Flowers in His Trousers

Christopher Benfey

  • Frederick Law Olmsted: Writings on Landscape, Culture and Society edited by Charles E. Beveridge
    Library of America, 802 pp, £30.00, November 2015, ISBN 978 1 59853 452 8

During the 1870s, the decade he turned fifty, Frederick Law Olmsted, the creative mastermind of New York’s Central Park, looked back on his career as a landscape architect, the compound profession he had virtually invented from elements of gardening, agriculture, architecture, landscape painting and civil engineering. Olmsted ascribed much of his success to serendipity, the ‘successive unpremeditated steps’ that had led him to embrace (after forays in turnip farming and investigative journalism) such an unusual calling in the first place. During his long life – he was born in 1822 and died in 1903 – Olmsted helped design Central Park and Brooklyn’s equally magnificent Prospect Park, Stanford University and many other American colleges, and the public grounds at Niagara Falls, the US Capitol in Washington and, late in life, the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. It was a chance encounter at a seaside inn in New England that brought him to consider the notion of the great park in the first place, even if in retrospect he seems to have been the perfect – almost the inevitable – man for the job.

In Olmsted’s line of work, serendipity was a principle of design. ‘The artist in landscape gardening can never have, like the landscape painter, a clean canvas to work upon,’ he noted. ‘Always there will be conditions of local topography, soil and climate by which his operations must be limited.’ A cemetery in a dry and flat part of California should not be forced to mimic the ‘shade, gloom and seclusion’ characteristic of the rural cemeteries of New England. In landscape design as well as the management of people (in which Olmsted also excelled) an effective plan must be ‘made to meet the suggestions of the ground’.

A new edition of Olmsted’s writings in the handsome Library of America series allows the reader to follow the twists and turns of his eventful life. His father was a merchant in Hartford, Connecticut; his mother died of an overdose of laudanum in 1826, when Olmsted was not yet four. He was farmed out to various teachers, and severely beaten by one of them, a minister. When he was 15 his father arranged for him to learn the surveyor’s trade, but it didn’t take. He went to sea in 1843 as an ordinary sailor (visiting China convinced him that Europeans did not have a monopoly on civilisation). On his return, he determined to become a gentleman farmer, and observed several progressive farmers before acquiring, with help from his father, his own farm on Staten Island. He visited his younger brother, John, at Yale, making friends with some of his high-minded circle, including Charles Loring Brace, who later founded the Children’s Aid Society. Brace and the Olmsted brothers travelled to Europe in 1850, walking through the English countryside and visiting farmers there and on the Continent. A trip to Birkenhead Park, opened only three years earlier, which ‘the poorest British peasant is as free to enjoy … in all its parts, as the British queen’, was an epiphany for Olmsted, who, in an article published the following year, wondered why the US, with its democratic aspirations, had no comparable public parks.

And then he travelled to the American South to examine the workings of agriculture in a slave economy. The resulting series of fifty letters, published in the New York Times in 1853 and 1854, made his reputation as a journalist. He had thought, naively, that slavery would be peripheral to his analysis, but his pieces describe the inefficiency of the system: he writes of farms on which slaves were reluctant to work and prone to destructive ‘rascality’, not because they were inherently degenerate (as many Southerners claimed), but because they had no stake in their overseers’ success. Olmsted, who had heard a great deal about the supposed refinement of the Southern aristocracy, was disappointed by the cultural shortcomings of the planters he encountered and appalled by the living conditions of white labourers. He had been led to believe that housing would be on a par with that in New England:

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