- ISBN-13: 9781590178508
- ISBN-10: 1590178505
- Publisher: New York Review of Books
- Publish Date: March 2015
- Page Count: 392
- Dimensions: 8 x 5.1 x 0.9 inches
- Shipping Weight: 0.8 pounds
Well Read: At home in the garden
Unlike her prolific husband, E.B. White, Katharine S. White wrote only one book, yet she left a decisive and enduring mark over the course of her 34 years as an editor at The New Yorker, shaping the distinctive voice of the magazine and shepherding the work of many of the greatest writers of the 20th century. Her one book, Onward and Upward in the Garden, was not published until two years after her death in 1977, and is edited and introduced by her husband. Comprising 14 gardening columns written between 1958 and 1970, it is a charming, idiosyncratic, opinionated, informative and, at times, humorous paean to the amateur pursuit of horticulture. It returns this month in a new edition after a decade out of print.
The columns for The New Yorker began as unlikely book review-like assessments of the newest seed catalogs, which White scrutinized with uncommon ardor, applying the same critical eye that she might have cast on, say, a novel. As the years progressed, she continued to structure the pieces around the latest offerings from a far-flung array of nurseries, but the columns became increasingly personal and thoughtful. As with all of the best articles that the fabled magazine featured in its heyday, it is the controlled discursiveness of the writing that keeps us reading, even if we don’t necessarily care about varieties of roses or the care and breeding of African violets. White reels us in with her enthusiasm and her Yankee directness. When she takes a narrative side trip through the history of the lawn mower or contemplates keeping the -virus-ridden bulbs of “broken tulips” segregated in her flowerbeds, we find ourselves eagerly reading on—whether we have a lawn ourselves or give two figs about tulips.
The Whites did their gardening on a farm in Maine, and descriptions of the everyday rhythms of their rural life infuse her clean, poetic prose. “There is also internecine warfare among the phlox—between the burgeoning clumps of common pink, white and calico phlox and the less well-established stands of the new varieties, whose colors are more interesting,” she writes. “Nonetheless, I am happy with all this bountiful bloom, and, careless gardener that I am, I comfort myself with the thought that at least I have achieved mass effect, and that the flowers grow in drifts of color. . . . But [Gertrude Jekyll,] that formidable garden genius of the last generation would never, never have condoned my crowded bed or my state of August sloth, which makes me want to say, ‘Oh, let it go. Let the plants fight their own battles.’ ” Lovers of E.B. White’s most famous book may hear echoes of Charlotte’s prickly, philosophical pronouncements in passages such as these.
Sadly, Katharine White never wrote what would have been the final chapter in the book—a piece about the gardens of her New England childhood, which, given her perception and appreciation for the past, coupled with a clear-eyed lack of nostalgia, would likely have been among the most engaging parts of an already engaging book. “Writing for her was an agonizing ordeal,” E.B. White tells us in his introduction, “particularly hard because she was by temperament and by profession an editor, not a writer.” Onward and Upward in the Garden gives the lie to this claim: Katharine White was indeed a delightfully gifted writer.