BROOKLIN — Flox, delphinium, Foxglove, pinks, lupines, Canterbury bells, violas, monkshood, lilies and petunias and more all bloomed in the late Katharine S. White’s gardens.
Those gardens, the former New Yorker fiction editor’s obsession with seed catalogs and a love of flowers were the catalyst for 14 essays, published in The New Yorker, on seed catalogs, herbalism, gardening books and flower arranging during and after her tenure at the magazine.
This spring, The New York Review of Books reissued White’s book, “Onward and Upward in the Garden.” The original was first published in 1979.
“I think it’s her voice that makes the book still so readable and enjoyable,” said Nick During, publicity manager for The New York Review of Books. “I don’t garden but found myself wanting to know her opinions on things I know nothing about. And it inspired me, even in the middle of a deep winter, to think about flowers and plants and what I could grow in the spring in my small apartment.”
Katharine, as fiction editor of The New Yorker from 1925 to 1960, is credited with helping shape American literature. Her husband, E.B. White, known as Andy, published “Onward and Upward in the Garden” the year of her death in 1977.
The couple’s granddaughter, Martha White of Rockport, described her grandmother’s post-New Yorker life best.
“Grandma had taken on strenuous gardening after retiring from The New Yorker in 1961 — replacing her long letters to Vladimir Nabokov and John Updike with long letters to seed companies and nurseries across the country.”
E.B. White wrote in the introduction, that Katharine was first and foremost an editor. She struggled with writing.
“I suspect, though, the thing that started her off was her discovery that the catalogue makers — the men and women of her dreams were, in fact, writers…Well here in garden catalogs, she stumbled on a whole new flock of creative people, handy substitutes for the O’Haras, the Nabokovs, the Staffords of her professional life.”
Katharine had followed E.B. to a farmhouse in Brooklin in 1938. During that time she worked part-time, long distance, for the magazine. They stayed for five years before returning to New York for several years. The Whites returned to Brooklin for good in 1957.
“I think she would have preferred to stay in the city and keep going with the magazine,” said Martha. “But I think taking up gardening was a way of her establishing a life for herself in Maine that was her own. She always liked to have her independent life going on in tandem.”
“She was brought up by her aunts essentially,” White said. “Her mother died when she was 6. She was brought up by her father’s sisters and they were gardeners.” The sisters had “gorgeous Victorian gardens.” There’s a missing chapter from the book that was going to be about her childhood reminiscences.
The book has a few childhood memories that Katharine captured in spots.
In “War in the Borders, Peace in the Shrubbery,” Katharine recalls a childhood game.
“My sister and I and our friends had a game we played with the shrubbery. It was called millinery. All the little girls in the neighborhood would bring to our lawn their broad-brimmed straw school hats, which because they were Boston girls’ hats, had only plain ribbon bands for decoration.
“Then each of us would trim her straw with blossoms from the shrubs. There was a wide choice of trimmings — forsythia, Japanese crab, Japanese quince, mock orange, flowering almond, lilac, hawthorn, bridal wreath, weigela, deutzia, with its tiny white bells, and, in June, altheas and shrub roses. When our flowery concoctions were completed, we put them on our heads and proudly paraded into the house to show them off to our elders: it seems to me now we must have made quite a gay sight.”
“I think read as literary essay it’s just gorgeous work,” said Martha. “I think it almost has to be read as gardening history. Some of the gardening advice is dated. There would still be a lot of pertinent information in there, particularly about heritage blooms.”
Many gardeners still have dog-eared copies of the 1977 “Onward and Upward in the Garden.”
That includes Val Libby, a landscape historian and horticulturist, in Blue Hill.
“Katharine White approached horticulture through the written word — nursery catalogues and books, gathering her global knowledge of the field,” said Libby.
“Organized as a calendar of seasons, we can open up to a date, such as March 14, 1959 and read about conditions reassuringly similar to the present: “As I write, snow is falling outside my Maine window, and indoors all around me half a hundred catalogues are in bloom.”
“Through her descriptions and opinions we can gather useful information on planting Downeast Maine from authorities around the world, but primarily in America,” Libby said. “We are introduced to the important gardening books of the 20th century, and some dating back to the 19th century, and we can yearn to see those catalogs that so delighted her from nurseries that are now out of business, such as Merry Gardens in Camden, Maine.”
White is probably best known for her essays critiquing seed catalogs.
“She reviewed the various offerings of the major and minor seed companies [Gurneys’s, Park, White Flower Farm, etcetera] of her day as she would any work of fiction: she commented on such things as the writing style, the typeface and the illustrations,” said Ellsworth Garden Club member Elaine Fernald. “She commented on the lack of information on fragrance, her despair at the sometimes monstrous shapes in new and improved varieties. She could not abide the use of abbreviations, “glads” for “gladiolus” or “delphs” for “delphiniums,” would elicit a strong rebuke.
“She was not above a good rant about the rules for standard flower shows staged under the auspices of The National Council of State Garden Clubs. And she was also not above submitting a parody arrangement in her local flower show in Brooklin — once picking out the most hideous purple gladiola in her vegetable garden and constructing an arrangement that was roundly panned by the Judges. While you may not always agree with her, the book is a definite “gardener’s good read.”
In his introduction to “Onward and Upward,” E.B. wrote that Katharine did little of the physical work of gardening herself. “…in youth she lacked the time, in age she lacked the strength. Henry Allen, our caretaker and himself as ardent gardener was her strong right arm. But she masterminded everything.”
Martha and her brothers Steve and John would help Katharine in the gardens.
“We would go over on the weekends and do jobs,” she said. “Often if it was just my grandmother and me, we would be picking flowers for that day’s fresh flower bouquet.”
“She had gardens in one area expressly for the bouquets — they wouldn’t be seen most of the time so if we decimated them for the bouquets if would be OK,” Martha said.
Sometimes while arranging bouquets, Katharine would ask Martha to fetch a few more stems of a particular flower. Martha said she always feared bringing back the wrong bloom.
“She would say I need two more paperwhites or call it by its Latin name I would be expected to go out and get that one,” Martha said. Katharine never told her granddaughter that she’d brought back the wrong flowers but occasionally have an odd look on her face.
“She loved a lot of different things,” Martha said. She loved almost anything with a fragrance.
“She liked flowers that reminded her of her gardens from childhood, very old things, fragrant things you just can’t find anymore.
“She always forced blooms of paperwhites at Christmas,” Martha said. “That’s a tradition I’ve kept up myself and give as gifts.”
“She liked very simple things,” said Martha. “She was kind of a purist herself.”
To wit, one essay from “Onward and Upward” called “Floricordially Yours” bemoans a trend to double or triple the petals on single-petal flowers.
“The result is in many pages of seed catalogs all blossom form seems to be disappearing, causing one to look fearfully ahead to the time when our garden beds will be full of great shaggy heads, alike except for color, all just great blobs of bloom.”
The Brooklin farmhouse usually had plenty of flowers and plants.
In the winter, there was always a bowl of paperwhites and in the fall a “huge copper vase with big sunflowers or autumn-colored blooms,” said Martha.
“The dining room always had something depending on the season or who was coming to dinner,” she said. “She would sometimes take or have me take stems off pansy blossoms and float them in water in a big bowl.”
“People found her formidable,” said Martha. “As I’ve gotten older, I think that meant she was a really intelligent woman with strong opinions and wasn’t afraid to say so.”
Betsy’s Sunflower in Brooklin, intends to carry reissued copies of “Onward and Upward in the Garden” when the store reopens for the season.