Study Guide

A Clearing in the Distance

by Witold Rybczynski

A Clearing in the Distance Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The title of Witold Rybczynski’s biography of Frederick Law Olmsted alludes to the great landscape architect’s habit of taking the long view—looking past present considerations to a fulfillment that might require decades. As this practitioner of the art of landscape design realized, nature cannot be hurried.

That Frederick Law Olmsted was not a man to be hurried became evident in his early years. In his twenties he resembled a type common today but nonexistent in his time: the vocationally uncommitted young man, financially dependent on patient but anxious parents yet not terribly eager to emerge from a prolonged adolescence. An indifferent student whose father would nevertheless have supported him through college had he wanted to go, the young Olmsted first trained to be a surveyor, then took up the duties of a clerk in a dry goods establishment, and at nineteen signed on as a deckhand on a merchant ship bound for China. One voyage convinced him that he was no sailor. Could he be a farmer? After Fred spent some months as a hired hand, John Olmsted staked him to his own farm; it appeared that the young man might succeed as a farmer—if indeed he could be convinced to become anything. One is inclined, however, to doubt that a true farmer would decide, as he did, to take six months off to travel around Europe.

What Olmsted did have was the capacity to learn from these youthful experiences and from a series of seemingly unrelated positions he filled later—writer of articles on social and economic conditions in the South in the early 1850’s for The New York Times and Putnam’s Magazine, superintendent of construction of Central Park in New York, director of the United States Sanitary Commission—a forerunner of the Red Cross—during the Civil War, manager of the famous (and ultimately infamous) Mariposa mining endeavor in California, and chairman of the Yosemite Commission, a body whose work in effect began the National Park system. Olmsted obtained such positions because he had the knack of making a favorable impression on influential people, because he was skilled at representing his sometimes dubious credentials in the best possible light, and because he was lucky in such matters. Once he had obtained a position, he invariably did a good job, sometimes a superior one.

His profession was, in fact, waiting for someone to invent it. He was in his mid-thirties when, at the suggestion of a member of the commission responsible for the fashioning of Central Park in Manhattan, he took up the first of the designing and landscaping achievements for which he is now famous. His title was at first simply superintendent—his duties, at least in the minds of the park commissioners, the direction of the hundreds of workmen and the establishment of an adequate police force for the project. The chief engineer, Colonel Egbert Viele, had submitted a design for the park, but Mayor Fernando Wood did not approve of it. Thus the way was open for Olmsted to impose his own imagination on these eight-hundred-odd acres in the middle of Manhattan. He was fortunate to obtain in Calvert Vaux a partner with a much stronger architectural background than his own. Together the two men submitted a design that won the commissioners’ approval, and Olmsted’s title was upgraded to architect-in-chief. He learned many lessons about politics, and he became proficient at manipulating the political figures whose cooperation was essential but frequently difficult to effect. He proved to be a stubborn young man who won major battles by the expedient of threatening to quit the project rather than submit to anything he considered unreasonably restrictive. He later would walk away from other commissions for this reason; one example was the campus of Stanford University, when its benefactor, railroad magnate Leland Stanford, tried to countermand his design. Today Central Park seems like the obvious beginning of his career, but the truth is that nearly a decade later, he was wondering whether to become a railroad executive, a newspaper editor, or perhaps a consul in the Foreign Service.

In the interim, the most improbable of all his various endeavors, his management of the Mariposa gold mining property, cast him into the proximity of the colossal California sequoia trees and the wonders of Yosemite, and thus not only honed his administrative skills but added an important dimension to his long- standing appreciation of the natural scene. His interest in social reform, guided by the influence of his friend from early days, Charles Loring Brace (who directed the Children’s Aid Society for many years),...

(The entire section is 1889 words.)