About American Eden

  • Publisher: Harper, April 5, 2011

Advance Praise

“This blazingly fresh, critical, and ecologically astute masterwork brilliantly traces the great cycles of American life through a spectrum of gardens that embody our devotion to the art of cultivation for beauty and status, sanctuary and sustenance.” – Booklist (starred review)

“The American garden has found its destined interpreter in Wade Graham. American Eden moves luminously through landscapes of history, literature, biography, and design theory. Writing in the mode of Lewis Mumford, Van Wyck Brooks, and Alfred Kazin, Graham achieves a foundational study fusing sharp- edged analysis and graceful American prose.” – Kevin Starr, author of Golden Gate: The Life and Times of America’s Greatest Bridge.

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Quotes From Reviews:

"Garden designer and historian Graham takes a panoramic perspective in his bold interpretation of the form, function, and meaning of American gardens. Thomas Jefferson is the first, and most complex, of the many pioneering gardeners Graham incisively profiles, and Graham's frank dissection of the profound paradoxes implicit in Jefferson's landscape vision for Monticello in a time of slavery and genocide against Native Americans sets the groundwork for his central insight. . . . This blazingly fresh, critical, and ecologically astute masterwork brilliantly traces the great cycles of American life through a spectrum of gardens that embody our devotion to the art of cultivation for beauty and status, sanctuary and sustenance."

- Booklist (starred review)

"The American garden has found its destined interpreter in Wade Graham. American Eden moves luminously through landscapes of history, literature, biography, and design theory. Writing in the mode of Lewis Mumford, Van Wyck Brooks, and Alfred Kazin, Graham achieves a foundational study fusing sharp-edged analysis and graceful American prose."

- Kevin Starr, author of Golden Gate: The Life and Times of America's Greatest Bridge

"American Eden is deeply researched, passionately argued, and engagingly written. It ranges assuredly, and often acerbically, from Thomas Jefferson to Robert Smithson, from Andrew Jackson Downing to Martha Stewart. As Wade Graham expertly fillets everything from the 18th-century patrician's pergolas to the post-war suburbanite's tiki torches, it gradually dawns on the reader that he is revealing not merely the American garden, but the American soul."

- Tad Friend, author of Cheerful Money: Me, My Family, and the Last Days of Wasp Splendor

"Wade Graham gives an informative and absolutely engrossing narrative of how the garden is caught up in the crosscurrents of American history and culture. American Eden is an astute analysis-and, ultimately, a joyous celebration-of 400 years of ingenuity and vision. A better or more appropriate book to read in the park or on the deck can hardly be imagined."

- Ross King, author of Brunelleschi's Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture

"Accented by paintings, photographs and drawings, the author's appealing commentary introduces a distinctive line of gardeners and foliage engineers whose work has become timeless. A bright, comprehensive horticultural celebration written with a fine eye for detail."

- Kirkus Reviews

 “Graham's history is a fascinating and illuminating tour of this American landscape”

Publishers Weekly Review, Feb 22, 2011 www.publishersweekly.com/978-0-06-158342-1

Wall Street Journal, April 13, 2011:

“Mr. Graham recounts his tale with considerable verve and a vast erudition. … Among much else, Mr. Graham shows us that the history of how our nation grew can be found in what it has grown.”


Human beings apply their creativity to almost every material imaginable, including living plants. The results may be nothing more than a few pots on a city fire escape. Or they can be the 1,000-plus acres that Pierre S. du Pont turned into the incomparable Longwood Gardens outside Philadelphia. However simple or ­elaborate, a garden is both an expression of the human spirit and a place to restore the soul; "paradise" derives from the ancient Persian word for garden.

As Wade Graham makes clear in "American Eden," gardens are also a mirror of the culture that produces them. As America evolved from a few colonists ­precariously perched between an ocean and a vast ­wilderness to a continent-spanning behemoth of 300 ­million people, the country's gardens changed too. Mr. Graham, a garden designer with a doctorate in U.S. ­history, is well-suited to ­following the path of American gardening over the years. His chronicle begins almost as soon as America starts and involves native plants as well as those brought from England—many of which (dandelions, for instance) quickly escaped and changed the landscape of the New World.

