My book arrived well-packaged. Loopy, slapdash script in a fat-tip Sharpie proclaimed “requested” across the white space of a tightly-furled bubble mailer. Straight from the publisher; “requested” indeed. The book is very pretty: a smooth, satisfying tactile dust jacket colored in shades of sepia; Frederick Olmsted’s portrait leans like a pensive shadow, a believable amount of grain gently hazing his features. I like the creeping ivy overlaid on the spine. Ladies and Gentlemen, I have arrived.
Justin Martin’s Genius of Place: The Life of Frederick Law Olmsted will forever now hold a place of honor on my personal shelf. My childlike excitement over the wonder of my very first meaningful foray into bona fide literary journalism is eclipsed only by my surprise at Olmsted’s subtle – and previously unrealized – contributions to my life. Central Park is my backyard; Eastern Parkway, a route to friends and favorite restaurants – both designs from the fruits of Olmsted’s genius. Genius of Place has proved an unexpected and intriguing delight. And make no mistake; Martin is a master craftsman of connecting his readers to his subject. Olmsted’s life is painted in vibrant and articulate pages full of interest and sans a single paragraph of stuffiness.
Martin will share his newest book tomorrow night, Wednesday, October 12th, at 610 Magnolia for an evening of wine, appetizers and book discussion (an excellent combination). The personable Mr. Martin and myself had the opportunity to talk over the phone last week and discuss the intrigue and life of the man behind the dust jacket.
What interests you about people? How did you become a biographer?
Biographies are windows of a period in time. A person’s story is a great window. Histories about the civil war, the revolutionary war, great discoveries in science…are kind of distancing. But a person’s personal experience during a specific point in time brings history alive. Biography is a personal window into history
What draws you to your subjects?
People who had varied experiences, tended to be late bloomers, interest me the most. I’m particularly put off by musical biographies – they all tell the same story. Even people who appear to be very interesting, though they appear interesting on the surface, they’re all doing the same things with their lives. I like renaissance people; people who have various chapters in their lives. Olmsted’s life was really about trying to find a worthy focus for his incredible intellect and he was able to bring ideas from his various experiences to his design.
What were some of the challenges you faced researching someone who lived and died in a different century?
His letters were collected in six different archives and I had to go and search through them. He produced a voluminous amount of writing, in very difficult handwriting. Often times I would be reading a personal letter and I’d come across a word I couldn’t read and so I’d break out the magnifying glass and go over it. Materials being very spread out and there being just so much produced a challenge as you say. The use of nineteenth century language – it was just like a foreign language – particularly when he was a farmer. The plus side was the fact that there was so much collected and it was so incredibly intimate…Letters were a way to kind of work out your thoughts. If Olmsted was in love, he didn’t send a quick Tweet; he wrote a ten page letter and poured out his soul.
Have you found that readers are surprised by Olmsted’s activism with the environment and abolition?
I think they’re very surprised. We tend to think of people from different generations as having different ideals. Olmsted came from a really socially conscientious generation. Whatever they set out to do, they wanted to do so through a prism of social reform. Olmsted took that with him in his life.
Was there anything you uncovered about his life that surprised you?
I guess the things that really surprised me…I found this almost heartbreaking: In general, in the 19th century, [people] weren’t required to be a “specialist”; one could very easily go from being a sailor to a farmer. It was a kind of a pioneer mentality. Now I kind of picture someone trying to make the transition from being say a pediatrician to a surgeon and they would need to go back to school and everyone would make such a big fuss. In that era it meant that people could actually bring other thoughts and other experiences to their work. When Olmsted was designing he could draw from his past experiences. It’s really inspiring, and really heartbreaking.
What is the significance of the title “Genius of Place?”
It’s an ancient phrase, used to describe an essence of place. There might be something, like a hill or a mountain, something that could be painted or captured. You could draw it out and exemplify what made a mountain a mountain. Drawing out the genius of place meant you were making a mountain more mountain-like, drawing out its essence. It’s an ancient landscape concept; Olmsted used it a lot [in his design]. He would accentuate certain things and downplay various other things, and so make the “genius of place” known. I wanted to give a nod to that.
