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If I told you that I've just read an excellent biographical memoir about an American original where the author is a looming presence and sections of the book, which masquerade as primary resource material, are actually fabricated by the biographer, you would probably assume that I'd broken down and bought the Edmund Morris book, Dutch.  In fact, Witold Rybczynski's biography of the great American landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903), includes imagined thoughts and dialogue that the author himself crafted.  As he told Brian Lamb on Booknotes, he doesn't much like docudramas but found the technique could be valuable.  Indeed, the author is a character in the book, sharing his opinions and walking through Olmsted's parks, sharing his observations.

I mention this, not because it takes away from the book, but because they are fairly typical techniques.  Actually, the biographer is a presence in virtually every biography, starting with the choice of whom to write about, but then continuing with the editorial judgments about how to play incidents and what to put in and leave out.  If authors like Morris and Rybczynski are more open about it than most, more power to them.

Meanwhile, Rybczynski's subject here, in addition to designing and building Central Park, Prospect Park, etc., was also a sailor, farmer, journalist, founder of The Nation, author of several still pertinent books on the functioning of slavery in the South, and remained throughout his life an honest and honorable public servant.  The author tells his story well and offers one important theme of Olmsted's work that retains its relevance.  Olmsted, whom we perceive as a naturalist and environmentalist,  believed that wilderness, open spaces and nature itself should serve humans.  We look on Central Park today and mistaken think of it as a preserved piece of nature in the midst of development.  Actually, the only part of the Park that remains unchanged may be the granite outcroppings that helped make the land cheap.  He truly built parks and he did so in order that they might serve as restorative or recuperative sanctuaries for modern man.

This is a very interesting book and it is particularly useful as a counter balance to Robert Caro's great biography of Robert Moses (The Power Broker : Robert Moses and the Fall of New York).  Caro makes a pretty convincing case that Moses ended up using his enormous powers to impose his own will on the geography of New York, regardless of the impact on the human beings living there.  Olmsted, on the other hand,  remained reticent about using his power and always built with the ultimate users in mind.  He emerges as a great American visionary and a really admirable figure.


Grade: (A-)


See also:

Witold Rybczynski (2 books reviewed)
Witold Rybczynski Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Witold Rybczynski     -WHARTON: Witold Rybczynski   Martin & Margy Meyerson Professor of Urbanism; Professor of Real Estate
    -Wharton Real Estate Review: published by the Center and edited by Witold Rybczynski (The Samuel Zell and Robert Lurie Real Estate Center)
    -EXCERPT: Chapter One: "Tough as Nails"
-ESSAY: The Next New Thing: In architecture, the gulf between the traditional and the modern seems wider than ever before (Witold Rybczynski | June 3, 2024, American Scholar)
    : On Frederick Law Olmsted’s Bicentennial (Witold Rybczynski, March 2022, Hedgehog Review)
-ESSAY: The Unbearable Burden of Invention: A corollary of giving priority to invention is that imitation, once the foundation of creativity in architecture, is banished. (Witold Rybczynski, Hedgehog Review)
    -ESSAY: Building to Last (Witold Rybczynski, March 3, 2021, American Scholar)
    -ESSAY: More Perfect Union of Function and Form: The National Constitution Center, which opened in Philadelphia on July 4, is destined to take its place among the nation's leading public monuments. (WITOLD RYBCZYNSKI, 7/08/03, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: Why We Need Olmsted Again (Witold Rybczynski, Wilson Quarterly)
    -ESSAY: Keeping the Modern Modern: By trying to keep up with the times, the Museum of Modern Art may obliterate its architectural diary of modernism (Witold Rybczynski, The Atlantic)
    -ESSAY: Moving the Bell:  Soon America's most venerated icon will have a new, and more appropriate, home (Witold Rybczynski, The Atlantic)
    -ESSAY: Sounds as Good as it Looks: Sounds as Good as It Looks:  Seiji Ozawa Hall, at Tanglewood,  is modeled on the world's few great concert halls (Witold Rybczynski, The Atlantic)
    -ESSAY: The Virtues of Suburban Sprawl (Witold Rybczynski, Wall Street Journal)
    -INTERVIEW : A conversation with Witold Rybczynski The architect turned author talks about the beauty of the screw (Loren Fox, Salon)
    -REVIEW: of Country, Park & City: The Architecture and Life of Calvert Vaux by Francis R. Kowsky (Witold Rybczynski, NY Review of Books)
    -FORUM: "I Have a Dream" Ideas for Rebuilding American Culture (Policy Review, March-April 1996, Number 76)
    -INTERVIEW: (Booknotes, CSPAN)
    -INTERVIEW: Landscape Artist: A conversation with Witold Rybczynski, whose biography of Frederick Law Olmsted tells a story of nineteenth-century America through landscape architecture (The Atlantic)
    -INTERVIEW: Our Cities, Ourselves An interview withWitold Rybczynski (KERRY MICHAELS,  Home Arts)
    -Biography on Book TV: Biographer Witold Rybczynski (C-SPAN)
    -INTERVIEW: Sitting Down With Witold Rybczynski: The writer and architect talks chairs (Stephanie Bastek | November 27, 2020, American Scholar)
    -REVIEW:  (Suzanna Lessard, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: (David Laskin, Washington Post Book World)
    -REVIEW: Olmsted's glorious wide-open spaces (Craig Whitaker, USA TODAY)
    -REVIEW: On Architecture: The Cultivator by Martin Filler  Frederick Law Olmsted, and what Witold Rybczynski doesn't understand about him. (New Republic)
    -REVIEW : of A CLEARING IN THE DISTANCE: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the Nineteenth Century By Witold Rybczynski (Anthony Bianco , Business Week)
    -ARTICLE: Biographer shows Olmsted's influence in shaping Seattle (Robin Updike, Seattle Times)
-REVIEW: of The Story of Architecture by Witold Rybczynski (Amanda Kolson Hurley, American Scholar)

Book-related and General Links:

    -VIDEO: Documentary | Frederick Law Olmsted: Designing America (You Tube)
    -ARTICLE: Prince of Parks: The influence of Frederick Law Olmsted ripples through the urban landscape, including Portland's (John Strawn, The Oregonian)
     -ARTICLE: Belle Isle designer helped us see nature (Suzanna Lessard, Detroit Free Press)
     -ESSAY: The Genius of the Place ( William H. Jordy, NY Review of Books)
     -Central Park Website
     -Frederick Law Olmsted: A celebration of the life and work of Frederick Law Olmsted, founder of American landscape architecture
     -World's End: Frederick Law Olmstead
    -A View of Frederick Law Olmsted © by R.H. Albright
    -ESSAY: A Garden for All as Private Eden: Central Park, which celebrates its 150th anniversary this year, is our great urban oasis. (HERBERT MUSCHAMP, 5/23/03, NY Times)
    -EDITORIAL: Central Park's Golden Age: The 843 acres that make up the nation's best-known municipal park showcase nature at its finest. (NY Times, 6/01/03)