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Annie in Austin
Welcome! As "Annie in Austin" I blog about gardening in Austin, TX with occasional looks back at our former gardens in Illinois. My husband Philo & I also make videos - some use garden images as background for my original songs, some capture Austin events & sometimes we share videos of birds in our garden. Come talk about gardens, movies, music, genealogy and Austin at the Transplantable Rose and listen to my original songs on YouTube. For an overview read Three Gardens, Twenty Years. Unless noted, these words and photos are my copyrighted work.
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Thursday, February 22, 2007

Two Gardeners, A Friendship in Letters

Many thanks to Tracy of Outside for suggesting Two Gardeners, and to Carol of May Dreams Gardens for starting the book club.

In 1988 Katharine S. White and Elizabeth Lawrence were included in Allen Lacy’s anthology, The American Gardener : A Sampler and one taste made me want more from these writers. A couple of their books showed up at our local library and eventually I owned several volumes of my own. My reading of Two Gardeners was less discovery than revelation, as their collected letters to each other unveiled a long relationship. I already felt affection for them - what a pleasure it was to see their connection grow once Elizabeth writes to open the conversation.

This is no vague or gushing fan letter – Elizabeth packs her first missive with information, ready to explode when Katharine opened it. I like to imagine Katharine opening the envelope, then feeling a bit overwhelmed as she learns a great deal about her unknown correspondent: Elizabeth lives in North Carolina; she is not only familiar with the New Yorker, she has connections to one of its writers; she is glad to hear about a previously unknown catalog; she offers addresses and names of other catalogs with detailed descriptions and criticisms of the covers and contents; she also establishes herself as a rose connoisseur, compliments Katharine’s husband while declaring herself a fan of Charlotte’s Web, and gives glimpses into her personal economic situation. What Elizabeth does not mention, is that she is herself a published garden writer of books as well as a newspaper column. Elizabeth didn’t seem to be good at promoting her works, and Katharine is left to discover the wealth of Elizabeth's knowledge from other sources. Katharine soon realized that her new friend was an invaluable horticultural resource.

Although that first letter arrived in May of 1958, Katharine’s literary world has influences in today’s news. The New Yorker magazine is still vibrant, the New Yorker on DVD is a popular item, and a star-studded movie of Charlotte’s Web, written by Katharine’s husband E.B. White, was released at Christmas. Garden Blogger OldRoses just reviewed a flower show with arrangements that cry out for skewering by a new Onward and Upward in the Garden article. It was fun to see names from Katharine’s letters echoing in the present day – Katharine writes of her frequent dealings with William "Bill" Shawn, the famed editor of the New Yorker – and I recently read newspaper articles about his sons, Wallace and Allen. Wallace Shawn, a writer and actor with roles in films from The Princess Bride to Woody Allen's, appeared in theater reviews this winter; Allen Shawn, composer and writer, was the subject of a recent NYTimes article in the Home & Garden section, with reviews of his latest book in another issue. (Just to keep things even more circular and gossipy – Allen is the ex-husband of a previously selected Garden Blogger Book Club author, Jamaica Kincaid. While this celebrity scoop may not rival Britney’s tattoos, it was amusing to me!)

The editor clues us in that Katharine is a decade older, a New Englander, married, divorced & remarried, a mother and grandmother with a long career in the high pressure world of literary editing, her personality infused with the editor’s emphasis on exactness, a recent transplant from the lively city to a farm in Maine.

Elizabeth is a Southerner, never-married, a dutiful daughter and affectionate aunt, living in Charlotte, North Carolina, one of the first women to enter professional landscape design, which she does for a living while writing her column. Elizabeth is a much more active gardener than Katharine can be. Because this book includes some wonderful photos, we can also see differences in their looks and demeanors.

I'll have to read their individual biographies to find out more about their early lives. They’re so familiar with a broad range of literature - did they come from families where reading was respected? Was their gracefulness in manner, correctness in behavior and fluency in expressing themselves instilled from earliest childhood? When these women begin to use each other’s first names, I felt a quite Jane Austen-type thrill at this bold step toward intimacy.

The Presidential campaign of 1960 caused rifts across the country, and there’s a point where our Elizabeth and Katharine reveal their feelings about John Kennedy’s election. They accomplished this quite delicately, letting their positions be known via anecdotes and conversations couched in tactful words that would not mar their friendship. But such courtesy does not mean weakness! Both women had to be strong as they dealt with health, employment and family problems, researched relentlessly to ensure the integrity of their work, and when pain and grief laid them low, they found refuge in their conversations about gardening and garden writing.

Has much changed in the gardeners' world? Terrible and unprecedented weather events threatened their beloved plants, they worried about the ecological effects of chemicals, and bemoaned the closure of favorite nurseries. They wished for the good old days, when people respected fine, opinionated, detailed garden writing.
And even half-a-century ago, publishers chose to give contracts to writers of money-making, didactic, how-to-do-it garden books, while refusing to print reflective, specific garden writing stuffed with botanical names and references. Weren’t similar feelings about boring garden writing one of the factors leading to the establishment of GardenRant?

