In the early 1850s, as America slid towards civil war, a young reporter for what was then the New-York Daily Times journeyed through the slave states. He hoped to gain a “reliable understanding of the sentiments and hopes & fears” among their people, and “promote the mutual acquaintance of the North and South”. What he saw of slavery would transform Frederick Law Olmsted from “a moderate Free Soiler” to a “red-hot Abolitionist”. But he wound up returning, by other means, to his original mission of advancing democratic contact and familiarity across social lines: he designed and built New York’s Central Park, along with many other beloved public spaces across the country.
In 1998, Tony Horwitz, another journalist from the Northeast, published a book that happened to resemble Olmsted’s older project in both subject matter and spirit. Confederates in the Attic revealed, with marvellous depth and clarity, the many ways in which defeat was still festering in the minds of white Southerners, 130 years after the Civil War and the end of slavery. It also brought close to perfection the journalistic approach that Olmsted had adumbrated, though Horwitz didn’t know it at the time.
“My best finds were coarse men with whom I could take a glass of Toddy in the bar room”, Olmsted wrote. He aimed for “personal acquaintance with the people in their homes … For this a man must take his chances and go on horseback”…
Image: View in West Virginia, William Louis Sonntag, circa 1860