By the early 18th century, as the wealth of the colonies increased, more elaborate gardens evolved. The public gardens in Williamsburg, Va., for instance, were built largely at the orders of the colony's British governor, Alexander Spotswood, who employed courtyards, terraces and clipped hedges to "define geometric spaces," Mr. ­Graham says. Spotswood was following the taste for Renaissance design that still dominated the English garden. He ­intended the gardens to beautify the town and its new capitol building, but the Williamsburg gardens were also a display of Virginia's wealth and sophistication, a way of announcing: "We're not the backwoods anymore." In fact, the backwoods of log cabins and Indian raids were only a few miles away.

Mr. Graham calls Thomas Jefferson's Monticello the home of the country's "founding garden," and not ­without reason. Jefferson's influence in gardening was, Mr. Graham argues, as pervasive as his influence in ­public architecture and politics. The Monticello garden "became the model for what an American garden ought to be: a relaxed composition of trees, lawn, shrubs and flowers, informal but self-assured, large but not palatial."

Fortunately for garden historians, Jefferson was a compulsive record keeper, and his "Garden Book" is a cornucopia of facts about what he planted, what worked, what failed and when plants bloomed. But ­Jefferson's garden was, for all its relaxed composition, an aristocrat's private domain. As the U.S. grew ­explosively in the 19th century, the urban public's access to greenery and fresh air declined. In 1776, one could have walked from New York's business district to the countryside in 20 minutes. By 1850 it would have taken hours. The solution: Bring the countryside to town.

Adding a bit of country to city settings occurred in many places, but New York's Central Park, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, is ­unsurpassed. Central Park may seem to afford an ­intoxicating sense of the natural world for captive city-dwellers, but its appearance is almost totally artificial. Beginning in the late 1850s, Olmsted and Vaux leveled hills to fill in swamps, dug out lakes and installed ­artificial brooks to give New Yorkers the illusion of a natural landscape, much as ­Lancelot "Capability" Brown had done for aristocratic clients a century earlier in ­Britain. Central Park, in other words, was a rich man's pleasure garden for the public, in keeping with reforms and public improvements of the ­Victorian age.

As the U.S. expanded westward, Americans imported English tastes again by following the imperatives of the Arts and Crafts movement, with its emphasis on ­simplicity and naturalism. The result was, for instance, the gardens in Grosse Pointe, Mich., where prominent designer Ellen Biddle Shipman executed 44 commissions, Mr. Graham says, and "embraced the Arts & Crafts ­garden's synthesis of formal and informal, structured to wild." California, with climates and sensibilities—in the verdant north and the desert south—so different from the East Coast's, showed the Arts and Crafts influence but also produced its own garden culture of bountiful flowers, palm trees and orange orchards.

As inner cities decayed in the mid- and late 20th ­century, their parks decayed too. But recent decades have seen a revival in many urban parks, often undertaken by private organizations rather than public bureaucracies, and even the claiming of new parkland from blighted space. A prime example: the marvelous High Line in downtown Manhattan, where an abandoned elevated rail line was an eyesore until its conversion to a slender strip of flowers and grasses with spectacular views of the cityscape.

Mr. Graham recounts his tale with considerable verve and a vast erudition in the history of gardening and the arts generally. He is a little less sure-footed with other ­aspects of American history. We're told, for instance, that the settlers in Virginia were more wealth-oriented than their more religious New England contemporaries. But while the Puritans might have been intent on building a shining city on a hill, they also regarded economic success as a sign of God's grace and pursued wealth every bit as energetically. Puritans often put at the head of their ­ledgers: "In the name of God and profit." Mr. Graham also has factory farming developing in the mid-19th century and emptying out the rural population. But while the ­percentage of Americans engaged in agriculture has been declining almost since the country was born, rural ­America was expanding through much of the 19th century and did not begin its decline until well into the 20th.

But these miscues amount to little more than an ­occasional weed in the pleasing green expanse of "American Eden." Among much else, Mr. Graham shows us that the history of how our nation grew can be found in what it has grown.

Mr. Gordon is the author of "An Empire of Wealth: The Epic History of American Economic Power."

Washington Post, June 10, 2011

www.washingtonpost.com/realestate/beautiful-photography-transports-readers-to-garden-spots-nearby-and-far away/2011/06/03/AGHm2wOH_story.html

“American Eden: From Monticello to Central Park to Our Backyards: What Our Gardens Tell Us About Who We Are,” by Wade Graham (Harper Collins, 2011, $35). Although the title implies that it’s a history going back to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello home, built in the late 1700s, the book actually goes back over a century earlier to the styles that influenced Jefferson and his contemporaries. Graham goes into great detail about Jefferson’s influence on a distinctly American style and generally considers him as the developer of our earliest garden designs.

