Effects: Whitman, Olmsted, and the American Landscape
Walt Whitman and the landscape designer Frederick
Law Olmsted were two great urban optimists of nineteenth-century
Notwithstanding this late, unjust dismissal (to which I will return later), a close consideration of their work in the context of nineteenth-century American culture recasts Whitman and Olmsted as nearly kindred spirits.2 Whitman and Olmsted shared a long view of the city as democracy’s necessary sphere, a view animated for both by Southern travels that exposed the moral and cultural bankruptcy of slavery.3 Both saw the future of democracy taking shape in Northern cities in a convergence of human and material forces that, they believed, needed management. Whitman’s poetry and Olmsted’s parks rallied to this cause. By negotiating between the individual and the crowd, the city and the hinterland, the present and the future, Whitman and Olmsted gave shape to that particular urban experience we call freedom. At root, they both based their artistic innovations on an expansive view of landscape as an abstract and democratic medium of communication.
An overview of the park theory Olmsted developed with his partner Calvert Vaux highlights four underlying principles of urban experience he shared with Whitman.4 First, Olmsted’s parks spiritualize the urban crowd. Olmsted observed that modern street life puts individuals in a defensive relationship with their compatriots; they must guard against others’ movements, to the extent that “Every day of their lives they have seen thousands of their fellow-men, have met them face to face, have brushed against them, and yet have had no experience of anything in common with them.” Olmsted’s parks offer separate grounds that reverse the relationships of street life and open a “friendly flowing” among citizens (“Public Parks” 315-16). Olmsted juggled the conflicting goals of scenery and sociability. He didn’t want to escape the crowd but to see it: “[I]n a park, the largest provision is required for the human presence. Men must come together, and must be seen coming together, in carriages, on horseback and on foot, and [this] concourse of animated life . . . must itself be made, if possible, an attractive and diverting spectacle” (“Preliminary Report” 101). [Image 1]
Whitman’s urban persona would appear an exception to Olmsted’s rule of enervating street life; his workaday brushes with his fellows spark attraction, not leeriness. But the mis-en-scene of these fleeting attractions is park-like. Like Olmsted, Whitman screens off the spiritual concourse among strangers from the city’s flintier transactions, preferring in “City of Orgies” not “the processions in the streets, nor the bright windows with goods in them/ . . . but as I pass O Manhattan, your frequent and swift flash of eyes offering me love” (LG 107). Other city poems like “Sparkles from the Wheel” and even “The City Dead-House” chart out park-like, if moveable, spaces withdrawn from the vast swirls around them.5
Second, Olmsted designed his parks spatially at every
level to fulfill their recreational function.
He maximized the experience of space within the park’s
confines, creating “a sense of enlarged freedom”
through “the general impression of undefined limit”—the
constant unfolding of new vistas (“Preliminary Report” 98,
italics in original). He
treated these spaces like a landscape painting with two
kinds of features—the pastoral: rolling greensward dotted
with trees, groves, and still water; and the picturesque:
rough, steep terrain with heavy vegetation.
Olmsted’s parks, though designed as organic wholes,
always point beyond themselves.
He thought of Central Park, for example, as a piece
of the Adirondacks or White Mountains in
Whitman’s urban relationships also radiate metonymically into the national landscape, achieving Olmsted’s effect of constantly expanding space.6 In Calamus his sketches of city comrades climax in a vision of “companionship [planted] thick as trees along all the rivers of America, and along the shores of the great lakes, and all over the prairies” (LG 101). In Democratic Vistas, too, Whitman imagines in the western settlements beyond his direct vision an already perfected community, “unsung, undramatized, . . . practically fulfilling . . . all that has been hitherto shown in best ideal pictures” (CP 969).
while accommodating his parks to remote spaces, Olmsted
also designed them with respect to distant times.
Central Park was not central when it was constructed,
but Olmsted worked on the assumption that it would be, just
as he assumed that New York would one day be “the centre
of exchanges for the world” (“Preliminary Report” 99). “I have all my life been considering distant
effects and always sacrificing immediate success and applause
to that of the future,” he wrote.
