John R. Stilgoe is Orchard Professor of Landscape History at Harvard University. He is the author of Alongshore; Metropolitan Corridor: Railroads and the American Scene; Borderland: Origins of the American Suburb; and Common Landscape of America, 1540 to 1845. He lives in Norwell, Massachusetts.
Without the usual accretions of academic writing, the author, a respected Harvard architectural and landscape historian, attempts a highly personal narrative, calling for his readers to become more aware of the quickly disappearing world around them. Stilgoe manifests keen observational skills on his diverse, peculiar topics‘utility and rail lines, postal service, interstate highways, fences, small-town main streets, and motels. Disappointingly, however, his collection of brief essays fails to deliver an integrated whole. The text, written from the perspective of an anonymous "explorer" bicycling around the country, frequently carries a tone of arrogance despite Stilgoe's veneer of familiarity, and his failure to supply substance and details for many of his intriguing generalizations proves troublesome. In his effort to write an accessible plea, the author delivers part jeremiad, part motivational pep talk, and part how-to guide, with occasional brilliant perceptions such as one countering the assumption that Americans are more visually sophisticated today than in previous generations. However, Stilgoe generally fails to elaborate on human causes within an institutional context for the changes he observes. Not recommended.‘Charles K. Piehl, Mankato State Univ., MN
In Common Landscape of America, 1580-1845, Stilgoe brilliantly traced the history and the meaning of man's imprint on the American environment. His new book, as informal and chatty as Common Landscape was scholarly, looks at the physical state of America today and encourages his readers to become "Explorers": unhurried, clear-eyed observers of the world they rush through. The book is wildly unevenÄthe section on motels, for instance, does little more than belabor the obviousÄand the repeated refrain to Open Your Eyes and Look Around becomes hectoring, but when Stilgoe lets his imagination run free, the results can become breathtaking. The chapter on interstate highways touches on such things as what's written on the backs of signs, the dirt tracks that parallel expressways, roadkill and what happens to it and what seemingly random patches of wild flowers may really signify. Perhaps the best chapter deals with fences and other ways people draw lines across the landscape to mark boundaries or create the illusion of privacy. Stilgoe calls this a "straightforward guidebook to exploring" whose purpose borders on the evangelical, but it's the sort of book that makes the reader want to buttonhole anyone handy and say, "Listen to this." (July)