Spying on the South: An Odyssey Across the American Divide, a new book about Frederick Law Olmsted by journalist Tony Horwitz, is difficult to classify. It is popular history and a biography of Frederick Law Olmsted, his America, and his writings. It is also reportage from rural America and a thoughtful reflection on our times.
In Spying on the South, Horwitz travels in the footsteps of Olmsted, who was himself a political journalist before becoming the father of American landscape architecture we’re most familiar with. It’s worth noting that Horwitz seems to have been put on to Olmsted by his friend Charles McLaughlin, founding editor of the Olmsted Papers Project.
This recreation of Olmsted’s journeys takes Horwitz through the American south and Texas, towns and regions “hollowed out by economic and social decay” as well as environmental degradation.
Horwitz begins the book in the run-up to the 2016 election, and ample connections are drawn to Olmsted’s own political reporting, which occurred in the years precipitating the Civil War. Olmsted’s writing was commissioned to serve as a window into southern society in a time of rising tensions. Spying on the South fills a similar niche.
The book holds obvious value to landscape architects, outside of those interested in dispatches from rural America. As landscape architects have become more self-aware and self-critiquing, we have logically looked to re-consider our heroes.
Frederick Law Olmsted, a paragon of American landscape designers, has been the subject of such re-consideration. Many have found him lacking for several reasons, including his friendly disposition towards the aristocracy and what we now recognize as some flawed urban design practices. Others, willing to see past Olmsted’s mistakes, ascribe them to the times in which he operated.
Horwitz seems to fall in the latter group, but has his reasons. Spying on the South’s most profound insight is that attitudes do not merely progress, but rise and fall. Horwitz describes Olmsted’s attitude towards slavery transforming from opposition on economic terms, to moral opposition, to righteous anger, to outright hatred of it and the society it supported. Unsurprisingly, these attitudes coincide precisely with escalation in the conflict between North and South.
After the war, Olmsted’s attitude towards the south warmed, as did society’s at large. The south had atoned through suffering, Olmsted believed. A well-known landscape architect at this point, Olmsted was more than willing to do business there. This, despite the continued efforts of southern states to oppress their black populations.
Horwitz’s suggestion that our political beliefs are more tied to our zeitgeist than we know is a fascinating one. Of course, we ourselves inform the zeitgeist. Perhaps the best we can do is raise the bar as far as we can before falling back into complacency. The sort of achievement, for instance, Olmsted and Calvert Vaux had with Central Park.
Horwitz describes how Olmsted envisioned such a place long before he was in any position to deliver it, a vision informed by his travels in the south. Olmsted saw Central Park as an opportunity to showcase the democratic values he supported. The park, shared by the city’s inhabitants, would be a rebuke to the aristocracy of the American south and Europe, which were both economically and morally invested in keeping society stratified.
Olmsted saw himself, his brother, and his peers as social engineers, and wished to “get up parks, gardens, music, dancing schools, reunions, which will be so attractive as to force into contact the good & bad, the gentlemanly and rowdy.”
Again, some of the language Olmsted uses in describing his ideas would put off those of us who don’t equate poverty with moral deficiency. But one senses his heart was in the right place.
Despite Olmsted’s flaws, something he and posterity have in common is the value we place on Central Park. Vaux, in a letter to Olmsted late in life, calls it “the big art work of the republic.” And in many ways, the progressive values that shaped Central Park were the result of Olmsted’s travels in the south.