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Volokh Conspiracy

Summer Reading: The Life (and Times) of Frederick Law Olmsted

A wonderful bio of perhaps the most influential American whose name most people don't know


If you are looking for some really good summer reading that you can sink your teeth into, and have any interest at all in U.S. history during the mid- to late-19th Century, let me most enthusiastically recommend Justin Martin's wonderful biography of Frederick Law Olmsted ("Genius of Place"), which I have just finished reading, to you.

Olmsted's life and career were astonishing, embodying much of the restless and propulsive energy that permeated life in mid-19th Century America, and his biography reads like a chronicle of the almost unbelievably wide range of opportunities then available to people—at least, to white men—of energy and ambition. The son of a successful dry-goods merchant in Hartford CT, Olmsted spent considerable portions of his life as a "scientific farmer," a newspaper reporter, a merchant seaman, an author (of several influential books covering his journeys through England and through the American South in the early 1850s), the supervisor and manager of operations at the Mariposa gold mine in Bear Valley CA, a magazine publisher (Putnam's and The Nation), and the first Director of the United States Sanitary Commission (a federal agency set up at the start of the Civil War and charged with the Herculean task of seeing to it that Union soldiers had access to adequate medical, food, and sanitary facilities at or near the front lines) . . .  while also inventing, almost single-handedly, the practice and profession of landscape architecture in the United States.

His legacy is astonishing as well, his influence on all of our lives in 21st century America deep and profound. There are, of course, his parks, many of which are true masterpieces in an art form ("park design") that had barely even existed before he arrived on the scene:  Central, Prospect, Morningside, and Riverside Parks in New York, Boston's "Emerald Necklace" parks, the park system in Buffalo NY, the grounds of the US Capitol, Chicago's Washington and Jackson Parks. Olmsted-designed parks can be found in a staggering number of American communities, including (among others) Boston, Hartford, New York, Trenton, Rochester, Buffalo, Springfield MA, Montreal, Philadelphia, Washington DC, Atlanta, Asheville NC, Louisville, Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, St. Louis, and San Francisco, where, each and every day, millions of people encounter and enjoy the fruits of his labors.

And his impact extends far beyond the boundaries of all of those city parks that would not have come into being without him. His writings played an important role in rallying people (in the North, and in Great Britain) to the anti-slavery cause; he was instrumental in protecting Yosemite Valley and Niagara Falls from private exploitation long before the idea of a system of National Parks was even a glimmer in Teddy Roosevelt's eye; his work on the Sanitary Commission not only saved thousands of lives but helped form the foundation for the creation of the American Red Cross.

It's not only an amazing legacy for one person to have left behind, but it is a legacy of public benefit that strikes me as especially unalloyed and untainted. It's all good! Building dozens of glorious parks, helping to abolish slavery, preserving great natural spaces like Yosemite and Niagara Falls, caring for and saving the lives of the wounded . . . that's a great deal on the plus side of the ledger, without much on the minus side. Who, today, can complain that their lives were made worse off by anything that Olmsted left behind? I don't think there are a great number of historical figures about whom that can be said, whose accomplishments do not contain some small (or not-so-small) worm of malignancy, some taint of the rotten or the corrupt, some idea or institution or practice that dishonors or diminishes their legacy, in retrospect.

And Olmsted's core principles are, as the reviewers always like to say, "relevant for our times." All of Olmsted's work was in service of that peculiarly American 19th Century democratic ideal; not only do cities need green spaces lest they choke to death, these spaces must be truly public, shared spaces accommodating the widest possible range of people doing the widest possible range of activities, the millionaires and the newsboys, young families and the elderly, picknickers and horseback riders and musicians and fishermen and boaters and walkers and ice skaters and bicyclists and birdwatchers and softball players, rich people and poor people, people seeking quiet and solitude and people seeking companionship and the company of others.

Olmsted believed that these spaces could bind communities together for the benefit of all. And they did.

It's a reminder of a kind of public-spiritedness that was a big part of the 19th Century story in the U.S., the flip side, if you will, of the "rugged individualism" archetype that is perhaps better known and more often referred to. I happen to think that we could use more of it these days.  Even if you disagree, I think you might find the story of someone who really embodied this ideal to be an interesting and even instructive one.

Martin's book is extremely well-constructed, and he tells the story with real verve. He strikes the right balance: the focus is on Olmsted's work, but with enough details of his personal and emotional life to give context and resonance to the story. I found it extraordinarily interesting from start to finish and, by the end, quite moving. Highly recommended.