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Taking the Long View
A masterly biography of a master of many disciplines. By David Wicinas

 

A CLEARING IN THE DISTANCE:
Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the Nineteenth Century
By Witold Rybczynski, Faculty
New York: Scribner, 1999.480 pp., $28.00.
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Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland, Calif. stretches before me, a gentle hillside covered with gravestones that are interrupted here and there by groves of stately trees. Lifting my eyes beyond the cemetery, I see the bustling flatlands of Oakland, then the sparkling blue of San Francisco Bay, and finally the hills of the San Francisco Peninsula.
    My eyes did not travel this path by happenstance. This cemetery was designed to lead my gaze to the horizon. Frederick Law Olmsted, the man who popularized the term landscape architect, shaped this terrain precisely so visitors like me could ponder the tranquility of those distant, fog-shrouded hills.
    Although I have long admired some of Olmsted’s renowned parks and campuses, I knew nothing of the man himself before I read A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the Nineteenth Century. With this new biography, Witold Rybczynski, the Martin and Margy Meyerson Professor of Urbanism, creates a work much like one of Olmsted’s designs: He leads the reader toward a broader vision.
    At the close of 20th century, most Americans lead lives of hyper-specialization. We program in C++, we litigate intellectual-property rights, we package mortgage-backed securities. Olmsted, by contrast, was a 19th-century Renaissance man—a master of many disciplines. Besides his well-known work in landscape design, Olmsted was a successful writer, co-founding The Nation magazine, authoring one book on English agriculture and penning another three volumes on the American South and the Texas frontier. That trilogy’s reasoned critique of slavery helped cement abolitionist sentiments in the northern states and Europe. Olmsted had a gift for organizing large enterprises. At one time he managed the largest gold mine in California. During the Civil War he led the United States Sanitary Commission, precursor to the American Red Cross, commanding a massive flotilla of hospital ships and substantially reducing the death rate among Union casualties.
    Harvard historian Charles Eliot Norton once wrote that Olmsted was America’s greatest creator of works that "answer the needs and give expression to the life of our immense and miscellaneous democracy." Whether he was writing anti-slavery tracts, designing parks that gave "a specimen of God’s handiwork" to city-bound workers, or proposing that a remote California valley called the Yo Semite should become a national reserve because its future visitors "would be counted in the millions," Olmsted was always minding the long view. In a report he wrote about Franklin Park in Boston, Olmsted declared that the park should be such a work that our descendants will say, "See! This our fathers did for us."
   
Frederick Law Olmsted did not spring to life a fully formed servant of democracy. In fact, he could almost be a poster boy for late bloomers. Supported by his father, a comfortably wealthy dry-goods merchant, Olmsted caromed between early careers, trying his hand at surveying, apprenticing in the dry-goods business, serving before the mast on a sailing ship bound to China and finally settling on agriculture. For several years he ran a farm on Staten Island, growing pears and pursuing an interest in what was then known as scientific farming.
    Unwittingly, Olmsted was acquiring the hands-on equivalent of a liberal education. Through farming he learned practical economics, horticulture and hydrology. In the dry-goods business he acquired bookkeeping, accounting and office-organization skills. With his various literary efforts Olmsted cultivated formidable powers of expression. When an acquaintance suggested Olmsted seek the job as superintendent of New York’s newly formed Central Park, the 35-year-old pear farmer’s wide-ranging experience made him uniquely qualified for the position.
    During his earlier European travels Olmsted had zealously studied English approaches to parkland, and as a farmer he had always shown more flair for crafting a pleasing landscape than improving his crop yields. Now the budding landscape architect had a proper outlet for his passion. Collaborating with architect Calbert Vaux, Olmsted submitted the winning entry in a design competition for Central Park. His genius had begun to flower.
    Unlike other 19th-century landscape designers, who generally sought to impose formal patterns on nature, Olmsted believed a park’s appeal should flow from the inherent "beauty of the fields, the meadow, the prairies … the green pastures, and the still waters." Yet to Olmsted parks were more than venues for appreciating scenery. They were a vital component of city life, providing urban dwellers with escape from their cramped circumstances, giving them, as Olmsted declared, "a sense of enlarged freedom."
    Throughout A Clearing in the Distance Witold Rybczynski wholeheartedly endorses most of Olmsted’s beliefs. More conventional biographers might have chosen to disguise their opinions through the flow of the narrative, but Rybczynski interrupts Olmsted’s story with his own quick commentaries. For example, he interprets Olmsted’s wayward youth by saying, "Some of the boy’s perambulating may be explained by simple mischance … But I see a pattern" and then expounds a theory about why Olmsted’s father packed him off to board with clergymen. At times Rybczynski relates his own experiences to amplify the tale of Olmsted’s life. Summarizing his many visits to Montreal’s Mount Royal, a park Olmsted designed, Rybczynski says, "it was just a place to go when I was feeling particularly happy or sad or solitary or sociable. The Mountain was a part of Montreal—and apart; natural and magical, healthful and healing."
    Reading A Clearing in the Distance, I came to welcome Rybczynski’s personal excursions. His observations are acute and he presents an appealing image of himself. In fact, at times the author bears an uncanny resemblance to his subject as he rambles through Prospect Park in Brooklyn, strolls through snow on Mount Royal or stands astride the slopes of Mountain View Cemetery.
    From that same hillside I once again consider the vista Olmsted crafted in 1868, his first solo assignment. While building Central Park, Olmsted declared that "we determined to think of no results realized in less than forty years." More than a century after its construction, Mountain View Cemetery still pleases all visitors, and for all I know it may delight some of the long-term residents, too.
    Witold Rybczynski is an author who shares the passions of his subject and invites his readers to do the same. Like Frederick Law Olmsted—and Witold Rybczynski—we should all be looking at the works of our generation and wondering if our children will say with gratitude, "See! This our fathers did for us."

