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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
The name Frederick Law Olmsted, if it is recognizable to us at all, is usually connected with the design and construction of Central Park. A few readers may also be aware that Olmsted was also responsible for giving us Brooklyn's Prospect Park, Boston's Emerald Necklace, the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina, the Pinehurst Country Club in Atlanta, and the campus of Stanford University in California.
But most will probably be surprised to learn that Olmsted drifted from one job to the next for most of his 20s. (Take heart, all you slackers!) Eventually, though, as Witold Rybczynski reminds us in his new book, A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the Nineteenth Century, Olmsted would make up for lost time: In addition to his role as a pioneer in the field of landscape architecture, Olmsted was also a well-respected journalist and editor who published several books about his travels through the West and the pre-Civil War South and who would go on to cofound The Nation magazine.
Olmsted saw himself as a man of letters, hobnobbing with the literary elite of New York (Washington Irving helped him secure the Central Park assignment), but in fact it was his journalistic curiosity and attention to details that made him so effective as an administrator and planner. Once, on a trip to England, he came across Birkenhead Park, outside of Liverpool. So impressed was he by that common that he sought out the park's superintendent and grilled him on its particulars: What kind of drainage system was used? How many trees were planted?
Born in Hartford, Connecticut, to a successful merchant and his wife, little Fred was only three when his mother died. Shifted from one school to the next, from one tutor to another, young Olmsted received an intermittent, nontraditional education. When it was time for college, he felt so ill prepared that he decided to become an apprentice instead. Two apprenticeships and one grueling stint as a working sailor later, Olmsted again changed careers and decided to go into farming. This would be the career that shaped his future.
His first farm, dubbed Sachem's Head and located on the southern shore of Connecticut, was more attractive to Olmsted for its physical beauty than its ability to produce crops. He spent much of his time there importing trees and bushes and arranging them for maximum effect against the backdrop of Long Island Sound. Later, when he bought his second farm (on the south shore of Staten Island), he also spent much of his time investigating tree species and drainage systems rather than actually planting crops. (Neither farm made any money; both were largely financed by his father.)
It was during his tenure at Tosomock Farm on Staten Island that Olmsted began meeting members of New York's literary circle. What began as a career writing about parks and trees for The Horticulturalist soon turned into a four-month journey through the South, writing correspondence pieces for The New-York Daily Times (the paper we now know as The New York Times). This in turn led to a job as managing editor at the prestigious but short-lived Putnam's Monthly Magazine.
Olmsted was 34 when Putnam's folded. Neither his farming nor his writing had made enough money for him to support himself. When he was offered the position of superintendent of Central Park, which carried with it a $2,000-a-year salary (a considerable income at the time), he immediately accepted it. This would prove to be a pattern in Olmsted's life, especially after he married his brother's widow and took responsibility for her and her children. Although he continued to write articles and to see himself as a man of letters, Olmsted took administrative (if high-level) posts in order to secure a living.
So it is a bit ironic that he is remembered today primarily for his work as a landscape architect, a field that had been virtually nonexistent until the mid-19th century. Until that time, no one had foreseen the tremendous development of cities, that people would be forced to live in crowded, dirty conditions with no access to flora or fauna. In the early 1800s, natural splendors were reserved primarily for the rich, who could afford to own a home in the mountains or at the shore. And as working farmers saw their children departing for better jobs in the cities, the number of working-class people with strong ties to the land would further dwindle.
Olmsted was able to see all this before it happened. Not only that, he believed deeply that people of every class should have access to nature's restorative powers. A conservative fellow, and patient, Olmsted was able to visualize the saplings he planted as the full-grown trees they would be 30 years later, to envision how his parks — and the cities that surrounded them — would appear in the future. Such urban planning (Olmsted was responsible for some of the first suburban planned communities) was a new concept to most people at the time; they thought Olmsted stodgy and impractical. But actually he was one of the most practical men in the world.
In A Clearing in the Distance, Witold Rybczynski has written a wonderful book. Perhaps because he is not primarily a biographer (he is a professor of urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania and writes regularly about cityscapes and urban issues), Rybczynski has eschewed the day-to-day format that so often drags biographies into tedium. He is not afraid to insert himself into the story — "I feel myself becoming impatient with Olmsted," he writes at one point — and he occasionally inserts passages of pure, descriptive narrative — his own imaginative conjecture based on real events — which really liven up the story.
Because Olmsted wore so many hats, his life story allows the reader to experience a wide-ranging mid-19th-century milieu. The subcultures of the city-planning establishment, the New York publishing world, the nascent ecology movement, and the abolitionist movement all come into play. (The Civil War, during which Olmsted served as general secretary of the Sanitary Commission, the precursor to the Red Cross, cuts a bloody gash down the center of the narrative.) We often take for granted the spaces in which we move every day; A Clearing in the Distance reminds us that the streets, buildings, parks, and shopping malls that we scarcely notice in our daily lives have not always been there. Frederick Law Olmsted is one of a small number of people who were instrumental in shaping our cities, through his own designs and those of the hundreds of landscape architects whom he influenced. This extraordinary man here receives the extraordinary treatment that he deserves.