I live right across the street from Olmsted’s Central Park in Old Louisville, but I didn’t even realize it was an Olmsted design until I started researching your book. Would you say that most people are unaware of the incredible impact Olmsted has had on America’s infrastructure?
Definitely, one of the many brilliant things about his designs is that they’re really user friendly – full of incredibly subtle touches. They don’t call attention to themselves. [The park] becomes a part of [people’s] lifestyles. They can enjoy his parks without ever knowing he designed them. People enjoy [them] to this day; they do what Olmsted intended them to do. He encouraged people to buy land, and set aside green space. He knew cities would expand. Because his artwork is landscape, he’s working on a very big canvas. You’re living in these places. They’re sharing people’s experiences. People don’t have to know about Olmsted or understand his philosophy to enjoy them.
Did you have the opportunity to visit and experience many of the parks featured in your book?
I did. I visited a ton of them. It was necessary; it really was useful too. You can read about it, but you have to see it to really get the full effect.
Do you find that most cities are providing good upkeep on existing Olmsted parks?
They’re very flexible. Olmsted had very persnickety ideas. He was very much a democratic person, he wanted to create a space where people of all classes could meet together and have a refined experience. He kind of envisioned people calmly strolling with their hands behind their backs and pondering the scenery, but parks have changed now. People like to play sports…they’re more active. We’ve come to a very different view of people and children and the parks were designed to accommodate to the tips of the hat and the changing times. It’s remarkable; they’re in pretty good shape. There are some notable exceptions.
You talk about a calming experience that he envisioned. Olmsted really led a life of tragedy; do you think that his work with creating these spaces was a result of or an escape from the hardships he faced?
He led a life of real tumult. The untimely deaths of children and psychological stress. I think in a way this was an opportunity in an unsettled life; he wanted to create a kind of timeless space. He wanted to create in his art what he could not have in his life.
What is your personal experience now when you spend time in one of Olmsted’s parks?
It’s kind of electric. I experience his parks in a different way than I would have before. And now I’m actually aware of the experiences and how they have been designed. I’m experiencing a certain thing or having a certain feeling or walking down a certain path and I think, “Oh, it’s because he wanted me to...” He designed for particular experiences.
It’s interesting to hear about park experiences being “designed.” Do you think this is a reflection of Olmsted being observant about people?
He was very observant about people, but I think it’s something of his idealisms put into play. You have to put yourself in a 19th century mindset; there wasn’t much beauty or thought to city planning – cities were just being laid out. Big grids, straight lines. But a curve – as opposed to something straight – it was saying it’s ok, relax, slow down, smell the roses…He wanted his park spaces to create relaxation. People lived in teeming slums and were working insane hours; they never got to go to the country. He was giving people some relief and spiritual wellbeing. Parks allowed for mix and mingle between classes; snobby people in carriages and people in crowded slums would actually come in contact. Olmsted was trying to find how to put idealism into action in a way that would benefit the most people.
Do you think Olmsted is one of our nation’s most under-appreciated thinkers?
He most certainly is. He really helped shaped the landscapes. And really created some enduring ideas about what we really value in America. Our country has always had an issue with unchecked, voracious development, but Olmsted raised a need to preserve things…What we have is kind of a natural bounty, and you can’t go backwards. Not in any real meaningful way and undo what’s been done.
Reserve your seats for a chance to talk with Justin Martin firsthand; tickets cost $65 per person and are limited in number. Proceeds of this event will support improvements to Louisville’s historic Central Park (my backyard!). Copies of Genius of Place: The Life of Frederick Law Olmsted will be obtainable on site for sale (or stop by Carmichael’s) and Mr. Martin will be available for signatures. Don’t miss this occasion of top quality treats and good company in a special, intimate setting. Wine, dine and dive headfirst into the life and legacy of Olmsted’s genius.
610 Magnolia Restaurant is located at…well, 610 Magnolia Street
Purchase tickets online or call 502-465-8125
For more information about Olmsted’s legacy in Louisville, visit the Olmsted Parks Conservancy website
Photo: Courtesy of Justin Martin’s website http://justinmartin1.com
Interview condensed for length, content and clarity.