John Brinckerhoff Jackson. At Berkeley. Photograph by Jennifer Williams, 1981.
Courtesy of Paul Groth.


Jackson, John Brinckerhoff (25 Sept. 1909-28 Aug. 1996), essayist, cultural geographer, and interpreter of the American-built environment, was born in Dinard, France, the son of William Brinckerhoff Jackson, an independently wealthy attorney, and Alice Richardson Jackson, who later became an antiques buyer for Bonwit Teller department store in New York City. John's parents lived near Washington, D.C., and traveled widely. They divorced when he was four, and he then lived in Europe and the New York area with his mother and two siblings by her previous marriage. John's father paid for him to attend the best private boarding schools in the United States and Europe, including drawing classes near Fontainbleau and two years at Le Rosey in Switzerland. John also spent several summers on his uncle Percy Jackson's ranch in Wagon Mound, New Mexico. By his teenage years, John was fluent in French, German, and Spanish, and was adept at sketching as a method of recording built environments.

Jackson entered Choate in 1923, but he graduated from Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts. There the headmaster steered him to the University of Wisconsin's Experimental College. The approach there ignored disciplinary boundaries; reading Oswald Spengler's Decline of the West and visits by Lewis Mumford strongly influenced Jackson's ideas about architecture, urbanism, and writing. However, Jackson was unhappy in Madison, and after one year (1928-1929) he transferred to Harvard, where he wrote and edited for the undergraduate literary magazine, the Harvard Advocate; he also penned the lyrics for the Hasty Pudding club, an annual satirical variety show. He completed his bachelor's degree in history and literature in 1932. Jackson, whose friends knew him as "Brinck," studied architecture for one year at MIT, worked as a newspaper reporter for six months in New Bedford, Massachusetts, and studied commercial drawing in Vienna. In 1934 and 1935, he traveled through central Europe by motorcycle. Under the name "Brinckerhoff Jackson" he published an article about the rise of fascism for American Review (1934) and a short story for Harper's (1935). He returned to the United States in 1936 and worked in the president's office at Harvard, assisting in the university's tercentenary. In 1938 he published a novel entitled Saints in Summertime, whose main character--a liberal journalist in Austria--is caught between the new influences of fascists and militant leftists.

In the late 1930s, to escape the confines of a white-collar job and to start life anew, Jackson left Boston for Cimarron, New Mexico, to work as a cowboy on a ranch. In 1940 he enlisted in the U.S. Army. Within months, his language skills and European experience brought him promotions (to captain and eventually to major) and assignment as a military intelligence officer. He served in the Ninth Infantry Division in North Africa and Sicily, and landed in Normandy on D-Day plus two. From 1944 to 1945, as the division headquarters moved from chateau to chateau across France and Germany, Jackson combed the libraries of the resident landowners (as well as local book shops) for geographical information to prepare for future troop movements. This became his graduate education. He familiarized himself with the writing of twentieth-century French geographers, especially Pierre Defontaines; he taught himself how to interpret maps and aerial photographs as well as how to incorporate insights from postcards, guidebooks, and phrases gleaned from his interviews with captured soldiers; he also learned how to conduct quick surveillance trips ahead of Allied lines. West Point cadets would later read Jackson's reports as model documents of military intelligence and reconnaissance.

Jackson returned to the United States in 1946 and drove cross-country to New Mexico. From his geographical studies in Europe, he was now able to see and interpret the everyday American landscape in an entirely new way. A horse-riding accident thwarted his intentions of being a rancher; during a year and a half of convalescence, Jackson decided to start an illustrated magazine to inspire Americans to write the kind of local human geography he had discovered in France during the war. In the spring of 1951 he launched Landscape magazine, published three times a year in Santa Fe and primarily supported by his own funds. Landscape was written for the general reader and featured articles without footnotes. The subject matter ranged from disquisitions on ordinary houses, yards, farms, and farmsteads to notes on ecology and from the impact of automobile use, mobile homes, shopping centers, and rural and urban planning to philosophical arguments about the meaning of human space and arguments for and against (but usually against) preservation. These were leavened by an extensive book review section, occasionally spirited discussions between readers, and attractive cover and page designs.

Jackson edited and published Landscape through 1968. Subscribers never numbered much more than three thousand, but Jackson's editorial and promotional skills sparked important interdisciplinary discussions about everyday American-built environments and popularized the term "cultural landscape" as a focus of study and reflection. For the first two years, Jackson wrote virtually every article, writing as "J. B. Jackson" and also under several pseudonyms, each with a distinct voice and point of view. These pseudonymous writers continued to appear throughout the Jackson years of Landscape, as did Jackson's translations from French, German, Spanish, and Italian journals and books, which introduced European ideas to his American readers. Jackson's achievements in Landscape lay not only in his own frequent contributions and publishing innovative environmental writing and scholarship, but also in bringing together a network of prominent readers and authors--including Lewis Mumford, Siegfried Gideon, Edward T. Hall, Edgar Anderson, Kevin Lynch, Ansel Adams, Garrett Eckbo, and Henry A. Wallace.

