In a brilliant collaboration between writer and subject, Witold Rybczynski, the bestselling author of Home and City Life, illuminates Frederick Law Olmsted's role as a major cultural figure at the epicenter of nineteenth-century American history.
We know Olmsted through the physical legacy of his stunning landscapes -- among them, New York's Central Park, California's Stanford University campus, and Boston's Back Bay Fens. But Olmsted's contemporaries knew a man of even more extraordinarily diverse talents. Born in 1822, he traveled to China on a merchant ship at the age of twenty-one. He cofounded The Nation magazine and was an early voice against slavery. He managed California's largest gold mine and, during the Civil War, served as the executive secretary to the United States Sanitary Commission, the precursor of the Red Cross.
Rybczynski's passion for his subject and his understanding of Olmsted's immense complexity and accomplishments make his book a triumphant work. In A Clearing in the Distance, the story of a great nineteenth-century American becomes an intellectual adventure.
In 1893, at a banquet at Madison Square Garden in New York, a Chicago architect delivered an impromptu encomium to Frederick Law Olmstead, the landscape designer responsible for the grounds of the recently opened Columbia Exposition at the Chicago World's Fair: "An artist, he paints with lakes and wooded slopes; with lawns and banks and forest-covered hills; with mountain sides and ocean views." The designer of many of America's first public parks--Manhattan's Central Park and Brooklyn's Prospect Park, the Fens in Boston and others in Buffalo, Louisville and Chicago--Olmstead (1822-1903) blazed through several careers. He studied scientific farming; traveled the English countryside and the antebellum South, speaking out against slavery while writing for the New York Times; ran the U.S. Sanitary Commission during the Civil War; and oversaw a gold mine in the Sierra Nevadas. Olmstead's 1858 plan of Central Park established a new American pastoral aesthetic, uniting English picturesque elements, such as large, winding areas of grass, water and woods, within a harmonious but sharply circumscribed urban space. Rybczynski (City Life) depicts Olmstead as a zealous humanist who saw municipal parks as a civilizing force for a rapidly growing urban population that had little access to natural scenery. This richly anecdotal chronicle of the forces and the characters who transformed the American landscape in the 19th century rarely comes alive as a biography, however. Its laborious, reconstructed dialogue and set pieces, set off in italics, are in sharp contrast to Rybczynski's elegant musings on architectural and natural space. But in the final chapter, when Olmstead succumbs to dementia at McClean's asylum in Waverly, Mass., surrounded by grounds that he himself has designed, it's hard not to be stirred by the loss of a true American visionary. Photos. Author tour.