The author describes subsequent periods in American garden design, including the arts-and-crafts garden, which lasted from about 1850 to 1945. Hedges, pergolas draped in vines, stucco walls and handcrafted lamps and finials defined much of this period.

This 459-page collection of landscape design history in this country is enjoyable reading. It is well researched, posing an interesting historic tie from the past to the present.

Cleveland Plain Dealer, April 10, 2011.


Wade Graham's 'American Eden' is a shrewd, scholarly survey of our national yen to garden

By Tricia Springstubb

Now's the time many of us eye that little strip of yard along the fence and wonder if this is the year to try heirloom tomatoes. As the plant catalogs pile up, we daydream about a lily that blooms all summer long, a pepper that grows in a pot.

Every American, whether residing in a gated community with sweeping lawns or a tiny apartment with geraniums on the fire escape, longs for a personal bit of Eden. Wade Graham, a designer and historian, has written a shrewd, comprehensive and often entertaining guide to that impulse.

The cover and heft of "American Eden: From Monticello to Central Park to Our Backyards: What Our Gardens Tell Us About Who We Are" resemble a coffee table book, but don't be deceived. Graham knows his history, art, architecture and psychology as well as he does his ferns and ficus.

Densely written chapters analyze gardens from Thomas Jefferson's Monticello to Michelle Obama's kitchen plot (its plan included). Every page is thick with facts that, tuberlike, spread and multiply in the loamy soil of his erudition.

Jefferson, for example, is shown as the embodiment of the contradictions inherent to the American mind: embracing the ideals of democracy and progress, but owning a Eurocentric estate that required slaves to maintain. While praising the virtues of virgin wilderness, the third president laid the groundwork for the destruction of much of it with the Northwest Ordinance. At the turn of the 18th century, he professed a reverence for the land while simultaneously dominating it; he thought of himself as simple, while loving luxury.

If "American Eden" has a unifying thesis, Jefferson is its poster child. As the country industrialized and drifted from its rural roots, a discomfort with modernity and a nostalgia for a purer, agrarian time continued to haunt us. We paved Paradise and never stopped trying to get it back.

The chapter "A Walk in the Park" describes the rise of public parks, from the little one on the corner to Yellowstone. Robert Law Olmstead in the 19th century designed New York's Central Park to provide a "specimen of God's handiwork," green therapy for tired urban workers. Around the same time, "suburban cemeteries" emerged as landscapes to lift the spirits, Cleveland's magnificent Lake View Cemetery being a prime example, and the idea of contiguous parks linked by roads, like our Emerald Necklace, was born.

It's a big old country, and Graham takes it all on. He views our changing landscape architecture through the prism of innumerable historic influences: Charles Darwin, the Transcendentalists, the Mexican-American War, Carl Jung, the Arts and Crafts movement -- even Thor Heyderdahl's "Kon-Tiki."

Sure to be a scholarly as well as popular resource for years to come, the book's index alone runs 24 pages. And its illustrations and photos tour of some of the world's most ravishing gardens.

Graham lives in Los Angeles, and his chapter on California, with its Asian, Spanish and New Age influences, is especially entertaining. Writing about the 1960s craze for all things Polynesian, he surveys an old garden and thinks how once there were "luaus, pool parties, swells in aloha shirts sipping stingers on the lanai, leis, lays. . . . These had been people . . . uncowed by the guardians of good taste. I wish I had been there."

More soberly, he makes the connection to Picasso and other European modernists fascinated with the "primitive."

In the end, he offers Martha Stewart as an unlikely but apt foil for Jefferson. Lampooned as she's been, Stewart remains an icon, and he credits that to her understanding of American desire. Living in cities, too busy to cook let alone gather our own eggs, we still cherish the romance of the cottage garden, Arcadia outside our door.

Graham gives a nod to pastoral urbanism, that effort, much in evidence here in Cleveland, to reclaim empty city lots as small farms. May it bloom and set fruit!

Tricia Springstubb is an author and a gardener in Cleveland Heights, Ohio.

Santa Barbara Independent, March 29, 2011:


by Charles Donelan

Growing up in Santa Barbara makes a profound impression on a person. Whether the natural beauty of our city motivates one to find ways to care for the Earth or just to earn enough money to raise one’s children here, a Santa Barbara childhood inevitably leaves its mark. For Wade Graham, the landscape architect, historian, and author of American Eden, the “garden magic” he experienced as a child, roaming through the backyards, parks, and estates of Santa Barbara, fed what became an insatiable desire to understand and appreciate the ways in which humans shape their environment.