“In laying out
Fourth, the spatial contours of Olmsted’s parks induce an unconscious mode of apprehension in the minds of their users to alleviate the shocks of urban life. Olmsted refers to this as the park’s “tranquilizing” influence: the landscape encourages a shift in the viewer’s attention away from particulars and toward abstract shapes (“Preliminary Report” 108). This unconscious mode of apprehending landscape through abstract form has its roots in a fundamental shift in the profession of English gardening during the eighteenth century. Under the influence of Lockean sensationalist philosophy, garden designers drifted from a longstanding tradition of emblematic and allegorical vocabulary toward the more expressive, less elitist language of the picturesque. Not programmed to a particular reading, the picturesque was open to the interpretation of the individual viewer and available in nature at large as much as in the garden itself (Hunt 285-88; Hunt and Willis 34-39). An enthusiast of such expressive English designers as “Capability” Brown and Humphry Repton, Olmsted described the restorative influence of landscape as “poetic,” distinct from two more restrictive traditions: the old emblematic reading and the new nineteenth-century fad of ornamental gardens. For the same reason, he called himself a landscape architect, rather than a landscape gardener.7 Olmsted said that a park creates “an effect on the human organism by an action of what it presents to view, which action, like that of music, is of a kind that goes back of thought, and cannot be fully given the form of words” (qtd. in Beveridge 3). At the same time, Olmsted reacted against the privatization of landscape experience that accompanied gardening’s new sensationalist turn by insisting upon democratic parks open to all social levels, and making the feeling of the whole society in a shared landscape part of each individual’s private experience.
If Olmsted articulated his landscape theory in terms of poetry, Whitman articulated his poetic theory in terms of landscape. In “A Song of the Rolling Earth,” Whitman echoes Olmsted’s idea that the landscape communicates with the individual through a kind of mute language: “The workmanship of souls is by those inaudible words of the earth” (LG 184). Whitman describes his project as one of translating the language of landscape into poetry, for “All merges toward the presentation of the unspoken meanings of the earth” (LG 188).
I want to observe these four principles—social recreation, spatial vistas, temporal vistas, and unconscious influence—operating in a single Olmsted park and a contemporaneous Whitman poem. The Olmsted park is Prospect Park in Brooklyn, planned by Olmsted and Vaux in 1865-66. The Whitman poem is “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d (1865). As products of proto-Reconstruction, these works respond to similar national and personal pressures. Olmsted and Whitman had both witnessed the Civil War at close range from Washington, D.C., and in similar capacities, according to their relative privilege: Whitman as volunteer nurse and Olmsted as General Secretary of the Sanitary Commission overseeing the Union’s hospitals. Both were convulsed by the war. Olmsted went to California in 1863 to manage a mine and, as it turned out, make plans for Yosemite National Park. Prospect Park brought him east again. Olmsted and Whitman both felt viscerally the need for national healing and unity, and their postwar projects reflect this.
Prospect Park is Olmsted and Vaux’s first mature work—more unified than Central Park. The 560-acre site, shaped during the last ice age, was on the outskirts of mid-century Brooklyn. Olmsted and Vaux arranged it as a narrative whole, in three parts.8 [Image 2] The first part, proceeding from north to south, is a tour de force of pastoral aesthetics: Long Meadow, a mile-long prospect of undulating green dotted with trees on the margins and flooded in sunlight—thought to be the longest uninterrupted view in any American city park. [Image 3] Part two is a study in the picturesque: a darker, rougher terrain of ravines and wooded hills, offering lookouts to the ocean. [Image 4] [Image 5] (Technically a glacial moraine, these hills were formed when the Wisconsin ice sheet, bulldozing southward across the continent, lurched to a halt 10,000 years ago.) Part three is a sixty-acre artificial lake bordered by recreational facilities. [Image 6] The landscaping of the park employed 1800 workers moving earth, laying pipes, and planting or transplanting 70,000 trees and shrubs (Berenson and deMause 28). Prospect Park is the product of laborious art wrought upon the handiwork of colossal natural power.
