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
What's In Bloom February 15th 2015
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