While still publishing Landscape, Jackson began a parallel career as an itinerant adjunct professor and charismatic guest speaker. In 1957 the University of California, Berkeley, geographer Carl O. Sauer invited him to visit the campus, where in subsequent visits Jackson sat in on geography classes and eventually offered seminars of his own. He sought out the architects, landscape architects, and planners on campus, and by 1967 he was teaching popular three-hundred-student lecture courses on the history of American and European landscapes in Berkeley's landscape architecture department every winter. By 1969 he was teaching similar courses at Harvard in visual and environmental studies and landscape architecture during the fall. The first two collections of Jackson's essays appeared in the early 1970s: Landscapes: Selected Writings of J. B. Jackson, edited by Ervin H. Zube, (1970); and American Space: The Centennial Years, 1865-1876 (1972). He retired from Harvard in 1977 and from Berkeley in 1978, and returned full-time to his home in LaCienega, a Hispanic village ten miles southwest of Santa Fe. However, he continued as a frequent visiting lecturer at Berkeley and Harvard and at geography departments and design schools throughout the United States. In 1980 he published two collections of essays: The Necessity for Ruins and Other Topics and The Southern Landscape Tradition in Texas. He was a resident fellow at the American Academy in Rome in 1983.

Jackson went on to publish Discovering the Vernacular Landscape (1984), The Essential Landscape: The New Mexico Photographic Survey (1985), and A Sense of Place, a Sense of Time (1994), which won the 1995 PEN International award for the best collection of essays. Jackson's prose was concise, penetrating, witty, always speculative, and often included sweeping generalities; he sought to spark interest among his readers rather than be the last authority. Early in 1996 the Municipal Art Society in New York City exhibited his landscape drawings, with Eleanor M. McPeck as curator. A retrospective of Jackson's writing, Landscape in Sight: Looking at America (1997), assembled and edited by Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz with his cooperation, was essentially complete before his death in Santa Fe in 1996.

Jackson's writing, publishing, and teaching-and especially his selection of subjects, which were radical for their time-opened the eyes of two generations of readers to everyday-built environments as important crucibles of cultural meaning. He successfully turned his upper-class and fine-arts backgrounds into the study of primarily working-class and middle-class people and settings. Herbert Muschamp, the architecture critic of the New York Times, called Jackson "America's greatest living writer on the cultural forces that have shaped the land this nation occupies," and noted that "Jackson's eye may be the most penetrating this century has produced" (21 Apr. 1996). Yet Jackson always emphasized that vision was primarily important not for the appreciation of form, but for asking questions about people and place.



Jackson's papers are housed in the Center for Southwest Studies, University Libraries, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque. The most authoritative articles on Jackson's life are by Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz: "J. B. Jackson and the Discovery of the American Landscape," in Landscape in Sight: Looking at America, ed. Helen Horowitz (1997), and "J. B. Jackson as a Critic of Modern Architecture," in Everyday America: Cultural Landscape Studies after J. B. Jackson, eds. Chris Wilson and Paul Groth (2003). A complete bibliography of Jackson's writing has been assembled by Horowitz in Landscape in Sight. See also Donald W. Meinig, "Reading the Landscape: An Appreciation of W. G. Hoskins and J. B. Jackson," The Interpretation of Ordinary Landscapes, ed. Meinig (1979); Helaine Kaplan Prentice, "John Brinkerhoff Jackson," Landscape Architecture 81 (Nov. 1981); Paul Groth, "Frameworks for Cultural Landscape Study," Understanding Ordinary Landscapes, eds. Paul Groth and Todd W. Bressi (1997); and Paul Groth and Chris Wilson, "The Polyphony of Cultural Landscape Study: An Introduction," in Everyday America. Two public television documentaries about Jackson are Figure in a Landscape: A Conversation with J. B. Jackson, produced and directed by Claire Marino and Janet Mendelsohn (1987); and J. B. Jackson and the Love of Everyday Places, produced and directed by Robert Calo (1988). Biographical introductions for European audiences are included in two translations of Jackson's work: A la Découverte du Paysage Vernacularie, trans. Xavier Carrère, preface by Jean-Marc Besse and Gilles A. Tiberghien (2003); and Landschaftstheorie, eds. Brigitte Franzen and Stefanie Krebs (2005). An obituary appears in the New York Times (31 Aug 1996). "John Brinckerhoff Jackson, 1909-1996," eds. Kenneth L. Helphand, Robert Z. Melnick, and Rene C. Kane, Landscape Journal 16.1 (Spring 1997) collects nineteen remembrances of Jackson and includes views of his home and samples of his drawings.

Paul Groth

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