This guide celebrates Katharine S. White's classic essays about America's nursery and seed catalogs and the wonderful potpourri of other gardening topics that first appeared in the New Yorker magazine. After Katharine's death her essays were edited , by her husband E.B. White, into a book entitled Onward and Upward in the Garden.
Katharine Sergeant Angell White (1892-1977) was the legendary fiction editor of the New Yorker from 1925 until her retirement in 1961. She is widely credited with discovering many of the great American writers of the 20th century including John O’Hara and Vladimir Nabokov.
White edited and advocated for the works of many new authors whose names have since become synonymous with modern American literature. Among them are: Mary McCarthy, John Cheever, John Updike and Ogden Nash. Herbert Mitgang of the New York Times called Katharine White the “intellectual soul” of the New Yorker.
Katharine White grew up in Brookline, Massachusetts and from her childhood she nurtured a great affection for the venerable gardens of the Boston area. Both her homes in Brookline were located within walking distance of “Holm Lea,” the 180 acre estate of America’s greatest dendrologist Charles Sprague Sargent. Sargent was the author of the multivolume Silva of North America and director of the Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plains, and each spring he would host an open house on his grounds for his Brookline neighbors.
Katharine recalls in one of her essays how as a child her family attended these open house events and since her father’s name was Charles S. Sergeant and both families lived on Walnut Street in Brookline distinguishing his mail from that of Charles S. Sargent likely perplexed the local post office staff. Katharine White attended Bryn Mawr College ,class of 1914, and the Katharine S. White papers are deposited at the Bryn Mawr College Library special collections department. The inventory of her papers and a finding aid may be accessed here.
In 1938 Katharine S. White and her husband E.B. White left the frenetic world of Manhattan and moved to a remote farmhouse on the coast of northern Maine. However, they continued to do their jobs for the New Yorker magazine, editing and writing, mailing in their essays or staying in contact by phone. Their North Brooklin, Maine home had acres of farmland, fruit trees and flower beds, and it became a great source of nourishment both for their kitchen table and for their souls. Katharine fell in love with her garden and the farm and spent countless hours planting, weeding, and cultivating those plants that could thrive in the short growing season of Maine.
In 1958 the New Yorker magazine printed the first of what would become a landmark series of gardening essays by Katharine S. White. The March 1, 1958 essay by White was published as a book review (the books reviewed? nursery and seed catalogs!) under the title Onward and Upward in the Garden. In it she shared with the reading public her life-long fascination with nursery and seed catalogs. White’s essay begins:
“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 plant orders, and dreaming their dreams.”
Katharine celebrates and affectionately mocks nursery and seed catalogs, treating their authors as individuals worthy of literary and horticultural criticism. Gertrude Stein wrote that “a rose, is a rose is a rose” and Katharine White had equally strong opinions about the attributes of marigolds, zinnias, chrysanthemums and dahlias. She scolds nurserymen from one nursery who have tampered with a fine old flower like a zinnia turning it into “great shaggy chrysanthemum.” She explains to the jury of her fellow gardeners that another nursery company catalog features zinnias that look like cactus, others that imitate asters and still others that pretend to be dahlias! Of course not satisfied with these alterations to the natural order of things, she informs the reader that the same nurseries are offering marigolds with the attributes of chrysanthemums. Despite affronts to sense and sensibility that by now would have turned other garden writers into a pillar of salt, Katharine bravely informs her readers that chrysanthemums too have not escaped the alchemy of hybridizers, having been transformed that year by a major nursery into cactus. She confides that she is unable to report on the condition of cactus since she is not a member of the Succulent Society and consequently has no catalogs to consult on the matter. She concludes by conceding that while she owns several cactus they are not among her favorites. Her most recently acquired specimen by way of a gift from a friend is “full of mealy bugs.”
Despite her antipathy for the flower novelties in the preceding paragraph, Katharine White loved her nursery and seed catalogs. They were her favorite reading. Her husband tells us there were stacks of seed catalogs everywhere and the coffee table in the living room groaned under the pile of nursery catalogs. She spent many happy hours studying their offerings.
