PARK-MAKER: A Life of Frederick Law Olmsted by Elizabeth Stevenson

PARK-MAKER: A Life of Frederick Law Olmsted

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Among the books called forth by the Olmsted sesquicentennial in 1972 was Laura Roper's full, finespun biography which--along with some specialized studies--successfully dispelled the ""shadows of neglect"" from America's foremost landscape architect. What, coming so soon, can another major biography contribute? Elizabeth Stevenson, biographer also of Henry Adams and Lafcadio Hearn, has written, first of all, an interpretation of Olmsted's life--not a detailed, factual biography, still less an account of his career. The life she presents--schematically, though not without foundation--is divided into two halves, the first a period of aimless, exploratory drift, the second of hard-driving accomplishment. Only latterly did he resolve ""the war between the two parts of his nature,"" the dreamer and the doer. He is justifiably pictured as troubled; indeed, much of the book is a threnody of overexertion, illness, despondency, family anxieties, disputes with clients and employers (notably New York City's Park Commissioners) and collaborator Calvert Vaux--lightened by the affectionate regard of his family and a few long, close friendships. This is not inspiriting nor always to be trusted (did Olmsted resent his father's placing him with stern clergymen-tutors, as Stevenson contends, or did he react against clerical severity, as Roper maintains and later events seem to confirm?); worse, it leaves us with a thin picture of a thwarted genius--fond, irascible--that does not support the manifold accomplishments. Proportionately, Olmsted the park-maker is least in evidence here; Central Park is discussed, of course (most major projects are at least mentioned), but otherwise we hear in appreciative detail only about Biltmore, the Vanderbilt estate near Asheville, and some little-known work in Atlanta. Not by chance, perhaps (Stevenson teaches at Emory), Olmsted's pre-Civil War travels through the South and bis resultant writings are absorbingly chronicled. These exceptions apart, drawing lessons and anticipating actions (an endless pitapat of ""he was to"" and ""he would"") are no substitute for the sense of Olmsted's amplitude and intellectual and moral vigor which Roper provides as a context for his work.

Pub Date: May 27th, 1977
ISBN: 0765806142
Publisher: Macmillan