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Taking the Long View
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.
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 Olmsteds 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 Olmsteds
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 mana 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 trilogys 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.
Charles Eliot Norton once wrote that Olmsted was Americas 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 Gods 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."
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.
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 Yorks newly formed Central Park,
the 35-year-old pear farmers 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 parks 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
Clearing in the Distance Witold Rybczynski wholeheartedly endorses
most of Olmsteds beliefs. More conventional biographers might
have chosen to disguise their opinions through the flow of the narrative,
but Rybczynski interrupts Olmsteds story with his own quick commentaries.
For example, he interprets Olmsteds wayward youth by saying, "Some
of the boys perambulating may be explained by simple mischance
But I see a pattern" and then expounds a theory about why
Olmsteds father packed him off to board with clergymen. At times
Rybczynski relates his own experiences to amplify the tale of Olmsteds
life. Summarizing his many visits to Montreals 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 Montrealand apart; natural and magical,
healthful and healing."
Reading A Clearing
in the Distance, I came to welcome Rybczynskis 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.
is an author who shares the passions of his subject and invites his
readers to do the same. Like Frederick Law Olmstedand Witold Rybczynskiwe
should all be looking at the works of our generation and wondering if
our children will say with gratitude, "See! This our fathers did
David Wicinas C75, 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 Gr92.
Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999. 322 pp., $45.00.
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 Londons 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.
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 migrantsand sometimes
vagrantsin 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
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.
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, Conformistsmembers 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 Barbadosnot New England or Virginiawas
Englands 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 scholars observation that a "Puritan
who minds his own business is a contradiction in terms.")
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 places heresy was anothers
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 Caribbeana
group of rebellious Pequots were shipped from Massachusetts to the West
Indies in 1637.
society had its origins in the continuous migrations of the 17th century.
The English looked upon America in the colonial period as a provincial
backwateranother 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 Englandor
in Europe, for that matter.
Dr. David Espey is director of the English Writing Program.
Reviews in Brief
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 Worlds Religions
By Rynn Berry C68 G71.
New York: Pythagorean Publishers, 1999. 374 pp., $19.95.
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 worlds 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
Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999. 164 pp., $15.95.
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 minda 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 G86 Gr89.
Chapel Hill, N.C.: The University of North Carolina Press, 1999.
327 pp. $55.00 (cloth); $19.95 (paper).
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
THE HAUNTED SCREEN: Ghosts in Literature and Film
By Lee Kovacs CGS92 CGS96.
Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1999.
208 pp., $32.50.
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 Harrisons
Captain Gregg (The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, 1947) and Patrick
Swayzes 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 C63 M67.
New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.
208 pp., $25.00 (cloth); $15.00 (paper).
Living in these fast-paced times, most of us know what it is to be
exhausted. Fatigue seems to be a normal part of peoples 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 Philadelphias Historic Wanamaker Organ
By Ray Biswanger C75.
Bryn Mawr, Pa.: Friends of the Wanamaker Organ Press, 1999. 302
This book tells the complete story of the colossal pipe organ that
became the centerpiece of John and Rodman Wanamakers famed department
store in 1909. Dozens of store artisans enlarged the organ over 18 years
to maintain it as the worlds largesta virtual symphony orchestra
in pipes. Wanamakers showcased the instrument in brilliant after-hours
concerts featuring Leopold Stokowski, the Philadelphia Orchestra and
the worlds foremost musicians. In this coffetable-format book,
with more than 270 illustrations, Biswanger shares store lore, the history
of the 17-ton Wanamaker Founders 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 C81.
New York: Riverhead Books, 1999.
226 pp., $23.95.
Sooner or later, every one of us becomes an expert on lossnot
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 lifes 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 beingsas
well as social and psychological beingswe 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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1999 The Pennsylvania Gazette
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