June 16, 2011


Genius of Place: The Life of Frederick Law Olmsted. By Justin Martin. Da Capo. $30.

Sex, Mom, & God: How the Bible’s Strange Take on Sex Led to Crazy Politics – and How I Learned to Love Women (and Jesus) Anyway. By Frank Schaeffer. Da Capo. $26.

     Despite an unfortunate title and a tendency to become somewhat overly fascinated with minutiae, Justin Martin’s Genius of Place is a very considerable biography of one of the great American landscape architects – who, as Martin is at pains to point out, was not just a landscape architect. Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903) was an important pre-Civil War journalist, whose five-year trip through the American South (1852-57) helped cement an abolitionist perspective that argued for slavery being not only morally repugnant but also economically inefficient. Best known to most people for his design of New York City’s Central Park, Olmsted actually designed parks and other projects in two dozen states – plus the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. He also designed the grounds of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. – Martin neatly juxtaposes Olmsted’s 1874 plan with a modern aerial shot of the location – and created Boston’s famous Emerald Necklace park system. Olmsted was also a very considerable designer of college campuses, including, at least in part, those of Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley – plus American University, Bryn Mawr College, Mount Holyoke College, Smith College, the University of Chicago, Trinity College and Yale University, among others. And Olmsted had a dramatic personal life laced with tragedy: he married his brother’s widow; adopted her three sons, his nephews, as his own; had two additional children who survived infancy, but lost others – and ended his days in the asylum at McLean Hospital in Massachusetts, whose grounds he had designed. There is more than enough material here for a big biography, and Martin’s, which runs more than 450 pages, fills the bill. It is packed with information gleaned from primary sources, and includes material that helps illuminate Olmsted’s influencers as well as his influences. For example, Andrew Jackson Downing (1815-1852) is deemed by some to be the father of American landscape architecture, while others give that title to Olmsted; Martin, for his part, explores the ways in which the older man influenced the younger. Indeed, Martin explores pretty much everything he can wrap his mind around, and there are a lot of things: “By 1850, there were 650 magazines in the United States, and countless others had started and quickly folded, all part of a ‘veritable magazine tsunami,’ in the words of John Tebbel and Mary Ellen Zuckerman, coauthors of a history of publishing.” “During his first weeks in Washington, Olmsted…was constantly battling the flies – worse than on his Staten Island farm, he noted. Most nights, he worked past midnight before retiring to his stuffy room at the Willard, where he’d lie down, still in his clothes, tossing and turning, worrying about money.” “For Olmsted’s portrait, [John Singer] Sargent selected a thickly planted spot on the side of the approach road, about a half mile from the mansion. Dogwoods and kalmia were in full blossom – a perfect setting for the great landscape architect.” Martin also pays a great deal of attention to what Olmsted was thinking and being troubled by at various points – and while many of these thoughts are apparently inferred from Olmsted’s writings (Martin’s research really is impressive), some do seem a bit speculative at times. There are many, many ins and outs of Olmsted’s complicated life, and while it would be unreasonable to expect all readers to share Martin’s obvious fascination with his subject, Genius of Place will certainly captivate not only those interested in Olmsted as landscape architect but also people who want to know about early environmentalism and the conservationist movement – and the intricacies of creating open spaces in and near many of the nation’s great cities. About that title, though: Martin clearly takes it from genius loci, a Latin phrase relating to the protective spirit of a particular place – and a phrase that later came to mean a place’s spirit or atmosphere. But the phrase has nothing to do with what we mean when we call someone a genius today. By using it in that way, Martin titles his book with a confusion that belies the care of his narrative.

     Among Olmsted’s many complexities was his relationship to organized religion. Growing up in a “rigid Congregationalist faith,” he became something of an agnostic, writing in 1873, “Do you suppose that it is a much smaller misfortune for a Chinese child to lose its Pagan mother than for an English child to lose its Christian mother? …Do you suppose there is a whit more tenderness toward her child in an English mother than in a Digger Indian mother?” Olmsted’s religious uncertainties are scarcely unique, but they were not the sum and substance of his being – as they seem to be for Frank Schaeffer, whose latest too-amply-subtitled memoir re-explores territory he has gone to before, but from a somewhat different perspective. Schaeffer, raised in a Christian community run by his evangelical parents, attempts in Sex, Mom, & God to reconcile his mother’s firmly foundational beliefs with her willingness to be open, at least to a certain extent, about sexual matters. Schaeffer explains that his mother, Edith, was as certain that she could save people’s souls as she was about what sort of lingerie young women should wear on their wedding night – and keep handy to maintain their husbands’ interest over time. Schaeffer’s book is frequently entertaining, but it is marred throughout by what is either poor writing or poor editing: “My sister said that [babies] all were ‘the same age as everyone else is in Heaven is [sic],” for example, and “…speaking in an [sic] we’re-all-too-smart-to-take-anything-at-face-value progressive code.” Schaeffer seems to think his mother did a wonderful job of mixing unbending theology with a certain level of flexibility on sensual matters. But he himself mixes the issues less well. He writes at some length about the “modern-era ‘submission movement’” that he says he helped Mary Pride found, including an extended and almost incoherent quotation by Roman Catholic philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe that ends up by asserting that “contraceptive intercourse within marriage is a graver offense against chastity than is straightforward fornication or adultery.” Schaeffer makes it clear that he finds Anscombe’s reasoning tortured at best, but he nevertheless gives it considerable space, and even quotes from an Anscombe obituary that praises her analysis. Schaeffer has something to say (usually several somethings) about Sarah Palin, Ronald Reagan, Billy Graham, Hugh Hefner and many others; and he has opinions (usually several opinions) on adultery, homophobia, abortion and many other issues. Especially abortion, which he believes (with some justification) to be the central issue in today’s cultural wars, at least in the United States. But his personal position on the issue is murky, even when he states it as clearly as he can: “Today, as I said, I’m pro-choice – but with a caveat that will not please the professional activists dug in on either side. I am pro-choice, but not pro-Roe and -Bolton. In other words I think it’s time to put out the fire at the heart of the American culture wars or at least damp it down. And this fire – for the vast ‘middle’ – is not caused by abortion per se but by the extremes of Roe and Bolton. In still other words, he is personally pro-choice but against bedrock legal decisions favoring abortion. Certainly there is tremendous ambivalence about abortion, and Schaeffer expresses remorse repeatedly (in this book and elsewhere) for helping “to launch the Evangelical wing of the antiabortion movement,” but it is difficult to pin down just what Schaeffer thinks and just how he got to that point. It is also difficult to be sure he will not be at some other point at some other time, given his frequent condemnation of various people and movements that he takes credit, or blame, for starting or helping to bring to power: “Dad and I contributed to a government-is-the-enemy climate in which eventually Timothy McVeigh found it thinkable to bomb the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.” Schaeffer’s books often read like attempts to make himself out to be not so bad after all – and in the case of Sex, Mom, & God, to indicate that it is possible for someone to be loving, sensual and willing to talk about carnal matters while still being devout and an utterly committed evangelical Christian. “Bible-believing Christians aren’t alone in struggling with their Sinful Bodies,” he asserts. Well, no. But they are in the forefront of those who argue that their bodies are sinful and must somehow be dealt with in that context. Schaeffer never really reconciles the sacred and the secular, for all the entertaining ways in which he tries to do so.

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