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Reviewed by:
  • Keywords in American Landscape Design
  • Judith K. Major (bio)
Keywords in American Landscape Design Therese O’Malley, with contributions by Elizabeth Kryder-Reid and Anne L. Helmreich. 2010. Washington DC: Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, National Gallery of Art in association with Yale University Press, New Haven. 724 pages. $125.00, clothbound. ISBN 978-0-300101-74-4.

Keywords in American Landscape Design is a gorgeous book. Twenty years in the making, the lushly illustrated historical dictionary offers a selection of 100 words or concepts from the early colonial period up to 1852, the year in which the renowned American author, editor, and landscape gardener An-drew Jackson Downing drowned in a steamboat accident.

While waiting for the seven-pound package to arrive, I thought about the difficulty of assessing such a book. In a review of the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), Charlotte Brewer observes that it is almost impossible to fully grasp the characteristics of a dictionary. Does one have to grapple with each entry to weigh the dictionary as a whole even though it functions as an entity and has a finite number of words and pages? A seemingly hopeless task, but the self-proclaimed word collector Ammon Shea tackled the 21,730 pages of the OED, reading eight to ten hours each day. While admiring the beautifully-written definitions and the enormous amount of thought and learning involved in the dictionary, he wrote down interesting words that called forth hilarity, surprise, or even sadness. His yearlong effort certainly did not involve “a theoretical consideration of the appropriate way to assess a lexicographical enterprise,” as called for by Brewer (Brewer 1993, 315).

None of the words and concepts selected for Keywords calls forth strong emotional response: “Fence” and “lawn” can in no way compete with “acnestis” or “psithurism” (look them up). Most of the keywords will be familiar to scholars of American landscape gardening, but for anyone interested in the topic, the definitions offer a precise overview of 18th-and 19th-century usage. Terms such as “shrubbery” and “park” or the aesthetic category of the “Picturesque” are often misused, and Keywords clears up any confusion, with references from original texts and multiple images added to an interpretive essay. All of the records follow this format; they are organized alphabetically and begin with an essay (whose author [End Page 317] is identified by initials) followed by primary source material including diaries, travel accounts, and garden treatises.

To evaluate the whole project, however, one must go beyond studying a representative sample of the dictionary’s entries. Brewer offers guidelines for judging a dictionary’s reliability and worth, beginning with the quality of the scholarship. There is no questioning the high quality of the individuals who contributed to the project: Therese O’Malley led and was guided by a superb staff and advisory board, assisted by equally rigorous archivists, curators, scholars, and editors.

Secondly, we need to know as much as possible about the dictionary’s methodology and editorial premises. The introduction to Keywords succinctly spells them out. The continental United States forms the geographic boundary of the project and textual evidence is limited to English-language sources. The editors read historical sources to identify the most significant terms and selected 100 that represent a spectrum of landscape features ranging from high art to the vernacular. Inclusiveness is one of the premises of Keywords—which the editors admit is not without problems. Foremost is the subjectivity of both word and image.

Three introductory essays aim to elucidate the connection and meaning of word and image and to, “relate the sites and the primary sources to broader currents of American landscape design history” (3). In “The Evidence of American Garden History: Interpreting American Gardens through Words and Images,” Therese O’Malley addresses four historiographic problems in American garden research; the record of scholarly comparison with European garden traditions, the misunderstanding of the multiplicity of stylistic innovation, the bias toward the elite and upper class, and the definition of the American garden or designed landscape. Landscape historians should be pleased that we have progressed enough to warrant such an expert exegesis of our discipline...


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pp. 317-319
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