June 12, 2011
In 1852, when a fledgling newspaper, the New York Daily Times, went looking for a writer to travel the South and write regular dispatches, its editor was introduced to one of the most unlikely candidates.
He was Frederick Law Olmsted, the man who would become the father of landscape architecture in America, but then was searching for an identity. He’d tried farming and grew bored with it. But then, after a walking tour of England, he wrote a book about his travels and proved to be an engaging writer.
Olmsted was hired on the spot. And what followed was more than a year’s worth of in-depth and objective weekly reports throughout the southern states, including some from our region. He had an ear for dialogue, an eye for capturing images and an insatiable curiosity that enlivened his writing.
The story of this American original, who designed New York’s Central Park, the U.S. Capitol grounds and dozens of other public places, rolls through the pages of a fascinating new biography, Genius of Place, the Life of Frederick Law Olmsted, by Justin Martin.
Martin includes one incident in which Olmsted was leaving Norfolk by ferry. “Midway across Norfolk Harbor, the ferry simply stopped running and drifted for fifteen minutes. Apparently the fireman had fallen asleep and stopped feeding coal into the ferry’s engine.”
So, where, I wondered, could I find Olmsted’s original dispatches? In the archives of The New York Times – his employer’s successor? No. But – isn’t the Internet amazing? – in an electronic edition of the book Olmsted eventually wrote, A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States, available through the Institute for Museum and Library Services of the University of North Carolina.
And, oh how Norfolk takes a beating!
“Jan 10 . Norfolk is a dirty, low, ill-arranged town, nearly divided by a morass….It has all the immoral and disagreeable characteristics of a large seaport, with very few of the advantages that we should expect to find….No lyceum or public libraries, no public libraries, no public gardens, no galleries of art…no public resorts of healthful and refining amusement, no place better than a filthy, tobacco-impregnated bar-room or a licentious dance-cellar, so far as I have been able to learn, for the stranger of high or low degree to pass the hours unoccupied by business.”
There’s much more, some of it deserved. But Norfolk, according to City Historian Peggy Haile McPhillips, was then making improvements, including a new courthouse, gas lights and paved streets. There wasn’t a public library yet, but a few private ones. It was, of course, a seaport, with numerous creeks where mosquitoes hatched – and it was just two years short of the calamitous yellow fever outbreak.
In Olmsted’s book, updating his dispatches, he mentions the “dreadful visitor,” which he felt, because of the town’s “undrained and filthy condition,” “certainly did not come uninvited.”
Olmsted, at least at first, was not an abolitionist. In his 14 months traveling through the old Slave states, he encountered many slaves and their owners, and in some cases witnessed slaves working under decent, humanitarian conditions. He would later change his mind after witnessing just the opposite.
What he mostly concluded, though, was how the slave system robbed both the owned and the owner of initiative. It wasn’t just slaves, but white folks who hated to work.
An example from Norfolk:
“I had an umbrella broken. I noticed it as I was going out from my hotel during a shower, and stepped into an adjoining locksmith’s to have it repaired. He asked where he should send it when he had done it. ‘I intended to wait for it,’ I answered….
“ ‘I can’t do it in less than half an hour sir, and it will be worth a quarter.’
“ ‘I shouldn’t think it need take you so long, it is merely a rivet to be tightened.’
“ ‘I shall have to take it all to pieces, and it will take me all of half an hour.’
“ ‘I don’t think you need to take it to pieces.’
“ ‘Yes, I shall – there’s no other way to do it.’
“ ‘Then, as I can’t wait so long, I will not trouble you with it.” And I went into the hotel, and with the fire poker did the job myself, in less than a minute, as well as he could have done it in a week, and went on my way, saving half an hour and a quarter of a dollar, like a Yankee.”
Olmsted, rather indolent himself as a farmer, had suddenly discovered his own industrious ways.
Next week: Slaves in the swamp.
Portrait: Frederick Law Olmsted, about 1860. New York City Department of Parks and Recreation.