A Clearing In the Distance by Witold Rybczynski

Book Review by Jackie Craven

lush green grass, tall trees, people sitting on lawn, skyscrapers in the distance
Great Lawn in Central Park, New York City. Tetra Images/Getty Images

Every biographer is faced with a choice: Should the life story be a purely factual account? Or, is it better to employ fictional techniques to convey dialog, thoughts, and emotions? In his biography of Frederick Law Olmsted, author Witold Rybczynski does both.

Olmsted's Life and Times

A Clearing In the Distance is not merely a biography of Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903). It is also a portrait of American life in the nineteenth century. In fact, the structure of the book captures the flavor of a Victorian novel: Fifty-eight short chapters are arranged under enticing headings such as "A Change In Fortune" and "Olmsted Shortens Sail."

Who Was Frederick Law Olmsted?

Olmsted is widely hailed as the man who established landscape architecture as a profession. He was a visionary who foresaw the need for national parks and was instrumental in designing Riverside, the first large suburban planned community in the United States. He is perhaps best-known today for the landscapes at Biltmore Estates, the grounds of the US Capitol in Washington, DC, and, of course, Central Park in New York City.

But Olmsted did not discover landscape architecture until he was 35, and his youth was a time of restless searching. He tried his hand at seamanship, farming, and journalism. Traveling through the southern states and Texas, he wrote widely respected essays and books against slavery.

Rybczynski approaches this expansive nineteenth-century life with enthusiasm and awe. In the midst of factual accounts, he often interjects personal asides, comparing Olmsted's experiences with his own and speculating about Olmsted's thoughts and motivations. Periodically, Rybyczynski inserts dramatic narratives printed in italic type. The juxtaposition of factual reporting with fictionalized passages allows the reader to explore Olmsted's life on many levels.

Who is Witold Rybczynski?

Witold Rybczynski is a professor and an architect who is renown for the beauty and depth of his writing. His books include The Most Beautiful House in the World, City Life, The Look of Architecture, and the best-selling Home: The Short History Of An Idea.

Who is This Book For?

For the scope of its research, A Clearing In The Distance will appeal to designers and historians. For the compelling retelling of a rich and varied life, the book will delight readers who have no previous knowledge of architecture or landscape design.

The 480 page text includes black and white photos, landscape plans, a selected list of projects by the Olmsted firm, bibliographic notes, and an index.

~Reviewed by Jackie Craven.

What Others Say:

  • "Its laborious, reconstructed dialogue and set pieces, set off in italics, are in sharp contrast to Rybczynski's elegant musings on architectural and natural space."—Publishers Weekly
  • "In A Clearing in the Distance, author Witold Rybczynski, a professor of urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania, has written a general-interest work that is unfailingly lucid and engaging--if intermittently superficial."—Anthony Bianco at businessweek.com/1999/99_31/b3640032.htm
  • "It's a straightforward work, thorough and respectful, yet easeful in a way that is reminiscent of Olmsted himself....The author has written a transparent book, in which he is a largely retiring but very pleasant guide."—Suzanna Lessard, The New York Times
  • ""A Clearing in the Distance" is a model of thoroughness, sympathy and lucidity. What's missing are the wide-ranging insights and unexpected connections of Rybczynski's books on architecture and urban history....Which is perhaps to say that the book succeeds too well at being a conventional biography....Fascinating throughout, written with engaging grace and informed understanding, this is a life that is truly worthy of its subject."—David Laskin, The Washington Post

    A Clearing In the Distance by Witold Rybczynski, New York: Scribner, 1999