Through The Garden Gate is a collection of Charlotte Observer articles written by Elizabeth Lawrence over many years. For the book the articles are arranged by the month in which they appeared, and thus Elizabeth takes us through the cycle of the year, investigating customs, seasons and holidays, describing gardens and talking to gardeners. For a dozen years I’d been touched by her poignant July entry for the poet Robert Vernade, but not until reading Two Gardeners did I realize that Elizabeth's research for this article was blocked until Katharine used her influence. These events unfold through the letters between the two women. When I reread that story now, it still touches me, but I also treasure it because I know more about the friendship in letters between Elizabeth Lawrence and Katharine S. White.

The American Gardener : A Sampler by Allen Lacy (Editor) May 1988

Onward and upward in the garden, by Katharine Sergeant Angell White, 1979

A Southern Garden by Elizabeth Lawrence, originally published in 1941, special 50th Anniversary edition, 1991

Through the Garden Gate, Elizabeth Lawrence (Author), Bill Neal (Editor)1990


  1. Whenever I read one of your lyrical book reviews, my reaction always is, "Well, I don't need to write anything. Annie said it all."

    I love both of these writers and a book of their correspondence (one of my favorite kinds of books anyway) is a gem.

  2. Hi Annie, I know you love roses. Take a look at the painting that arrived for me today...It is the first post on my blog right now.

  3. What a wonderful post to include for the book club. Thank you!

    I like how you describe Elizabeth's first letter as, "ready to explode when Katharine opened it" referring to all the information it contained. That's how some blog posts, are, just exploding with information, on a new plant, new catalog, new idea, you name it.

    And your blog post is "exploding with information" about these two authors and additional background information... if I had not read the book already, I would be stopping to read it now.

    (And how is it that I missed out on Lacy’s anthology, The American Gardener : A Sampler? I'll have to check that book out!)

  4. I've just started reading "Two Gardeners" and am enjoying the gradual revealing of the two personalities. They are wonderfully interesting women.
    You know Annie, you could easily be a garden writer yourself (or a writer of anything else). You have such a gift for words. I find myself captivated whenever I read anything you've written, be it in a post or a comment. Your lively personality shines through.
    Thank you for this excellent book review.

  5. Enjoyed your review! It made me reach for my copy of A Southern Garden...which I haven't had out in a while! Thanks for a lovely reminder of Elizabeth Lawrence!

  6. Dear Annie,

    I found an old copy of Onward and Upward, got started in it and bogged down fast. Maybe I should give Elizabeth a try and work a way through to KW via these letters.


  7. Annie, what a lovely post--chock full of information but with a friendly, newsy tone befitting what I've read of this book so far. I found myself nodding when reading MSS's comment. :)

  8. Annie: Great post! You really capture the essence of the book, and I love how you describe people, places and events outside of the letters' text that nonetheless influence them.

  9. What a nice review - it makes me want to go out and get the book! Which is something I have been meaning to do. And how interesting about the Charlotte Observer articles!

  10. Such a wonderful post Annie, I'm hoping my library might have a copy of this book. Very interesting!

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  12. MSS , thank you for the complement - but I'd still like to read your thoughts on this book.

    AustinGirl, thanks for letting me know - you're a lucky girl!

    Carol, maybe that's why we garden blog- we're ready to explode with information, but we don't always have any other gardeners handy to tell?

    Kerri, thank you. For me, being a garden blogger is way too much fun!

    Hi Gotta Garden - I went to your garden blog and am quite impressed. Watch out for plant lust once you start rereading!

    Julie, it seems odd but in lifestyle, Katharine embodies the modern ideal of a decisive working mother who handles both a career and a family, travels, and is married to an equally talented man, while Elizabeth's life looks quite restricted - even constricted...yet it seems easier to identify with Elizabeth! Isn't that funny?

    BlackswampGirl, the letters started to make me imagine that I did know them.

    Thank you, Tracy. "Outside the text" sounds a lot better than "wanders from the point"!

    Pam, you live a lot closer to Charlotte - bet you could grow anything Elizabeth Lawrence mentions.

    Christopher, you tell such wonderful stories - it's more likely you'll write your own real book.

    21 Charles Street, since Katharine S White lived in Maine when she wrote Onward and Upward in the Garden, you'd find companionship in bewailing what the cold weather does to gardens.

    Robert appears to have posted an advertisement rather than a comment.


  13. Annie, I was struck too by how similar our gardening lives actually are---loss of favorite nurseries, too many "how-to" books-- and how when it comes down to it, gardeners are gardeners no matter what period of history they gardened in. We all have our favorite/least favorite plants and catalogs, we all complain about the weather, and we all envy, at least a little, the things our fellow gardeners grow that we can't :-)
    Wonderful review!

  14. You've certainly done your homework, Annie! I felt that way too, that plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose in re: garden catalogs, gardening, and the thirst for knowledge these two women shared. It made me feel very connected to those that have gone before me down the dirty path. And blogging about it all is really just a different way to take a garrden tour!

  15. Hi Colleen and El, thank you so much for commenting.

    I was a kid in 1958 when the first letters were written, and remember a fair amount of what life was like then - how different things were. My family was not in any way literary, but there was gardening going on, and I liked these two women a great deal.



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