Book Reviews, New England Gardens

Book Review: Onward and Upward in the Garden by Katharine S. White

August 11, 2016


In 1958 as her job as an editor at The New Yorker was coming to close, Katharine S. White penned a gardening column entitled “Onward and Upward in Garden,” the first in a series of fourteen pieces that would run in the magazine over a twelve year period. Compiled and published with an introduction by her husband E.B. White two years after her death in 1977, Onward and Upward in the Garden was reissued as a New York Review Books Classic in 2015, the second garden book to be so honored.

I have returned to Onward and Upward in the Garden frequently and it is a book that I recommend for any season, particularly the dog days of August. There’s not a picture within its pages and each piece can be read and savored on its own merit. As White notes in its concluding essay, there are few American books that deal with horticulture and plants as a true branch of literature. Her pieces for The New Yorker achieved both, providing pleasure to not only gardeners but any other reader.

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A traditionalist, White’s tastes were, like her writing style, simple and direct. She grew up in Brookline, Massachusetts and gardened in Maine. With a sensibility shaped by her New England heritage, White preferred the “plain to the fancy, the relaxed to the formal, the single to the double, the medium sized to the giant.”

The book’s title, Onward and Upward in the Garden, is borrowed from a Unitarian phrase and underscores the pragmatic approach White favored in her exploration of the gardening world. Nothing fancy or unnecessary, please. Included within are chapters devoted to the history and literature of gardens, the arranging of flowers, herbalists, seed catalogues, and garden trends and developments.

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Katharine S. White viewing eyes a colorful flower bed at the Whites’ farmhouse in Brooklin, Maine from The Ellsworth American, 3/21/2015.

For White the garden was a world where the practical intersected with the intellect and the catalogues of seedsmen and nurserymen (described as her favorite reading matter) were as worthy of consideration as those of historians and botanists. She wrote extensively about current publications including a piece from 1962 in which she reviews the book, Her Garden Was Her Delight, breaking new ground and based upon the promising idea that “little-known women gardeners, botanists, botanical artists, plant collectors and garden writers have played a part in the horticultural history of our country.” How far we have come.

White is described in the book’s introduction as owning no gardening clothes and more likely to visit her garden in a pair of Ferragamo shoes than work boots. Once a year, in a ceremonious manner, she donned a shabby Brooks Brother raincoat and on a fall day oversaw, with military precision, the laying out of the spring bulb garden described as “a crucial operation, carefully charted and full of witchcraft.”

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E.B. White, his wife, Katharine, and their dog, Minnie, at their farm in North Brooklin. Courtesy of White Literary LLC

Witchcraft or not, in the introduction E.B. White notes that his beloved Katharine aspired to author a garden book but wished to write one more piece – a reminiscence of the gardens of her childhood. While this final piece, unachievable due to ill health was never realized, Onward and Upward in the Garden serves as her legacy to the canon of American garden literature.

For additional reading:

Onward and Upward in the Garden by Katharine S. White.
Edited with an introduction by E.B. White.
New York Review Books Classics: 2015.

This review appeared in Leaflet A Massachusetts Horticultural Society Publication, August, 2016


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  • Reply Jean September 8, 2016 at 1:18 am

    This book is a favorite of mine, read and re-read many times over the years.

    • Reply Patrice Todisco September 9, 2016 at 10:07 am

      As you develop your new garden in Maine Katharine’s observations must be of particular relevance.

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