David Wicinas C’75, author of Sagebrush and Cappuccino: Confessions of an LA Naturalist, writes frequently about natural history in California. He lives in the San Francisco area.

 

Always On the Move
How 17th-century migration led to our multicultural society. By David Espey

MIGRATION AND THE ORIGINS OF THE ENGLISH ATLANTIC WORLD
By Alison Games Gr’92.
Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999. 322 pp., $45.00.
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It is often said that the Puritans came to America to do good, but did well instead. The cliché captures the contradiction between the evangelical and entrepreneurial visions behind the English settlement of North America.
    In her carefully researched account of early English migration to America, focusing on the port of London’s embarcation records from the year 1635, Alison Games, an assistant professor of history at Georgetown University, shows that most settlers did neither good nor well, but were fortunate simply to survive. Many migrated as indentured servants who surrendered their freedom and sold their labor in return for the tenuous promise of food, shelter and clothing. This kind of servitude, a sort of contractual slavery for white people, was as important in early colonial settlements as the African slave trade.
    Games’ research of British and American historical records is ambitious and impressive. She documents the movements of settlers both before and after they left England. Nearly half the book is taken up by tables, appendices, notes and an index, which support her statistical analysis of travel to and within the Atlantic colonies and follow the 7,507 voyagers who departed London in 1635. More interesting to this reader were the curious vignettes and revealing glimpses of colonial life, gleaned from journals, letters, memoirs and official records.
    Games calls into question the very notion of settlement, the assumption that settlers departed from homes in England to equally fixed places of residence in America. In fact, most early settlers were migrants—and sometimes vagrants—in both places. Many had first left rural homes in England to travel to London, in vain hopes of self-betterment, quickly dashed by poverty and scarcity of opportunity in the already overpopulated city.
    Desperation in London convinced them to sign up for the trans-Atlantic voyage; thus Games sees the passage to America as a continuation of internal English migration from country to city. This travel was truly travail. Since many migrants died en route or soon after they landed, a continual supply of people from England was needed to maintain, let alone expand the colonies. Most of the migrants were poor young men, without wives or families. When they got to America, they joined settlements that were predominantly male, like military camps or monasteries. The new arrivals kept moving around, following or sometimes escaping from their masters, who were seeking better land or more tolerant churches. Some indentured servants were bought and sold not for pounds sterling, but for pounds of tobacco, a ready currency in the early colonies.
    Complicating the conditions of poverty, disease and unemployment were the religious and political conflicts of the time. In fact, Games picks the year 1635 because the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, had recently decreed religious reforms which dealt harshly with Nonconformists. Charles I feared that the increased movement of population in England fostered chaos and rebellion. In hopes of preventing Puritans from migrating and spreading dissent in the colonies, he demanded that departing British subjects present letters from their parishes certifying that they were, in effect, Conformists—members in good standing of the established church. Thus clerks at the port of London kept meticulous records, which provide Games with unusually detailed data on those leaving for America.
    This policy, though it provided excellent records for Games to pore over 350 years later, failed miserably in its purpose. Puritans and other nonconformists managed to get out and carry on their heated religious debates in the wilderness of America. Both Charles and Laud soon lost their heads.
    For the non-specialist in early American history, one surprise in the book is Puritan settlement in the Caribbean. The island of Barbados—not New England or Virginia—was England’s most valuable colony in the 17th century, enriched by sugar cultivation. A map of Barbados, created around 1650 to entice settlers from other destinations, pictured Europeans on horseback to convey privilege, black and Indian figures as reminders of the slave population, and even camels to suggest the exotic. The Caribbean competed with New England both for settlers and for the intensity with which Puritans battled each other in church fights over doctrinal matters. (It is amazing, given the effort it must have taken merely to survive in America, that the Puritans had so much energy for religious debate. Games quotes with approval one scholar’s observation that a "Puritan who minds his own business is a contradiction in terms.")
