CRM Journal

Book Review

Everyday America: Cultural Landscape Studies After J. B. Jackson

Edited by Chris Wilson and Paul Groth. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003; x + 385 pp., notes, photographs; cloth $49.95; paper $19.95.


In 1951, at the age of 41, John Brinckerhoff Jackson began publishing the periodical Landscape. Educated at the University of Wisconsin, Harvard College, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Jackson was trained to understand cultural landscapes during his service as a combat intelligence officer in northern France during World War II. Discharged from the army at the war's conclusion, he drove across the United States in a surplus jeep and embarked upon his life-long mission to decode America's built form. Jackson communicated his findings through his magazine and in books including American Space and Discovering the Vernacular Landscape.(1) Everyday America, edited by Chris Wilson and Paul Groth, is a celebration and analysis of the impact Jackson has had upon a broad range of scholars.

As an editor, Jackson defied disciplinary boundaries. His magazine generated a constituency of architects, historians, geographers, folklorists, sociologists, city planners, journalists, and others. These readers and the authors that Jackson published did not share a methodology, but instead found common ground in a belief that insights into culture, history, and ideology could be reaped through close attention to the spaces constructed, used, and populated by everyday Americans. Jackson and his cohorts, whom geographer Jay Appleton dubbed the "landscape movement," viewed the countryside as a palimpsest upon which layers of meaning had been inscribed throughout history.

In the late 1960s, Jackson was invited to teach at both the University of California, Berkeley, and Harvard University. Although he taught at two of the most prestigious institutions of higher learning, he distanced himself from academia just as he had rejected the strictures of disciplinary boundaries. From a self-imposed position of marginality, Jackson challenged his readers, colleagues, and students to look critically at their surroundings and parse the dialectic between cultural forces and built forms.

The 17 essays in this inspiring interdisciplinary collection, edited by 2 of his accomplished proteges, indicate that Jackson profoundly influenced how Americans view their surroundings. The book is noteworthy for both the stature of its contributors and for the range of disciplines they represent. The authors include Denise Scott Brown, partner in the internationally renowned architectural firm of Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates; Patricia Nelson Limerick, a preeminent historian of the American West; Pierce Lewis, the influential cultural geographer; and Gwendolyn Wright, distinguished analyst of domestic spaces and architectural history. Although many contributors were Jackson's colleagues or students, participation by younger emerging practitioners indicates that his ideas continue to shape the discourse.

Everyday America has a tripartite structure. The book opens with essays about Jackson and his work. This section includes, among other pieces, the editors' overview of Jackson's life and opus, Limerick's humorous analysis of his methods, and Scott Brown's memoir of her interactions with "Brinck," as he was known to his friends and colleagues. The volume's core focuses on the pedagogy of cultural landscape studies within diverse disciplines. Pierce Lewis, for example, explicates an exercise he uses at Pennsylvania State University to challenge beginning geographers to engage with the landscape. Other contributors discuss teaching and learning à la Jackson, as journalists, historians, and architects. The essays in the final section build upon concepts derived from Jackson's work to expand academic understanding of the dynamics shaping America and Americans. These investigations touch upon disparate topics such as department store contributions to women's suffrage in the early 20th century, landscape architecture of corporate headquarters on urban peripheries, inadequate property boundaries for encompassing ecological systems in the American West, and historical forces that locate medical facilities in the nation's strip malls.

The book's interdisciplinary nature is one of its great gifts. The multiple authorial voices meld into a provocative dialogue that could be likened romantically to an urban market or an ideal academic conference. Simultaneously, the lack of disciplinary boundaries contributes to a disjunction arguably characteristic of Jackson himself. Like Jackson, and like the field of cultural landscape studies more broadly, the works in this volume are inspired by both description and proscription, meaning that, at times, arguments are presented at cross-purposes. Some authors wish simply to limn reality as complexly as possible; others investigate the landscape to find models for designing improved spaces. Roadside mini-malls are celebrated for demonstrating the vitality with which Americans continue to embrace the automobile. Also in this collection, commercial activity enacted on a city's residential stoops and front porches is heralded as a model for a new, more social, pedestrian-based urbanism. These two hats—scholar and designer, analyst and reformer—do not always fit comfortably on the same head: yet this process of applying their insights in the public realm keeps geographers, historians, and other academics civically engaged.

This book is not an introduction to the field of cultural landscape studies, nor will it instruct the uninitiated in the practice of landscape analysis. Books such as Understanding Ordinary Landscapes edited by Paul Groth and Todd Bressi, the classic The Interpretation of Ordinary Landscapes edited by geographer D. W. Meinig, or John Stilgoe's highly accessible Outside Lies Magic fill that niche.(2) For those, however, who daily grope with questions of how to explicate the built environment, whether they are professionals or students, this book will be valuable for understanding the dynamics that have shaped our profession and work. Having labored in the shadow of Jackson's inspiration for 20 years, this reviewer was gratified to gain a better understanding of Jackson's biography and the intellectual context in which he worked. At times, reading this book was like attending a family reunion and garnering valuable insights into my own personality by hearing relatives talk about my parents' youth and by meeting cousins who previously had been strangers.

Although J. B. Jackson did not single-handedly create cultural landscape studies in the United States, he profoundly shaped the field and its practitioners. This volume moves the endeavor forward by focusing a critical eye on his legacy. In the years to come, insights gained from it will inform increasingly complex readings of the built forms surrounding us.

William D. Moore
University of North Carolina at Wilmington



1. John Brinckerhoff Jackson, American Space: The Centennial Years, 1865-1876 (New York: Norton, 1972) and Discovering the Vernacular Landscape (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1984).

2. Paul Groth and Todd W. Bressi, eds., Understanding Ordinary Landscapes (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997); D. W. Meinig, ed., The Interpretation of Ordinary Landscapes: Geographical Essays (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979); John R. Stilgoe, Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places (New York: Walker & Co., 1998).