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69:1 Book Review: Overton Park
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Tennessee Libraries


Volume 69 Issue 1 2019
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Book Review

Lamb, B. (2019). Overton park: A people’s history. Knoxville, TN: The University of Tennessee Press. 183 pages. ISBN-13: 978-1-62190-460-1 

by Michael W. Harris

Michael Harris is a Research and Instruction Librarian at University of Memphis.


Brooks Lamb’s Overton Park: A People’s History is a very readable book, but one whose audience is hard to pin down. By using the phrase “people’s history” he invokes Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States  when what he is actually doing is using oral history interviews to tell the story of the park that is the cultural hub and heart of Memphis. Still, he is not incorrect in paralleling the history of Overton to the story of revolutionary, activist fervor stirred up by Zinn and his ideas because the history of the park is the history of activists rallying to save their beloved greenspace amidst urban sprawl.

Lamb approaches the work by focusing on the ways in which the patrons of Overton use the park, framing the story as one of “ownership” of the space, pitting the citizens of Memphis (be they users of the park or employees of its institutions) against the city and its administrators who have, at times, sought to diminish it via highway construction highways or limited resources. Lamb, as a manager for the Land Trust of Tennessee and who also spent hours in the park as a student at Rhodes College, has a definite perspective towards preservation and usage of Overton that comes out in the book.

However, the book is a rather slim volume that reads very quickly and left me wanting more meat. The interviews and commentary begin to be repetitive as the story approaches the present day. In addition, Lamb did not spend nearly enough time unpacking the story that Overton Park is most well-known for: the battle over I-40 that reached all the way to the US Supreme Court and whose influence in case law is still discussed--a story of David (the people of Memphis) literally defeating Goliath (the US Department of Transportation).

By making the decision to focus on oral history, to make the book a “people’s history” in a literal sense, Lamb has seemingly hamstrung himself with how the project could be presented. However, the book is not without merit. It is a quick and informative read for those mostly unfamiliar with Overton Park and is a good introduction to the topic. The early chapters are especially informative on the background and early history of Overton. The book will be most appreciated by native Memphians who will enjoy learning about their park. It is not intended for academic audiences and libraries and is best suited to public libraries across the state and greater Mid-South.



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