Lately I find myself enjoying more biographies. I love experiencing other people’s stories. Seeing things from the perspective of other people helps me to see the world in new and different ways. I especially like biographies that are “real”; ones about well known people, but that show them as real people with their weaknesses and failures as well as their giftedness and strengths. I am about a third of the way through reading, A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmstead and America in the Nineteenth Century by Witold Rybczynski. (The title and the author’s name are enough words to consider them a blog entry alone!)
Olmstead is famous for his landscape designs including New York’s Central Park and the Biltmore Estate in Asheville , NC (just a couple of hours away from here). What strikes me about Olmstead is that, unlike so many famous people, he didn’t start a career and stick with it the rest of his life. In fact, a full third of the way into the book, the closest he has come to doing anything related to landscaping was his strategic planting of some trees on his farm. He dropped out of college, was a shop keeper, became a farmer and toured Europe looking for better farming methods. Wrote books on the farming and returned to continue farming. Eventually, his writing skills take him to a job as a writer for the N Y Times newspaper. I can relate to this guy. He does not know who he is. I still am not sure who I am.
Another thing I love about the book is his perspective on America in the 19th century. In the mid 1800’s, slavery was by far the biggest issue in America. Reading this book gives me the perspective of a regular guy (with whom I very much relate) on these kinds of issues. He is not a politician and has no ambition to try to solve the issue singlehandedly. But that does not mean that he doesn’t have an opinion. Olmstead is against slavery, but like many others, he wants to ignore it and let it die a slow death. He fears that to ban slavery would be the end of the Union of the states. An abolitionist friend tries to persuade him otherwise to no avail. In hopes that seeing the conditions of slavery for himself will change his mind, his friend convinces Olmstead to take a job with the Times. He becomes travels throughout the South, reporting on the conditions there and his perspective is fascinating. He makes great economic arguments against slavery, showing why it just does not make sense.
I could go on about the book, but this blog is not about Frederick Law Olmstead. It is about Jimazing Jim Anderson. I have often wondered what I would have done if I had lived during those times. I would like to think that I would have been an abolitionist… that I would think for myself and stand up for what is right. However, it is easy to cast stones from the safety of 2008. Unlike Olmstead, I was born in South Carolina, which was a slave state (not after I was born, thankfully). Slavery would have been a fact of life for me… whether I was for it or against it. What was it really like? Many who just stood up in arguments were killed. How many of those “unreported incidents” would I know about? Would I speak out in spite of the danger, or hold my tongue out of fear?
I’ll keep plugging away at the book and hopefully Olmstead’s life will continue to stir me. Who knows what I might find out about myself in the process.