Katharine continued her exploration of the pages of her favorite nursery and seed catalogs, entertaining her readers with wry but polite observations on the season’s new offerings from Russell Gardens, White Flower Farm, Joseph Harris Company, Tillotson’s Roses, Jackson & Perkins, Bobbink & Atkins, Wayside Gardens, Allwood Brothers, Cherry Hill Nurseries, Breck’s Seeds, Max Schling and Wake Robin Farm. As she inspected her catalogs she referenced Fragonard’s painting “The Swing,” which depicts a woman on a swing tied to tree and two men below , as well as Lewis Carroll and Sir John Falstaff. With obvious delight she thanked Wayside Gardens for introducing “The New Yorker” rose, a red rose that “does not change color with age.”
Elsewhere in her essay Katharine applauded the polished prose style of Amos Pettingill, the putative author of the White Flower Farm garden book [catalog], whose writings Katharine concludes are "an indispensable part of what is a lively catalog." At the time  Katharine wasn’t sure if Pettingill was a real person or not. In fact the name was the pseudonym of the husband and wife team of Jane Grant and William B. Harris. In a bit of six degrees of separation trivia, it turns out that Jane Grant [1892-1972] was a former New York Times writer who together with her first husband Harold Ross [1892-1951] had founded the New Yorker magazine in 1925. Harold Ross of course had been Katharine White’s boss at the New Yorker, and Jane Grant and Katharine White would have worked together at the magazine from 1925 until 1929 when Grant and Ross divorced. The Jane Grant papers are at the University of Oregon, the finding aid and inventory of the collection may be found here. William B. Harris [1900-1981] was a financial analyst and the editor of Fortune magazine. Harris and Grant established White Flower Farm in Litchfield, Connecticut in 1950.
Katharine likely recognized the sophisticated tone of the New Yorker magazine’s On the Town feature in the suave welcoming letter feature by Amos Pettingill that greets customers to the pages of the White Flower Farm catalog. Some have also remarked that Pettingill has more than his share of the affected snobbery of another character with New Yorker parentage, the regency era dandy, Eustace Tilley. Eustace Tilley made his appearance on the cover of the first issue of the New Yorker in 1925. Eustace Tilley was drawn by New Yorker cartoonist Rea Irvin (1881-1972). Rea Irvin also created the distinctive font type called Irvin used in every issue of the New Yorker magazine. Eustace Tilley has become the unofficial mascot of the New Yorker and he appeared on the cover annually until 1994. He is typically depicted peering through a monocle at a butterfly.
Captivated by her prose, the magazine’s readers clamored for more horticultural pieces by K.S. White. After suffering declining health for a number of years, Katharine S. White retired as fiction editor of the New Yorker in 1961; however, she continued to occasionally write her gardening essays for the magazine, eventually contributing fourteen articles between 1958 and 1970. Her wit, dignity and strong opinions about gardening and in particular her views about the literary, artistic and editorial merits of nursery and seed catalogs charmed readers around the nation.
The wave of letters that poured into the New Yorker’s mailroom, including at least one from the White House, was evidence that her gardening articles about nursery and seed catalogs resonated with the magazine’s readership. White’s correspondence with professional nurserymen, gardening enthusiasts and even at least one member of the professional staff of the Mertz library of the New York Botanical Garden, was frequent and copious, filling several boxes in her archives at Bryn Mawr College. Her husband E. B. White wrote about Katharine’s correspondence: “And so the letters went, back and forth. I got the impression that my wife was in close touch with about half of the professional gardeners in America and worried about all of them.”
Her seventh essay in the Onward and Upward series that she titled “For the recreation and delight of the inhabitants” was published on June 9, 1962. She expressed regrets about the branding techniques used in some catalogs typified by “Another specialty catalogue that interests me is titled ‘Bamboo for Cold and Warm Climates.’ It is put out, I regret to say, by a nurseryman who prefers to call himself “The Bamboo Man” instead of using his own name, James J. Coghlan.” [A copy of the catalogue of the “Bamboo Man” is available in the Mertz Library for the recreation and delight of the inhabitants at call number YB .A563]
Katharine White’s distinctive gardening habits included (according to her husband E.B. White) never dressing down while weeding, planting or sowing seeds. While gardening she was very likely to not only get her finger nails dirty but also ruin a favorite pair of Ferragamo shoes. In her March, 1960 essay for the New Yorker she also acknowledges a powerful attraction to ornamental gourds, which were always on her seed list. Each year a new packet or two of gourd seeds were carefully selected from that year’s batch of seed catalogs. She relished the annual cycle of planting the seeds, cultivating the plants, harvesting the gourds, polishing each one and displaying them in artistic arrangements on her dining room table and mantel piece.
