Frederick Law Olmsted, the Reporter, Author, and Letter Writer

Frederick Law Olmsted / New York Historical Society

Frederick Law Olmsted, who is considered the founder of American landscape architecture, was also a successful journalist and author. His articles for The New York Daily Times (now The New York Times) formed the basis of his influential books, including The Cotton Kingdom. He co-founded the magazine The Nation. His reporting in the South shaped his vision of democratic spaces and his later career as a “park maker.” But as he became more absorbed in practicing landscape architecture, he eventually phased down his publishing work.

According to Dede Petri, president and CEO of the National Association for Olmsted Parks, Olmsted was an incredibly prolific writer. There are over a million Olmsted and Olmsted firm documents at the Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site, and the Library of Congress has thousands more of his correspondence.

Frederick Law Olmsted National Historical Site / Daderot, CC BY-SA 3.0

In a discussion organized as part of Olmsted 200, Harold Holzer, director of the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College in New York City, explained the little known history of Olmsted’s extensive writings, which had significant impact in their time, but are now largely forgotten outside of landscape architecture and American history circles.

In 1852, Olmsted published his first book, Walks and Talks of an American Farmer in England, which grew out of an article on the public parks of Liverpool, England. Two years later, he began writing for The New York Daily Times, serving as a roving reporter through the American South, in the “form of a Dickens or De Tocqueville.” His byline was simply “Yeoman,” as daily newspapers didn’t identify writers by name then and wouldn’t for many more decades.

He wrote about “American landscape and society at the same time, and focused on slavery as a cruel and corrupting system,” Holzer said. Some argue Olmsted’s writings on the South, which were eventually edited and compiled into three books in the late 1850s and later formed the Cotton Kingdom, published in 1861, were the non-fiction equivalent of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in terms of their impact on Northerners’ views of slavery.

Retracing Olmsted’s steps in the South / Sara Zewde

Geraldine Brooks, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the novel March, then discussed Spying on the South: An Odyssey Across the American Divide by her late husband Tony Horwitz, who retraced Olmsted’s steps through Southern states for the book. She learned about Olmsted “by osmosis” through her husband’s research.

Olmsted was a “curious, open-hearted person,” who early in his career had “thrown himself into causes,” but “hadn’t found himself yet.” His reporting in the South was “very modern — not top-down, but bottom up.” He sought to put himself in the “path of adventure” and find the scenes “most liable to accidents.” His goal was to “do and go where not expected.”

Having been a semi-successful farmer earlier in his career, Olmsted was able to “glean the thoughts” of the farmers he interviewed. He understood how a plantation was managed and could ask questions that would yield insights. In his 54 dispatches for The New York Daily Times, he concealed the identities of the farmers and slaves he interviewed, while finding “evocative” stories to bring the South to life.

During his journey through the South, Olmsted also “allowed his mind to change,” Brooks said. Before his journey through the Southern states, he was moderately anti-slavery, but after what he witnessed, he became a “red hot abolitionist, with a righteous hatred for the institution of slavery.”

James Barron, a metropolitan reporter and columnist with The New York Times, said Olmsted got the job with his newspaper in a “five minute interview.” Then, The New York Daily Times was a start-up and had been in existence for just two years.

Henry Jarvis Raymond, co-founder of the paper, wanted a “disinterested and reliable” reporter on conditions in the South, not someone who would overly politicize. Raymond eventually complained Olmsted included too much detail in his articles. But it was this detail that made Olmsted’s writings endure, Barron argued.

Olmsted’s articles, which were later edited to highlight stronger abolitionist views when compiled in the Cotton Kingdom, were “unquestionably influential,” Barron said. And many argue his book persuaded European countries to not recognize the Confederacy during the Civil War.

Yet, most books about the history of The New York Times fail to even mention Olmsted. His writing has also been “almost forgotten” among newspaper historians and daily journalists.

In his lifetime, Olmsted was also influential in the magazine world. Katrina vanden Heuvel, editorial director and publisher of The Nation, said initial conversations about forming a weekly magazine about culture and politics occurred at the Union League Club as early as 1863. Two years later, Olmsted and others co-founded the magazine, which Olmsted also considered calling Scrutiny or Hold Fast.

Union League Club, New York City. (1900 and 1906) Detroit Publishing Co. / Library of Congress

With The Nation‘s founding, Olmsted helped create an “entire school of American journalism” that sought to step back from “hot takes” and provide a more balanced perspective rooted in a  greater sense of history and context. Avoiding “pandering to the greatest number,” he wanted to instead speak to those who cared about values and ideas.

The Nation from 1865 / Periodyssey

While daily papers wrote the first draft of history, weekly magazines could “ruminate” and provide a “sense of a slower pace,” vanden Heuvel said. Olmsted wrote just 10 articles for The Nation, including pieces on the Great Fire in Chicago and the parks of Paris. But his influence, including his early focus on race and slavery, instilled a focus on equity in the magazine that vanden Heuvel argued continues today.

For Brooks, Olmsted wasn’t a “radical for most of his life. The real apogee of his radicalism is during the Civil War.” But she thinks Olmsted’s writing still had a “radical effect.” For example, in 1949, a young black inmate stumbled upon Cotton Kingdom amid the few books available in the prison library. That inmate was Malcolm X, who later wrote about the “total horror” he found in Olmsted’s book.

Brooks believes our current era of division is “uncannily parallel” to the Civil War era in which Olmsted was active. “He believed in dialogue with those with whom you disagree.” They had “their facts and demons, and we have ours. It’s a difficult dialogue then — and now.”

Barron thinks once Olmsted found his true calling in landscape architecture, he thought planning and design were better ways to create enduring, positive change than journalism. “He saw the South as opposite of what it should be.” He thought more communities in the north and south needed town squares and parks. Designing public spaces was a way to plant the seeds of democracy.

Central Park, New York City / fdastudillo,

There is a through line between Olmsted’s writings and landscape architecture — both sought to promote “dialogue and an egalitarian spirit,” vanden Heuvel argued. Olmsted believed that public spaces were an “antidote to private spaces” like plantations. “He sought public space in the public spirit.” But she noted that what has long been considered his masterpiece — Central Park in New York City — involved the New York City government displacing Seneca Village, a freed Black community of landowners, a community only now being acknowledged and honored.

Map of Seneca Village / NYC Municipal Archives, via NY1

“Central Park so absorbed him. He didn’t waver from landscape architecture,” Brooks said. If he was writing his own obituary, “he wouldn’t emphasize” his writing career.

In addition to his published works, Olmsted wrote thousands of letters in his life, including to President Abraham Lincoln, Holzer added.

In one long letter, he advised Lincoln to print the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed all slaves, on linen panels that could be posted throughout Southern states. But he also recommended Lincoln publish a transcript of his White House discussion with African American leaders after the proclamation, in which he asked them to voluntarily leave the U.S. and colonize Central America and Africa. The African American leaders “declined, more politely than Lincoln deserved.” Olmsted thought Lincoln should “promote both policies in order to assuage border states afraid of integration.” He still sought to influence national policies, but through letters.

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