    Puritan quarrels in New England led to the expulsion of figures like Thomas Hooker to Connecticut or Anne Hutchinson to Rhode Island. But in the Caribbean, the Puritan dissenters were banished to other islands, some inhospitable. As Games notes, the Puritan nature of islands like Bermuda or Providence has been overshadowed by "the historical interest accorded the New England colonies." Puritans seem as if they belong only in cold, stony New England. It is odd to think of them in what are now vacation paradises like Bermuda or the Bahamas.
    One Caribbean Puritan spoke of "the desire to have religion … planted among us." The metaphor of plantation suggests that the Puritans grew some rather exotic religious notions. "One place’s heresy was another’s orthodoxy." Islands like Bermuda "provided laboratories for Puritan experiments that could then be reexported, like tobacco or sugar, back to England." Indeed, Puritan conflicts in the Atlantic colonies foreshadowed Cromwell and the religious war in England.
    As the title of the book suggests, Games focuses on the creation of an English-speaking Atlantic world, a polyglot community of Indian tribes, Irish, Scots, Spanish, Dutch, Africans and English from every city and county. This society was made possible by continual migration, not merely from Europe and Africa to America, but among the Atlantic colonies themselves. Perhaps the family of John Winthrop, the founder of Massachusetts, best illustrates the migratory nature of colonial society, where Puritans from Bermuda went to college at Harvard. His son Samuel planted sugar in the Caribbean island of St. Christopher and settled in Antigua. Another son, Henry, tried settlement in Barbados, and John Jr. went back across the Atlantic to be educated at Trinity College in Dublin before becoming governor of Connecticut. Even New England Indians migrated to the Caribbean—a group of rebellious Pequots were shipped from Massachusetts to the West Indies in 1637.
    Our multicultural society had its origins in the continuous migrations of the 17th century. The English looked upon America in the colonial period as a provincial backwater—another cliché about early colonial history. But Games argues that the Atlantic colonies, with their ever-changing mixture of British, Native American, European and African migrants, were much more cosmopolitan, in their own rough way, than anywhere in England—or in Europe, for that matter.

Dr. David Espey is director of the English Writing Program.


Reviews in Brief

BRIEFLY NOTED
A selection of recent books by alumni and faculty, or otherwise of interest to the University community. Descriptions are compiled from information supplied by the authors and publishers
.


 

FOOD FOR THE GODS: Vegetarianism & the World’s Religions
By Rynn Berry C’68 G’71.
New York: Pythagorean Publishers, 1999. 374 pp., $19.95.
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In 10 essays and conversations with leading vegetarian religious thinkers, Food for the Gods answers such questions as: Why were so many of the founders of the world’s great religions vegetarians? How is the theory of reincarnation related to a vegetarian diet? Was Jesus a vegetarian? And which are the most ecologically sensitive religions? In addition, this book contains recipes typical of each religion. Author Rynn Berry is the historical adviser to the North American Vegetarian Society. His previous books include The New Vegetarians and Famous Vegetarians and Their Favorite Recipes.

SOCIAL MINDSCAPES: An Invitation to Cognitive Sociology
By Eviatar Zerubavel Gr’76.
Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999. 164 pp., $15.95.
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Cognitive science addresses cognition on two levels: the individual and the universal. To fill the gap between the Romantic vision of the solitary thinker, whose thoughts are the product of unique experience, and the cognitive-psychological view that revolves around the search for the universal foundations of human cognition, Zerubavel charts an expansive social realm of mind—a domain that focuses on the conventional, normative aspect of the way we think. Zerubavel is professor and director of the graduate program in sociology at Rutgers University. His most recent book is The Clockwork Muse: A Practical Guide to Writing Theses, Dissertations, and Books.