Olmsted designed the park with the governing purpose of keeping the eye moving over a diverse but unified landscape. The ground has Revolutionary War associations—Washington’s troops were entrenched here during the disastrous Battle of Brooklyn Heights—but Olmsted muted these in deference to the larger landscape narrative. Roads and paths oscillate easily between gregarious and solitary views. The park’s gateway is an oval at the intersection of Flatbush and Vanderbilt Avenues, later called Grand Army Plaza by planners who commissioned an enormous arch there to honor the Union dead. [Image 7] Although its Civil War association was not Olmsted’s idea, the busy plaza does serve as a flourish of urban activity prior to the liberating survey of American space encoded within the park itself. The park’s real emotional entryway is the point within the darkness of Endale Arch where the vastness of Long Meadow becomes visible, unfolding to a seemingly endless reach. [Image 8] Tony Hiss recommends the walk climaxing in this view as “the best sort of introduction to our country’s experiential heritage” (56). Olmsted associated vistas like this with the virtue of hope (“Preliminary Report” 108-09).
Compared to Central Park, Prospect Park gives freer rein to Olmsted’s idea of the park as regional and national phenomenon. Olmsted thought Manhattan, being an island, was on the order of the medieval walled city, while “Brooklyn is New York outside the walls” (“Report of the Landscape Architects” 153). Indeed, the park provides greater vistas than Whitman found in Central Park, and achieves a more organic relationship to its surroundings. Olmsted envisioned a system of parkways running from Prospect Park across a bridge to Manhattan and Central Park, out to Coney Island, and to wherever “large dwelling quarters were likely to be formed” (“Report of the Landscape Architects” 159). Olmsted apparently saw the park itself as a miniature of the American landscape. The present-day landscape designer Laurie Olin has called it “a meditation on post-Civil War America” (163): its meadow suggests the agricultural prairies, its woods the Western wilderness, its lake and surrounding buildings a civilization of peace and plenty harmonized with nature. Prospect Park’s built structures are decidedly more rustic and “American” than those of Central Park. While the influence of Morris and Ruskin is clearly at work in the ornamentation of Central Park’s bridges, Prospect’s bridges are no-nonsense structures of timber, boulders, and even functional iron, calling to mind the railroads of the West, the region from which Olmsted had just returned (Olin 162-63). [Image 9] [Image 10] Originally, “rustic shelters” dotted the landscape (Berenson and deMause 56). Prospect Park’s associations are not with history but with the American landscape itself, and nature’s sanitary influence on civilization (Rybczynski 272-74).
Although Whitman left New York before Prospect Park’s construction, his reference to “the Brooklyn Park of hills” in Democratic Vistas appears to document his presence in the park and his receptivity to its influence:
In 1870 Prospect Park was still under construction, but millions sought repose there among the work crews and fledgling elms and maples.9 “[N]ot Nature alone is great in her fields of freedom and the open air,” Whitman continues, “but in the artificial, the work of man too is equally great” (CP 939).
Whitman’s later remark to Traubel, in 1889, that Olmsted “titivate[s] things”—that is, decorates or spruces up—completely misses the spirit of this earlier description of Olmsted’s New York, where nature and artifice sublimely cooperate. Remarkably, Whitman’s parting swipe at Olmsted singles out Prospect Park for special derision. Whitman remembers Prospect as “one of the grandest hills in the world,” reminding him “in character . . . of a stretch of Western prairie I have seen: a hundred miles clean sweep: a clear level, then . . . a gradual hill.” Olmsted, he claims, “built an artificial hill” in the midst of this natural one—an “absurd, ridiculous, fantastic” decision (Traubel 528). Whitman’s indignation at Olmsted seems unfounded. The accusation that Olmsted built an artificial hill in Prospect Park is questionable—Prospect’s substantial hills are all natural—and it ignores the organic aesthetic that Olmsted shared with Whitman. In the same conversation with Traubel, Whitman notes approvingly his acquaintance with landscape gardeners who have described their technique as “not an absolute cutting away [of nature] but modification—nature not all wiped out, as if ashamed of” (528).10 Olmsted pursued a similar philosophy in Prospect Park. “The tendency of all the changes of the surface,” he wrote in 1871, “has been to enlarge and make more distinct the original natural features” (qtd. in Berenson and DeMause 28). Olmsted echoes Whitman’s declaration in “A Song of the Rolling Earth”: “I swear there is no greatness or power that does not emulate those of the earth,/ There can be no theory of any account unless it corroborate the theory of the earth” (LG 187).
