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American Eden: From Monticello to Central Park to Our Backyards

by Wade Graham

The story of our nation and ourselves as told through our country's most significant gardens and their creators. From Frederick Law Olmsted to Richard Neutra, Michelle Obama to our neighbors, Americans throughout history have revealed something of themselves--their personalities, desires, and beliefs--in the gardens they create. Rooted in the time and place of their making, as much as in the minds and identities of their makers, gardens mirror the struggles and energies of a changing society. Melding biography, history, and cultural commentary in a one-of-a-kind narrative, American Eden presents a dynamic, sweeping look at this country's landscapes and the visionaries behind them. Monticello's gardens helped Jefferson reconcile his conflicted feelings about slavery-and take his mind off his increasing debt. Edith Wharton's gardens made her feel more European and superior to her wealthy but insufficiently sophisticated countrymen. Martha Stewart's how-to instructions helped bring Americans back into their gardens, while at the same time stoking and exploiting our anxieties about social class. Isamu Noguchi's and Robert Smithson's experiments reinvigorated the age-old exchange between art and the garden. American Eden offers an inclusive definition of the garden, considering intentional landscapes that range from domestic kitchen gardens to city parks and national parks, suburban backyards and golf courses, public plazas and Manhattan's High Line park, reclaimed from freight train tracks. And it exposes the overlap between garden-making and painting, literature, and especially architecture-the garden's inseparable sibling-to reveal the deep interconnections between the arts and their most inspired practitioners. Moving deftly through time and place across America's diverse landscapes--from Revolutionary-era Virginia to turn-of-the-century Chicago to 1960s suburban California--and featuring a diverse cast of landscape-makers--whether artists, architects, or housewives, amateurs or professionals, robber barons, politicians, reformers, or dreamers--Wade Graham vividly unfolds the larger cultural history through more personal dramas. Beautifully illustrated with color and black-and-white images, American Eden is at once a different kind of garden book and a different kind of American history, one that offers a compelling, untold story--a saga that mirrors and illuminates our nation's invention, and constant reinvention, of itself.

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