His book, subtitled From Monticello to Central Park: What Our Gardens Tell Us About Who We Are, is the most comprehensive and readable history ever written about the men and women who created the environments in which we now live—not just in Santa Barbara, but all over the world. In a wonderfully satisfying narrative full of fascinating characters and vivid descriptions, Graham sets out to explain the modern landscape from its birth in Renaissance Italy through centuries of tradition, modification, and transition. The result is a reading experience that will change the way you look not only at gardens, but also at American history and the hybrid world—part nature, part design—in which we live.

While other scholars have written about and discussed many of the pieces in this giant puzzle of a story, American Eden corrals the whole lot of them and forces them, through a combination of informed description and critical analysis, to yield their secrets. There’s a wonderful chapter on Thomas Jefferson, yes, but there’s also an amazing gallery of other figures, well-known and obscure, who have contributed to making the contemporary world look the way it does. Geniuses of 20th-century California landscape design, such as Thomas Church, Lawrence Halprin, and Daniel Kiley, share in a conversation that includes Andrew Jackson Downing, Charles Platt, and Beatrix Farrand and extends to envelop the imaginative worlds of artists like Robert Smithson and Isamu Noguchi. Over and over, Graham makes the point that even the most apparently inhuman landscapes (check out his grisly description of the wasteland that surrounds the New Jersey side of the Hudson River) are the product of specific individuals and conscious decisions, even if those people and their choices have been rendered invisible by time and ignorance.

It’s an empowering experience to use this book as it was intended—as a way to learn to see and appreciate the making that went into what’s right in front of us. I asked Graham why he wrote this monumental work and his answer was quite simple: “I wrote the book because I wanted to read it. It came out of my own ignorance, and the sense that it gave me that I needed to provide myself and anyone else who was interested with a grammar and syntax to read these ruins around us. I wanted to connect the space I was in to the social meanings it conveys by creating a dictionary to translate the forms embedded in the landscape.”

Whether you are interested in flowers or sustainable agriculture, kitchen gardens or formal estate plans, American Eden will teach you new ways of looking at the Earth. One of Graham’s most remarkable qualities is the consistency with which he tests his enthusiasms and theories against hard facts. He glories in achievements like Montecito’s Lotusland and El Fureidis, which he describes in some detail, but he never loses sight of what they cost—both how expensive they are to create and maintain and in the way they limit the enjoyment of nature to those who can afford it. Still, Graham reminds us that his message is one of healing and of trust. “As a culture we have done violence to the lands we inhabit, but making gardens can be our way of doing something to heal this trauma in nature.”


Wade Graham speaks on Santa Barbara’s gardens and landscapes as part of a panel discussion in conjunction with the Contemporary Arts Forum’s (CAF) ongoing exhibit Eating Apples in Paradise. The talk takes place Saturday, April 2 at 4 p.m. at CAF (721 Paseo Nuevo). American Eden is also available locally at Chaucer’s Books.

Aug 2, 2011, Tucson Citizen

Wade Graham, a Los Angeles-based garden designer, historian, and writer and a frequently contributor to such publications as The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, and The Los Angeles Times, has written a fascinating book that explores how our evolving relationship with our gardens and landscapes has reflected our national identity over the course of time.  As he explains, “Just as (Thomas) Jefferson’s house and garden drove him deeply into debt as he built and rebuilt them obsessively until the end of his life, chasing the evolving image of perfection he held in his mind’s eye, our gardens reveal the economic volatility and dynamism that have fueled American social mobility, and attendant anxieties about class and status, from the beginning.”  He adds that in every age, old money and new, established social groups and ascendant ones, try to negoiate their shared spaces in part through questions of taste, style, display, and the narratives that are spun around them.

    “American Eden” is a monumental work of scholarship with keen insight that is certain to change the way many people look at their gardens and the broader landscapes we share, even when those gardens and that landscape are ones mostly filled with cacti.

September 22, 2011, NEW YORK TIMES


“Basically, this garden is designed for beasts,” Mr. Graham said. In the “drama of self-creation” that is his garden, he has given the starring role to the walk-ons: opossums, skunks, raccoons and once, he said, pointing to a neighbor’s garage, “a red fox I saw sunbathing right on that roof.”

Jan 1, 2012. Local Ecologist Blog, by Georgia Silvera Seamans