THE OTHER FOUNDERS: 
Anti-Federalism and the Dissenting Tradition in America, 1788-1828
By Saul Cornell G’86 Gr’89.
Chapel Hill, N.C.: The University of North Carolina Press, 1999.
327 pp. $55.00 (cloth); $19.95 (paper).
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Fear of centralized authority is deeply rooted in American history. The struggle over the U.S. Constitution in 1788 pitted the Federalists, supporters of a stronger central government, against the Anti-Federalists, the champions of a more local vision of politics. But, argues Cornell, while the Federalists may have won the battle over ratification, it is the ideas of the Anti-Federalists that continue to define the soul of American politics. Anti-Federalism continued to help define the limits of legitimate dissent within the American constitutional tradition for decades and its ideas also exerted an important influence on Jeffersonianism and Jacksonianism. Cornell is an assistant professor of history at Ohio State University.

THE HAUNTED SCREEN: Ghosts in Literature and Film
By Lee Kovacs CGS’92 CGS’96.
Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1999.
208 pp., $32.50.
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While ghosts often inhabit films and literature devoted to the horror genre, a group of literature-based films from the 1930s and 1940s presents more human and romantic apparitions. These films provide the underpinnings for many of the gentle supernatural films released in more recent years. Tracing the links between specters as diverse as Rex Harrison’s Captain Gregg (The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, 1947) and Patrick Swayze’s Sam Wheat (Ghost, 1990), this text presents the evolution of the cinematic-literary ghost from classic gothic to the psychological, sociological and political ideologies of today. Kovacs is a member of the National Coalition of Independent Scholars.

FACING AND FIGHTING FATIGUE: A Practical Approach
By Benjamin H. Natelson C’63 M’67.
New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.
208 pp., $25.00 (cloth); $15.00 (paper).
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Living in these fast-paced times, most of us know what it is to be exhausted. Fatigue seems to be a normal part of people’s lives when they are overactive, have physical or emotional problems, face stress or suffer from insomnia. Natelson, an expert in fatigue disorders, explains what causes the problem, how to combat it and what patients should know when consulting a doctor about symptoms. Natelson explains why certain habits, such as eating late or becoming accustomed to sedatives, can disturb sleep for some people. He reviews the efficacy of prescription and non-prescription drugs. And he outlines a program for fatigue sufferers to identify and manage stress, a major cause of fatigue. He also addresses the concerns of the increasing numbers of people with chronic fatigue syndrome. Natelson is medical director of the New Jersey Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Center and the New Jersey Gulf War Research Center.

MUSIC IN THE MARKETPLACE:
The Story of Philadelphia’s Historic Wanamaker Organ

By Ray Biswanger C’75.
Bryn Mawr, Pa.: Friends of the Wanamaker Organ Press, 1999. 302 pp., $66.00.

This book tells the complete story of the colossal pipe organ that became the centerpiece of John and Rodman Wanamaker’s famed department store in 1909. Dozens of store artisans enlarged the organ over 18 years to maintain it as the world’s largest—a virtual symphony orchestra in pipes. Wanamaker’s showcased the instrument in brilliant after-hours concerts featuring Leopold Stokowski, the Philadelphia Orchestra and the world’s foremost musicians. In this coffetable-format book, with more than 270 illustrations, Biswanger shares store lore, the history of the 17-ton Wanamaker Founder’s Bell and insights into the private lives of the Wanamaker family as well as the famous artists whose lives were intertwined with the organ. Biswanger is an editor at TV Guide and president of the Friends of the Wanamaker Organ.

MAKING LOSS MATTER: Creating Meaning in Difficult Times
By Rabbi David Wolpe C’81.
New York: Riverhead Books, 1999.
226 pp., $23.95.
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Sooner or later, every one of us becomes an expert on loss—not only of loved ones, but of dreams, relationships, homes and friends moving away. Some of these losses may seem trivial compared to death, but they all remind us of the sad fact that time slowly strips the world of things we care about. Many people turn to psychology to enhance their understanding of life’s losses, but the human struggle is not simply a product of training and genetics. As Rabbi David Wolpe explains in his new book, "Unless we see ourselves as spiritual beings—as well as social and psychological beings—we shall never truly advance in our understanding of humanity." Rabbi Wolpe emphasizes the importance of learning from our elders and ancient traditions, and, using his own experience as a rabbi, a son, a husband and a father, he shows how to find faith, hope and purpose to endure difficult times. Wolpe is a regular guest on national television and radio, and is senior rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles.


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