Under the Light of Heaven

Frederick Law Olmstedby Frederick Law Olmsted

Library of America. 822p $45

The work that shaped Frederick Law Olmsted’s life—and that transformed the face of landscape design and public recreation in America—began with a youthful desire to understand holiness. The autobiographical fragment that begins the Library of America’s new edition of his writings tells the story. As a young boy, Olmsted wanted to know what it felt like to be John the Baptist. Hoping to understand the privations to which the saint had subjected himself in the wilderness, young Olmsted found a honey-locust tree, took a pod from it and tried to eat one of its seeds. Finding the meat of the seed inedible, he took the remaining ones and planted them. With care and patience, he raised the resulting seedling into “the finest honey locust I ever saw.” In this fashion, at an early age, Olmsted “began to be affected by conditions of scenery.”

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The career that followed was as improbable as its simple beginning. Many will, of course, remember that Olmsted was largely responsible for the design of New York’s Central Park. He is perhaps less often recollected for his work on such far-flung sites as North Carolina’s Biltmore Estate; Stanford University; the University of Chicago; Boston’s Emerald Necklace; and the Capitol Grounds in Washington D.C. The list goes on and on, but, sadly, what most of us know about Olmsted is only a list of such achievements—impressive, certainly, but too barrenly factual to give us any understanding of the man. The man was worth knowing. The Library of America edition of his works, Frederick Law Olmsted: Writings on Landscape, Culture, and Society, which gives us that man in all his genius and complexity, is well worth owning.

Since the publication of its first volume in 1982, The Library of America has performed the daunting but eminently worthy task of publishing what it considers the indispensable works of American letters. At the rate of one volume per month, it has made available, in annotated, durable cloth-bound editions with acid-free paper, the works of almost every great American writer imaginable, from Melville to Malamud and from Tocqueville to Tuchman. The series is now closing in on 300 volumes and going strong. The physical quality of the books has been uniform and impeccable. The annotations have often been less so, providing somewhat spotty commentary and leaving archaic terms or obscure references unexplained.

The Olmsted volume, however, masterfully edited by the esteemed Olmsted expert Charles E. Beveridge, supplies extensive and highly satisfactory notes. Moreover, highly conscious that his subject’s greatest contributions to American life were visual, Dr. Beveridge has wisely chosen to adorn the volume with 32 pages of lush and captivating illustrations. Most welcome is the complete series of proposed views that Olmstead and his partner Calvert Vaux submitted with their competition entry for Central Park. Beveridge’s work ranks alongside the John James Audubon volume (1999) as the most beautiful in the series thus far.

Very arguably, though, the greater treasure in these pages is Olmsted himself. In his letters, in his journalistic writings, even in such seemingly mundane sources as reports to city commissioners, he reveals himself not only as an artist, but as a man in whom humanitarianism and practicality existed in virtually equal shares. Better than most conventional architects, Olmsted understood the sociological value of beauty. His core belief was straightforward: that it did people good to come together in the pure air and under the light of heaven, and that a wise society should create places and opportunities that helped them to do so.

Olmsted realized that having a lovely public space to visit could do more than bolster one’s physical health. He perceived that in urban settings, people were often obliged by circumstance to interact chiefly with others who resembled them in religion, ethnicity and social status. He observed, too, that when people were thus segregated, they inclined to develop feelings of scorn and distrust toward the parts of the population that they very seldom saw. But in a handsome public park, one might find “all classes largely represented, with a common purpose, not at all intellectual, competitive with none, disposing to jealousy and spiritual and intellectual pride toward none, each individual adding by his mere presence to the pleasure of all others, all helping to the greater happiness of each.”

If Olmsted was somewhat overly idealistic in his estimate of the power of public spaces to bring people together, his planning of those spaces was relentlessly pragmatic. His proposals for the development of various public spaces show an immense knowledge of botany and pay scrupulous attention to climate, topography and the pre-existing architectural context. Never imperious or dictatorial, Olmsted is forever focused on making his designs work harmoniously with a given setting, seeking to discover true harmony rather than to impose a disruptive vision. Indeed, Writings on Landscape, Culture, and Society might serve as a fine companion volume to Robert A. Caro’s The Power Broker. The latter book tells much about how public planning, when fueled by ego and misanthropy, can go desperately wrong. In Olmsted’s writings, one sees so very much that went perfectly right.

To the Olmsted novice, some of the most fascinating and surprising material may come early in the volume, where one encounters a series of incisive public letters that Olmsted wrote in the 1850s regarding slavery. Olmsted found slavery not only destructive of the slave and morally ruinous for the master but also inimical to the non-slaveholding class of poor whites. Olmsted reported with shock that the South’s illiteracy rate was more than 30 times as great as in his native Connecticut and that poor Southerners were easily “duped, frightened...prejudiced and made to betray their most direct and evident interests.” Moreover, the Southern economy deeply offended his sense of Yankee practicality. He informally calculated that the inefficiencies caused by slavery had enabled the Northern states to outperform the South by 300 percent to 400 percent. Nonetheless, Olmsted was slow to embrace abolitionism, which he termed a “fanaticism.” He also perceived—correctly as it turned out—that those who were so eager to free the slaves would be less enthusiastic about finding them places within the free economy.

Olmsted was a better architect of landscape than he was of sentences, and his prose in this volume is often much more dense and challenging than a reader is likely to enjoy. Nevertheless, it is a book well worth including in an erudite home library.

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