Whitman forwards this organic vision of culture in “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” which is, as much as Prospect Park, “a meditation on post-Civil War America.” There are several similarities between park and poem. Both works are curative: if Prospect Park repairs the trauma of urban life, “Lilacs” answers the trauma of war and assassination. The Lincoln threnody is more emphatically about healing than is the park, but both administer comfort through shifting landscape tableaux, and historical specifics are muted: in “Lilacs,” of course, Lincoln gets no mention. In a sense the poem is modeled on mid-century suburban cemeteries like Brooklyn’s Greenwood, a favorite of Whitman’s, that relieved the immediate morbidity with panoramic vistas of the surrounding city and countryside. [Image 11]
Prospect Park and “Lilacs” manage landscape in similar ways. Like the park, the poem organizes a sequence of pastoral and picturesque views that relieve “the city at hand with dwellings so dense” (LG 279). Whitman associates the pastoral with a genial blending of nature and civilization under the sun, the unified America of the future: “The varied and ample land, the South and the North in the light, Ohio’s shores and flashing Missouri,/ And ever the far-spreading prairies cover’d with grass and corn” (LG 280). Picturesque elements introduce a darker tone that is more troubled and private, cloaking the mysteries of death: “Down to the shores of the water, the path by the swamp in the dimness,/ To the solemn shadowy cedars and ghostly pines so still” (LG 281). Olmsted was himself fascinated with this dialectic between pasture and swamp; if the former expands the viewer’s horizon, in the latter he felt “the superabundant creative power, infinite resource, and liberality of Nature” (qtd. in Rybczynski 301). Long Meadow rests on the remnants of a peat bog, and Central Park was built up from marshland. Olmsted liked to embellish his picturesque style with tropical accents, sometimes importing plants from southern climes.11
Whitman shares with Olmsted the impulse to make the pastoral and picturesque cohere. If it borrows something from the cemetery, “Lilacs” also anticipates the theme park: it simulates the panoramic ride on Lincoln’s funeral train through cities and prairies before beating the private “path by the swamp in the dimness” where the hermit thrush sings. In a park, Olmsted writes, people should not think “of trees as trees, of turf, water, rocks, bridges, as things of beauty in themselves,” because they are “as little so as warp & woof in a brocade” (qtd. in Beveridge 3). Whitman follows a rather similar logic, expanding his attention from the individual lilac and coffin to “blossoms and branches green” for “coffins all” (LG 278). But the persona falters in this effort: coffin, lilac, star, and thrush—each exerts its own “mastering” force (LG 280), much as a single “spear of summer grass” initially transfixes the persona of “Song of Myself” (LG 26). Whitman barely makes it out of the woods.
But he does, and the way he does this illustrates the Olmstedian theory of unconscious influence. Olmsted, we recall, said that a park exerts an influence like music, going “back of thought” to communicate something beyond “the form of words.” In “Lilacs” also, nature absorbs historical and philosophical tensions by separating thought from knowledge. In the recesses of the swamp, Whitman reckons with the knowledge of death and the thought of death as individual comrades, and tallies the carol of the thrush in words that only approximate the consolations of its sound and of the broader landscapes the sound traverses. Like Olmsted, Whitman teases knowledge away from thought by suspending the individual’s consciousness across the landscape. In “Lilacs” all America—prairie, swamp, and city—becomes a public park.
“All merges toward the presentation of the unspoken meanings of the earth,” Whitman proclaims in “A Song of the Rolling Earth.” That poem culminates in his call for the “sayers” and “singers”—the poets—to “Pile the words of the earth” in anticipation of the future architects who will complete the work of poetry. Whitman promises that “When the materials are all prepared and ready, the architects shall appear. . . . [T]he architects shall appear without fail” (LG 188-89). In Olmsted, Whitman had a contemporary architect keeping faith with him, a co-worker in the language of the earth whose projects bear out Whitman’s songs, even as Whitman implicitly articulates the possibilities of Olmsted’s parks. Both created democratic spaces whose possibilities are still unfolding.
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