American Studies 151, American Landscapes & Places
Fall Quarter, 2000
A short but significant chunk of Frederick Law Olmsted's 1865 "Preliminary Report on the Yosemite and Big Tree Grove" is quoted in Joseph Engbeck's brief history of the park:
"It is the main duty of government, if it is not the sole duty of government, to provide means of protection for all its citizens in the pursuit of happiness against the obstacles, otherwise insurmountable, which the selfishness of individuals or combinations of individuals is liable to interpose to that pursuit.
It is a scientific fact that the occasional contemplation of natural scenes of an impressive character, particularly if this contemplation occurs in connection with relief from ordinary cares, change of air and change of habits, is favorable to the health and vigor of men and especially to the health and vigor of their intellect beyond any other conditions which can be offered them, that it not only gives pleasure for the time being but increases the subsequent capacity for happiness and the means of securing that happiness." [Engbeck, 20 (Reader, 109), Olmsted 502 (Reader, 219)]
In this essay we will read Olmsted's text in light of other texts, and try to understand some of the assumptions and values it represents, the ways these assumptions illuminate the time it was written and the changes that have occurred since then. We want to know what he means, and how his meaning is significant in understanding what will happen to Yosemite and to our experience of it.
Besides demanding control of quotation and giving you practice making concrete assertions based on textual evidence, this exercise is an opportunity to think critically about Yosemite as a public place, about the ways we as a nation and as a people experience place, creating meanings and absorbing significance of human interaction with the environment. How do these sentiments reflect attitudes that persist today? How do they reflect attitudes that have gone out of style? In what specific ways does this passage reflect or illuminate conflicts that have arisen in the 135 years since its writing?
Your task here is several-fold: First, try to paraphrase the quotation, putting Olmsted's thoughts into words someone not in this class can easily understand. Then write an explication of this text in light of other texts, making specific reference to other readings we have done this quarter, to lecture material, to what you have already learned of park history. You must illustrate your points with thoughtful, apposite quotation from at least four of our readings, showing you have understood both Olmsted's message and the more modern offerings we have studied on place, especially as they relate to Yosemite.
I will be asking for specific quotation suggestions in the coming week and a half, and will be holding additional office hours to make this assignment productive as a multi-faceted learning experience. DO e-mail me or call me with questions! DON'T try to do this assignment at the last minute. DON'T think that unintegrated or extensive quotations can take the place of ruthless selection and careful control. One of my aims here is to challenge you to quote less but say more, to command the discourse of a field in ways you may not have experienced before. We will be going over specifics of citation format and technique in class and in office hours, so come prepared with the readings done.