Jackson, J(ohn) B(rinckerhoff)

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Jackson, J(ohn) B(rinckerhoff)

(b. 25 September 1909 in Dinard, France; d. 28 August 1996 in Santa Fe, New Mexico), author, editor, teacher, cultural geographer, and reader of the American landscape known for such essay collections as A Sense of Place, a Sense of Time (1994) and for championing an understanding of the “vernacular landscape,” or the interactions between ordinary Americans and their everyday environments.

Jackson was born in Dinard, France, to American parents, William Brinckerhoff Jackson and Alice Richardson Jackson. The Jackson family, including a brother and sister from his mother’s first marriage, lived on and off in Europe and in the United States near Washington, D.C. The young Jackson was educated at Le Rosey boarding school in Switzerland and in Paris, and later at Choate and Deerfield Academy, while spending summers of his preparatory years on an uncle’s sheep ranch near Wagon Mound, in eastern New Mexico.

Jackson entered college in 1928 with a year at the Experimental College of the University of Wisconsin in Madison, then transferred to Harvard University for the duration of his undergraduate work, where he graduated in 1932 with a degree in history and literature. After a year of graduate study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) School of Architecture, Jackson worked as a newspaper reporter for the New Bedford Mercury. In 1934 he enrolled briefly in a commercial drawing school in Vienna, Austria, then embarked upon an extended tour of Europe. During this period, he published a well-received novel, Saints in Summertime (1938), and several shorter works, all concerned with European politics and the rise of Nazism. Again in the United States by the late 1930s, Jackson worked on a ranch near Cimarron, New Mexico.

During World War II, Jackson enlisted in the First Cavalry Division and was transferred to Washington to begin training as an intelligence officer. He saw battle in North Africa and Sicily (where he was wounded in action), as well as in France and during the Battle of the Bulge. Assigned to combat intelligence beginning with the Normandy invasion, Jackson’s task for the duration of the European campaign was to combine a variety of intelligence—maps, guidebooks, aerial photographs, local geographical literature, interviews, and prisoner interrogations—to interpret the enemy-held landscape that lay before the advancing American armies. Major Jackson was discharged in 1946, after which he returned to New Mexico and coleased a 10,000-acre ranch near Clines Corners, but a severe riding accident soon ended his ranching venture.

In 1951 Jackson founded the journal Landscape, in effect inaugurating a new field of inquiry on the American scene, one influenced by the French geographers and anthropologists he had read during and after the war. Originally carrying the subtitle Human Geography of the Southwest and later the more inclusive Magazine of Human Geography, Jackson created a forum for discussing the American physical landscape from a variety of perspectives and academic disciplines. In Jackson’s seventeen years (1951–1968) as editor of Landscape, his central topic was human geography, or the human story as written in the material constructions of, and continuing alterations to, the land. To Jackson, the landscape was a rich source of information regarding American history and values, and he probed for overlooked cultural meanings latent in the evolution of commonplace sites such as backyards, garages, trailer parks, roadsides, and urban strips.

Known to many simply as “Brinck,” Jackson began teaching in 1962 at the University of California at Berkeley and by 1969 was offering a class each semester at either Harvard or Berkeley while spending his summers in New Mexico. His courses on the history of the American cultural landscape, based largely on discoveries he made on countless motorcycle forays into country and city, were popular at both institutions over the next decade, where he typically taught between 600 and 700 students per year. After retiring from teaching in the late 1970s, he continued to lecture widely.

As an essayist of the American landscape, Jackson possessed a keen eye for detail and an eloquent prose style that purposely eschewed academic tone and structure. Jackson taught his readers to know the landscape not as simple scenery but as an historical and ever-changing organization of man-made space that lay open to valuable interpretation if one learned how to look, question, and connect material specifics to broader themes of American social history. His books include the collection Landscapes: Selected Writings of J. B. Jackson (1970); American Space: The Centennial Years, 1865–1876 (1972); The Necessity for Ruins (1980); and Discovering the Vernacular Landscape (1984). In March 1995 Jackson won a PEN Award for his collection of essays A Sense of Place, a Sense of Time (1994). He also edited and contributed to a number of collections and journals, and in the spring of 1996 displayed his drawings in New York City and in Rhode Island. Jackson’s Landscape in Sight was published posthumously in 1997.

