"HE WON'T BE CONTENT with less than infinity - while he himself is only finite and a farmer." So wrote Mary Olmsted about her 26-year-old brother Fred. She was using the words in a rather special sense - actually referring to Fred's capacity to fall in love with young lady or that; yet they have relevance to Olmsted's whole career. He was to become more, much more, than a farmer; but with a driving, alomst compulsive energy he still seemed discontented, and still grasped for some hold upon ifinity. This book is a splendid witness to the quest and its results.
When Olmsted died in 1903, his mind in eclipse for almost a decade, he was universally praised as the man who had built Central Park and founded the American profession of landscape architecture. Then he was almost universally forgotten. His son and stepson carried on the Olmsted firm; a small group of scholars kept his accomplishments in mind, while his greatest parks fell to abuse and neglect. The 150th anniversary of his birth served to spark a revival, and it became known that not one, but two massive biographies were in preparation.
FLO by Laura Wood Roper appeard in 1974; now, Park Maker by Elizabeth Stevenson. Both are meticulously researched and laid out on a large scale. Comparisons, at least when they are not called for, are odious. But it may be said that of the two Roper tends to discuss more thorougly Olmsted's writings and the substance of his designs; Stevenson perhaps draws with a more skilful hand the relations of outward events to the man's inner life. (And Stevensons's volume, it must be added, is the more handsomley produced, a quite stunning job of bookmaking.") We can be grateful for having both, and must now await the publication of the Olmsted letters and papers, to which the Johns Hopkins Press has long been committed.
Olmsted fell short of being in the absolutely top rank of the several fields his genius touched: not as philospher, as writer, as artist, as engineer did he match other individuals even in his own time. His gift was to combine these many activities in q way that was uniquely creative and uniquely his own. His nature was like one of his own great parks, the quality of which was to bring within one frame the wilder and the more controlled aspects of the natural world, sunlight and deep shadow, opening vistas and bounded distances, and to harmonize amid all this a delicate balance of recreational pursuits. So Olmsted within himself accommodated the most practical engineering skills and the most wide-ranging advocacy of general ideas; and he possessed, despite increasingly turbulent humors, places of general calm, like the small lakes he liked to insert in his landscapes to bring a hint of infinity into the city.
The events of his life are ideally suited to the almost mythic character his career has assumed for this generation of Americans. From the Dickensian shadows of early youth (his father, in other respects a most admirable man, farmed out the lad to a a succession of uncultivated blackwoods clergymen) he emerged to have his season before the mast, to try his hand at scientific farming, to wander abroad and then widely through his own land. He was a professional journalist and a literary entreprenuer. Nothing ever quite succeeded - though the southern writings were remarkable for their time and the progenitor of Myrdal's American Dilemma; and even after the triumph of Central Park he was plagued by controversies and icreasing doubts.
Yet nothing ever quite failed, either. Even the bankruptcy of the Mariposa mines in California, the management of which he had undertaken after quitting his Civil War job in a huff, left him with money to pay off his debts to his father and with a lifelong involvement in the West. Whatever he passed through affected and enlarged him. Meanwhile there was growing fame, the recognition of his peers, and increasing number of parks across the country which he looked on as wayward children, proudly but with pessimistic concern.
With access to a veritable mountain of letters, Elizabeth Stevenson has woven out of it all a fascinating human story - the story of a park-maker who was even greater than a park-maker, and who deserves his new won place in the pantheon of American heroes.