boston Fens, and (posthumously, from his proposals) Yosemite National Park. Somehow the visitor senses that these landscapes aspire to more than splendid scenery and skillful planning, and that Olmsted asked them to perform tasks that nobody had ever previously asked of landscape. How he did this, and why, is the subject of Justin Martin’s “Genius of Place: The Life of Frederick Law Olmsted.”
Olmsted was born in 1822 in Hartford, Conn., to a family of fabric merchants. Too restless for the family business, he proved too restless for anything else: He dabbled in turn at five professions—surveyor, clerk, sailor, scientific farmer and publisher—and failed at each. A belated stint as a “special student” at Yale sputtered out quickly. This roster of failures would turn out to be the best possible of résumés for the varied achievements of his career.
Olmsted’s formative experience consisted of two tours of the American South as a reporter for the New York Times. The publication of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” in 1852 had aroused a great deal of curiosity about the South, and Olmsted, as an alternative to the “spoony fancy pictures” then in circulation, promised to supply “matter of fact matter.” He ventured to Louisiana, mostly on foot; a second tour took him to Texas, where the tidy communities of German immigrants offered a startling contrast to the squalor of the slave plantations. Along the way he posted 48 dispatches, which are distinguished by their vivid detail and dispassionate clarity. (His revised anthology of the articles, “The Cotton Kingdom,” remains in print.)
Genius of Place
By Justin Martin
(Da Capo, 461 pages, $30)
His central insight was that there was an indissoluble unity between landscape and the social and economic order. A humane system of labor, like that encountered in German Texas, produced a humane landscape and ultimately a wealthier one. (He reported that slave labor, because of its inefficiency, was actually costlier than hired labor.) In the process, he learned to look at landscape as a practical, aesthetic and moral object, and he came to believe that an act as innocuous as the laying out of a meadow could have broad social ramifications.
Olmsted entered the competition to design Central Park together with Calvert Vaux, an English-born architect. Their submission was by far the most sophisticated of the 33 entries. While the others allowed the park to be bisected by the requisite east-west roads, the Olmstead and Vaux entry submerged the roadbeds out of sight except when they were being crossed by bridges. The visual experience of the park was thus of a continuous swath of land. Characteristically, Olmsted found moral meaning in these sweeping vistas. The park was the one place in the city where rich and poor could meet on equal terms; and for the poor, whose physical world was otherwise constrained, the park was an emblem of physical and mental freedom. Olmsted and Vaux won easily.
During the Civil War, Olmsted served as head of the Sanitary Commission, whose mandate included everything that affected the health of Union soldiers, from nutrition to disease control. Once more his erratic career path was an asset, for he seemed to know an uncanny amount about every field. For two years he brought his organizational energy to bear on the commission, creating the forerunner of the Red Cross. Yet he could not quell his restlessness. After Gettysburg, he resigned his post to pursue another will-o-the-wisp, the management of a gold mine in California. He would go on to design the landscape of Chicago’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, with its ensemble of classical buildings and gracious parks that launched the City Beautiful Movement. His final achievement was to lay out the grounds of Biltmore, the Vanderbilt estate in North Carolina, but before it was finished he began to show the signs of senility; a poignant John Singer Sargent portrait of 1895 shows him looking frail and confused. He died eight years later, in an asylum outside Boston whose grounds he had once landscaped.
Mr. Martin is good at shedding light on the less familiar aspects of Olmsted’s life. Having written biographies of Alan Greenspan and Ralph Nader, he seems to know his way around rather remote personalities. In place of the conventional image of Olmsted as idealistic social reformer, he portrays an imperious and disagreeable workaholic, who repeatedly transplanted his family as unfeelingly as he would any sapling. Mr. Martin reproduces a shockingly abusive letter to his stepson, John, whom Olmsted sent to study the parks of Europe and whose letters he found uninspired: “You are not a man of genius in art, a man of less artistic impulse I never knew.”
As engaging as “Genius of Place” is (and at times it is rather too engaging, written in a cloyingly conversational voice), it does not supplant Witold Rybczynski’s thoughtful 1999 Olmsted biography, “A Clearing in the Distance.” But in the end neither book does justice to the largeness of Olmsted’s achievement, which is to have made landscape an instrument of personal expression—in his case, a bracing synthesis of ideas about morality and science, society and art.
Mr. Lewis, a professor at Williams College, is the author of “American Art and Architecture.”