A long-term resident of La Cienega, New Mexico, a village near Santa Fe, Jackson lived alone in a home he designed himself. Situated on six lush acres with a pond, orchard, and garden plot, the house itself was of simple adobe construction but bore New England and North African influences. The interior was unpretentious, hung with the owner’s own drawings, watercolors, and oils. The kitchen was the fulcrum of activity in the Jackson house, where a steady stream of locals, friends, colleagues, students, and pilgrims was the norm. He never married.

After his retirement from lecturing in 1985, Jackson—a small, bald man perpetually dressed in casual attire—continued to write, but he also worked mornings at construction sites, gardens, and at a local service station. The unassuming day laborer quietly became a village benefactor, building the local community center and pool and paying for several village children to go to college. Jackson also left a $2 million bequest to the University of New Mexico, which now houses his papers and correspondence. Few were aware of his various generosities, and not even his closest friends seem to have known everything about the somewhat enigmatic man. Increasingly devout in the last years of his life, Jackson frequented his local parish and a small African-American church in Albuquerque. He died at age eighty-six in Santa Fe following a brief illness and is buried in the cemetery of the San Jose Catholic Church in La Cienega.

Because he was associated with a number of academic disciplines, Jackson and his work are difficult to classify in any conventional academic way. Among the fields he affected were history, architecture, geography, urban studies, environmental studies, literature, anthropology, and landscape architecture, yet his perspective was relentlessly multidisciplinary, and he was often at odds with (or ahead of) prevailing academic winds. He was criticized for his tolerance of ecological degradation or homogenization of the landscape, and he in turn criticized environmentalists for romanticizing the landscape and denying people—particularly marginalized people—an existence within it. His writing was sometimes discounted because it lacked the critical apparatus de rigueur in academe, yet it was clear that Jackson, his repeated modesty notwithstanding, had an impressive command of the multiple perspectives and disciplines at play in his work. The only fair way to label him may be as an influential iconoclast with a unique and powerful voice, or as a thinker and writer who employed the sweeping multidisciplinarity of American studies. Certainly Jackson is crucial to the broad field of landscape studies: his elevation of the vernacular landscape and his appeal to academics and the lay public alike are far-reaching. Ultimately Jackson was a steady advocate for the common American landscape and the people whose story is written in and on it. He valued the less-attractive and passed-over components of the terrain and taught others to interpret this vital American cultural story. As Jackson states in the preface to one of his works, “The beauty that we see in the vernacular landscape is the image of our common humanity.”

The collection of Jackson’s papers and correspondence is in the Center for Southwest Research at the University of New Mexico. No full-length biography exists, and aside from Jackson’s own published, occasionally autobiographical work, including that in Landscape magazine from 1951 to 1968, the following provide the best picture available of this complex man: Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz’s opening essay “J. B. Jackson and the Discovery of the American Landscape” in the collection of Jackson’s work she edited, Landscape in Sight: Looking at America (1997); D. W. Meinig’s discussion of Jackson’s work in Landscape magazine, “Reading the Landscape: An Appreciation of W. G. Hoskins and J. B. Jackson,” in The Interpretation of Ordinary Landscapes (1979); Marc Treib’s look at Jackson’s New Mexican residence, “J. B. Jackson’s Home Ground,” in Landscape Architecture 78 (Apr.-May 1988), and Treib’s “The Measure of Wisdom,” an editorial homage to Jackson’s life and influence, in the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 55 (Dec. 1996); a special issue of Geographical Review 88 (Oct. 1998) dedicated to Jackson and his connections to that discipline; obituaries from the Santa Fe New Mexican (30 Aug. 1996) and New York Times (31 Aug. 1996); and the 1988 documentaries/. B. Jackson and the Love of Everyday Places, produced by Robert Calo, and Figure in a Landscape: A Conversation with J. B. Jackson, produced by Janet Mendelsohn and Claire Marino.

Andrew Smith

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