In reference to gourd seeds Katharine concludes that “I don’t know anything else I can buy for so little money that will give me so much pleasure from early June, when I drop the seed into the ground, until the following March, when I usually decide to discard, as too autumnal, the gourds I have harvested and polished in early October.”
Katharine S. White’s death in 1977 was mourned by many but especially by her husband of 48 years, the essayist and man of letters, Elwyn Brooks White, better known as E.B. White. [1899-1985] E. B. White, co-author of The Elements of Style, also wrote the children’s books Charlotte’s Web, Trumpet of the Swan, and Stuart Little . White was a graduate of Cornell University, class of 1921, and his papers are at Cornell University Library, Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, the finding aid and inventory of the collection may be viewed here.
After Katharine’s death, E.B. White was now alone in his large white clapboard salt water farmhouse on the coast of Maine. Both to keep himself busy and to cope with his grief he undertook the task of compiling and editing her gardening columns for the New Yorker into a book.
The book project kept Katharine’s spirit close to him and filled the otherwise empty house with her humor and language. For the next two years, he immersed himself in her world of horticulture and especially in the literature of nursery and seed catalogs. He read through her files and papers particularly those that contained the letters she received from nurserymen and her replies to them. He visited horticultural libraries including the Mertz Library of the New York Botanical Garden where he found illustrations for the book project from the Mertz Library’s collection of vintage nursery and seed catalogs. When he had finished, a book titled Onward and Upward in the Garden was published in 1979 by Farrar Straus Giroux; edited and with an introduction by E.B. White. The book has become a classic and is considered among the most important books on the subject of gardening in the American language.
To celebrate its 75th anniversary, The American Horticultural Society selected Onward and Upward in the Garden as one of the seventy five great American garden books. E.B. White’s introduction to the book is itself a masterpiece, eloquently blending his own unique prose style with Katharine’s words about gardens and the people who care about them. White tells the reader “How she [Katharine] loved shopping in [nursery and seed] catalogues! Hour after hour she studied, sifted, pondered, rejected, sorted—in the delirium of future blooming and fruiting.” E.B. White understood that for Katharine White, a day in the garden filled with the routine of transplanting, weeding or planting spring bulbs was not just gardening but an act of hope.
Andrew Tschinkel - Mertz Library
In Onward and Upward in the Garden, Katharine S. White wrote about a bouquet of gardening matters, not just nursery and seed catalogs. She loved flower painting declaring that a finely drawn work of art could convey more about the essence of a flower than any photograph. Perhaps her favorite flower painter was the Viennese artist Moritz Michael Daffinger (1790-1849) who, late in his career, abandoned painting minaturist portraits of the wealthy including the Austrian imperial family in favor of botanical art. His painting of a rose appears on the cover of Onward and Upward in the Garden.
[Public Domain images]
E. B. White went to the Mertz Library of the New York Botanical Garden seeking images to illustrate Katharine White's collection of gardening essays. With the assistance of the library's director and staff, White selected images from vintage nursery and seed catalogs. The sepia toned nursery catalog illustrations perfectly complemented Katharine White's restrained but always engaging prose style and are an important part of what continues to attract readers to the book Onward and Upward in the Garden (1979).
In Onward and Upward in the Garden Katherine White wrote admiringly about Charles Sprague Sargent , America's great dendrologist. The Arnold Arboretum is his legacy and is treasured by Bostonians.
In her 1966 gardening essay for the New Yorker, Katherine White complained that there was no standard biography of the great Charles Sprague Sargent. By 1970, Harvard University had published Charles Sprague Sargent and the Arnold Aroboretum. The author of the biography was S.B. (Silvia Barry) Sutton, 1940-1997. The S.B. Sutton papers are at Harvard University, the finding aid and inventory of the collection are linked to below.
Katherine White's contributions to American literature are legendary. She edited, pampered and ensured the publication, on the pages of the New Yorker, the works of literary giants, including Mary McCarthey, John Updike, John O'Hara, Vladimir Nabokov, John Cheever and Ogden Nash among others.
Katherine White's fourteen essays about gardening originally appeared in the New Yorker magazine. Published between 1958 and 1970 the essays were later compiled and edited into a book entitled Onward and Upward in the Garden by her husband E.B. White.