A legendary editor at The New Yorker during its first thirty-four years, Katharine S. White was also a great garden enthusiast. In March 1958 she began publishing her popular column, "Onward and Upward in the Garden." Her first column elicited loads of fan mail, but one letter in particular caught her attention. From Elizabeth Lawrence, a noted southern garden writer, it was filled with suggestions and encouragement. When Katharine wrote back her appreciation, she reported on her Maine garden and discussed the plants and books that interested her. Thus began a correspondence that would last for almost twenty years, until Katharine's death in 1977.
Two Gardeners is a collection of these luminous letters, edited and introduced by Emily Herring Wilson. The letters bring to life the unique epistolary friendship between two intelligent women, the "formidable" Mrs. White and the "shy" Miss Lawrence, both avid gardeners and readers, both at a stage of life when to make a new friend was rare indeed: when they first wrote to one another, Katharine was sixty-two, Elizabeth, fifty-four.
More than 150 letters went back and forth during the course of their correspondence, though Katharine and Elizabeth would meet face-to-face only once. Whether talking about gardens or books, friends or family, each held a special place in the other's life.
Illustrated with photographs of both Katharine White and Elizabeth Lawrence, their families, gardens, and houses, this book is a special treat for gardeners, literature lovers, and anyone who delights in reading about women's friendships.
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Emily Herring Wilson is a writer, lecturer, and novice gardener living in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The author of Hope and Dignity: Older Black Women of the South and coauthor of North Carolina Women: Making History, she has taught at Wake Forest University, Salem College, and Cornell University and is a MacDowell Colony Fellow.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
A Romp in the Catalogues”
For gardeners, this is the season of lists and callow hopefulness; hundreds of thousands of bewitched readers are poring over their catalogues, making lists for their seed and plant orders, and dreaming their dreams.
A Romp in the Catalogues,” The New Yorker, K.S.W
Katharine White’s review of garden catalogues, published in The New Yorker on March 1, 1958, apparently was the first review of its kind, and it was an immediate success. Some readers wrote to ask the name of the writer, identified only as K.S.W. (Someone with a near-perfect memory might have realized that K.S.W.” was K.S.A.,” who had written light verse about the Seductive Spring Seed Catalogue” in a March 1926 New Yorker, when she was Katharine S. Angell and a new staff member.) One reader who did know the identity of the writer was Elizabeth Lawrence, a lifelong reader of The New Yorker. Her fan letter to Katharine a month or so after the appearance of the review is the first letter in the following section.
After a dozen letters between Mrs. White” and Miss Lawrence,” Katharine and Elizabeth settled into a first-name basis. Elizabeth kept up a steady flow of information on nurseries and garden books and thus called forth Katharine’s repeated expressions of appreciation and more questions. Elizabeth clearly enjoyed researching any topics that were introduced, and she was glad to have Katharine’s records of bloom dates in Maine. For more than three decades Eizabeth had been making notes on index cards about what was going on in her garden and in the gardens of others. The unexpected availability of such a fine compatriot as Elizabeth must have confirmed the rightness of Katharine’s decision to follow her first review with a series of pieces, to be presented each time under the title Onward and Upward in the Garden.” She hoped to publish them twice a year, and in 1959 and 1960 she succeeded. In March 1960 she received a letter from the publisher Alfred Knopf, proposing that she write a book, an idea that she told him she would ponder.”
The letters going back and forth between Charlotte, North Carolina, and North Brooklin, Maine (and New York City and Sarasota, Florida, when the Whites traveled) were hardy perennials. Feelings began to jostle alongside facts as the two women exchanged anecdotes and kept up one another’s spirits. By early spring 1961, Katharine who had insisted that she was an editor, not a writer had published some 100 pages of her garden pieces in The New Yorker. She began to enjoy including some of her own memories in her discussions of flowers, recalling happy summers as a child when she and her sister picked water lilies on Lake Chocorua in New Hampshire.
Elizabeth, for her part, was also publishing her gardening column every Sunday in the Charlotte Observer. Although she worked on two or three book manuscripts at a time, the newspaper column gave her the greatest pleasure, always producing a flurry of letters. I wish you lived next door,” Elizabeth wrote to Katharine, I would fill your garden up.”
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