A Guest Blog by Justin Martin, author of Genius of Place: The Life of Frederick Law Olmsted. Frequently now we are asking other writers to make use of this blog in order to tell you about what they have written and what they think about their work. Justin Martin is a biographer and has also written biographies of other notable men, Alan Greenspan and Ralph Nader. But I think this book is his finest and well worth reading and giving as a present as well. I have done both. Ordering information and a link to Justin’s Facebook page for his book are at the bottom of Justin’s post.
We are increasingly a nation of specialists. Nowadays college kids are selecting majors in their freshman years, the better to get onto a secure career track. And who can blame anyone for being focused, even narrow-cast, given the current brutal economy?
But specialization wasn’t always the rule. I’m the author of Genius of Place: The Life of Frederick Law Olmsted and while researching the story of this grand 19th century figure I was struck by how different things once were. Olmsted came of age in a genuine frontier society. And it wasn’t only a frontier in terms of vast undiscovered spaces. Back then, America was also a frontier from the standpoint that there were fewer people, fewer codified professions, leading to a kind of all-things-possible, all-hands-on-deck mentality.
At age 14, Olmsted dropped out of school and dabbled in a series of jobs: surveyor, clerk, sailor, farmer. Then, in 1852, he landed an interview with a startup newspaper, The New York Times. The interview lasted just five minutes and Olmsted was handed a dream assignment: travel through the American South and document plantation life and slavery. In hiring Olmsted, the Times editor recognized that experiences such as surveying and farming would be valuable to a journalistic endeavor. And the editor’s instincts bore out as Olmsted produced a series of 48 spectacular dispatches that helped put the upstart paper on the map.
In 1861, Olmsted’s dispatches were collected in a classic book called The Cotton Kingdom. Here it is exactly 150 years later and title is still in print. Historian Arthur Schlesinger once described The Cotton Kingdom as “the nearest thing that posterity has to an exact transcription of a civilization which time has tinted with hues of romantic legend.”
Just think of what would have been lost if that editor hadn’t been willing to take a chance on Olmsted the generalist. Would it be possible today to make the transition from surveyor to clerk to sailor to farmer to journalist? Would it be possible, as Olmsted did, to parlay journalism into becoming the designer of New York’s green space masterpiece, Central Park. Incredible! And Olmsted wasn’t nearly done recreating himself.
With the onset of the Civil War, Olmsted departed Central Park for Washington, where he headed up a wartime medical relief outfit that provided immeasurable care to injured soldiers. After the war – through a whole series of convolutions – this outfit morphed into the American Red Cross. Next Olmsted headed to California and became a goldmine supervisor. While in California, he visited Yosemite and it awakened an interest in environmentalism, an interest that informed his work for the rest of his life.
Finally, Olmsted returned East, designed Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, and at the age of 40 settled into landscape architecture, the career for which he’s best remembered. But what makes his creations – ranging from Boston’s Emerald Necklace park system to the grounds of the US Capitol in Washington to Stanford’s campus – so spectacular is that he brought all his pervious experience to bear. Nothing was wasted.
At times, I found researching Olmsted’s life story heartbreaking. It’s clear that some of the best aspects of America are rooted in that all-but-vanished frontier mindset. But learning about Olmsted’s life was also inspiring. He made false starts, hit dead ends, failed outright sometimes, and kept going. That seems like a good formula for any era.