Friday, April 26, 2013

Writers and Their Gardens

     When I read novels, memoirs, essays, and poetry, and am especially sensitive to the sensitivity of the author, I begin to dig (no pun intended). I search out tidbits about what made/makes that author tick. Does/did a life exist for them outside of words, pen, paper, typewriter, or computer, I wonder? I'm rewarded for my Sherlock instincts, and would be remiss if not selfish in keeping this information for my own Aha! moments.
     In today's Post, I relate that these authors learned to write by reading. They learned to garden by digging. I present to you the first in a series of "Writers and Their ________ ."

     Michael Pollan's articles have been anthologized in Best American Science Writing, Best American Essays, and the Norton Book of Nature Writing. Pollan served for many years as executive editor of Harper's Magazine, and is now the Knight Professor of Science and Environmental Journalism at UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. He has received numerous journalistic awards.
    The jacket blurb of my volume of Second Nature (1991), Bloomsbury  Publishing, states that the book "is a lively and absorbing account of one man's experience in his garden" (his first in Cornwall, CT). Since this book, Pollan has written numerous others about gardening, and food's role in modern society.

     Charles Dudley Warner was an American essayist, novelist, and friend of Mark Twain, with whom he co-authored the novel The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today. Warner's skills as an essayist and editor were greater than Twain's. Twain wrote to a friend, "I think you don't like The Gilded Age, but that's because you've been reading Warner's chapters." It was Twain's first novel.
     By 1880, Warner had become one of the country's most popular writers, and acted as a contributing editor to Harper's magazine (see MPollan, above). In 1884, a survey of the nation's literary "immortals" ranked Warner 15th. Twain was 14th. Warner's contribution to the hort world was My Summer In a Garden, back in print after 125 years. On October 20, 1900, Warner died after collapsing during a walk. Mark Twain served as pall bearer at his interment at Cedar Hill Cemetery, CT.


   Sir Roy Strong is an English art historian, museum curator, writer, and broadcaster. He had been director of both the National Portrait Gallery and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. He was knighted in 1983.
   Strong earned his Ph.D. from the Warburg Institute, University of London, and became a research fellow at the Institute of Historical Research.
   My educational past was in the field of art history, and I was familiar with Strong's historical writings long before I came to know his landscape and gardening interests. I came on that fact when I bought a small tome (385 pages) titled A Celebration of Gardens. The book has provided me endless hours of reading, and I have since learned that The Lasket Garden was painstakingly renovated by Strong and his wife. The Garden is open to group tours, see: http://www.thelaskettgardens.co.uk


   Edna St. Vincent Millay had already won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry when she moved to Austerlitz, New York, in 1925. Millay created a series of outdoor rooms on her 700-acre farm called Steepletop, and entertained on a large scale. She forbade bathing suits on many occasions, and weeded in the nude in her wildflower and vegetable plots. Milay, like other authors before and after her (VWoolf, GBShaw, RDahl, MTwain), built a writing shack in a pine grove she planted (inspired by her childhood in Maine), and worked on her writing there each day. Visit this garden after consulting for "open" hours at http://www.millay.org*



   Eudora Welty, the celebrated short-story writer and novelist, lived in Jackson, Mississippi. She learned to garden from her mother ("rising at dawn, moving along behind her in the borders"). She so loved Camellia japonica 'Lady Clare' (one of thirty varieties of camellias grown in her garden), that her mother overnighted blossoms by train when she was away.
   Be sure to check out One Writer's Garden: Eudor Welty's Home Place, (2011) by Susan Haltom and Jane Roy Brown, which details the history of Welty's garden from planting to restoration.
  Her garden is open for visiting. For information: http://eudorawelty.org*


Jamaica Kincaid was born on the island of St. Johns, Antigua. Her books have received great critical praise. Jamaica's first garden in Vermont was a plot in the middle of her front lawn. Macmillan Publishers writes: "In My Garden (Book), (2001), she gathers all she loves about gardening and plants, and examines it generously, passionately, and with sharp, idiosyncratic discrimination." Later it's noted that her book "is an intimate, playful, and penetrating book on gardens, the plants that fill them, and the person who tends them."

   Eleanor Perenyi worked as a journalist, and has written a biography of Liszt, and a novel. She lived in Stonington, CT. For many years, she worked as an editor at several magazines, among them Harper's Bazaar and Mademoiselle, where she was the managing editor. Perenyi received the H. D. Vursell Memorial Award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1982.
   The NY Times wrote that her one book on gardening, Green Thoughts, "known for its plain, elegant prose, trenchant humor and above all, its forthright opinions," has become an American gardening classic. And that it "was notable for using Mrs. Perenyi's years of toil in her Connecticut garden as a window on to the wider social world, ranging over history, myth, and philosophy."

   Edith Wharton was  a keen observer and chronicler of society, many feel she is without peer. Her works include The Age of Innocence, Roman Fever and Other Stories, and The Writing of Fiction.
   Wharton said because of her efforts in her estate's garden The Mount in Lenox, MA, that she was "a better landscape gardener than novelist, and this place . . . far surpasses The House of Mirth." She created three acres of formal gardens on a 113-acre property, influenced by the gardens of Italian Villas she'd seen on many trips to Italy. Her website states that she created "an environment that would meet her needs as a designer, gardener, hostess, and above all, writer." For information about visiting her garden, see https://www.edithwharton.org. *

This then is the "Ying" of writing, and the "Yang" of growing. I hope you found this of interest. Let me know, if in my search for interesting side lines to various authors' lives, you have a particular aspect you'd like to know about (name the author(s)). 

*Ozawa, Melissa. 2013. The Writer's Garden. Martha Stewart Living, April, 107-109.