Genius of Place: The Life of Frederick Law Olmstead by Justin Martin (DaCapo, $20.00, 464 pages)
That was his plan – plan being a very loose term at this point. He began casting about. As a sailor-turned-farmer-turned-park maker, later a gold-mine supervisor, there were so many things he had done, more still that he might do. He found himself pulled this way and that by all the possibilities – a tyranny of choices.
If ever there was a frustrated idealist, Frederick Law Olmstead (FLO) certainly fit the type. His boundless imagination and spurts of energy propelled him into a role as a pioneer in America on many fronts. Most people who know of FLO associate him with the design of New York City’s Central Park. But wait, as the reader will discover, there’s more, so much more.
Author Justin Martin does quite well by his subject in this comprehensive and thoroughly annotated biography. The account of FLO’s life begins on a somewhat dry note. This can be forgiven as his family and neighbors in 1822 had no inkling of the greatness that was born that year. In the absence of the means and motivation to document a child’s life in that era, it’s remarkable that Martin was able to find the background information he provides to the reader. A childhood marred by the loss of his mother, but balanced by the loving indulgence of his father, became slightly more dynamic as FLO finally broke away from the confining tediousness of proper New England Christian schooling.
Martin’s narrative takes on a life and charm of its own as FLO finds his passions and motivation. Clearly, there were times when the peaks and depths of emotion chronicled in his letters home and personal notes make a case for some mental frailties, or powerful obsessive qualities in the man’s psyche. Moreover, his strong sense of responsibility and ownership for projects put him at odds with his governing boards. Regardless, the vast number of significant accomplishments achieved through FLO’s persistence, fervor and energy helped to shape the landscape and thinking that prevails today – democratic public parks rather than private sanctuaries in cities, preservation of fragile scenic areas for generations to come, conservation of natural resources, and organization of aid to fellow citizens in the precursor to the American Red Cross.
As a key player in many social movements of the 19th century, including the Civil War, FLO was a husband, father and step-father. He was never able to tailor his life to the demands of a steady income stream. This reviewer was deeply moved by the breadth and depth of this marvelous biography. Clearly, it could easily serve as an engaging textbook for both young and older readers.
A review copy was provided by the publisher.
“Engaging.” The Wall Street Journal