Classics Reissued: Onward and Upward in the Garden
by Katharine White
with an Introduction by E. B. White
NYRB Classics, 2015
The line of New York Review Classics is far better known for spiky idiosyncrasy than fuzzy sentimentality. The list is far more likely to feature hipster-initiation-ritual authors like Magda Szabo or Antal Szerb (or minor Moravia, the kind you get quizzed on, sternly, over artisanal micro-brews) than feel-good names like P. G. Wodehouse or Anita Loos. Although the breadth and variety of the line has been a continuing revelation (and such a windfall to gassy book-opiners, to tide them through the dry spells when there are no new Tolstoy translations to nitpick), these are more often than not books you’re supposed to read rather than books you particularly want to read.
There’ve been exceptions, of course, but even so, what a Springtime delight it is to find this pretty new paperback of Katharine White’s inimitable – and unabashedly sentimental, though she would have hated the word – 1979 classic Onward and Upward in the Garden, a garden-writing book that can be recommended enthusiastically even to the blackest-thumbed cafe-dweller.
A big part of the hardy perennial charm of the book derives from its straightforward simplicity of approach, opening with White’s famous discussion of that most arcane of literary sub-branches, the prose found in old-style seed catalogues. The tone is very much akin to Rose Macaulay on old-style book-catalogues, eagerly dissecting the prose most people would flip through without a thought:
They are as individualistic – these editors and writers – as any Faulkner or Hemingway, and they can be just as frustrating or rewarding. They have an audience equal to the most popular novelist’s, and a handful of them are stylists of some note. Even the catalogues with which no one man can be associated seem to have personalities of their own.
Katharine White was a pillar of the New Yorker’s editorial team for many years – indeed, more than a few New Yorker writers were happy to maintain that she set the mold for the magazine’s classic tone – and that long history of judging and shaping prose is evident on every page of Onward and Upward in the Garden, which is to garden-writing what Consider the Oyster and Serve It Forth are to food-writing, elegant, fluid, and endlessly opinionated:
In spite of its lovely colors, I don’t like [the rose called] Peace. Even a small vaseful of Peace roses is grotesque, and on the bush the blossoms look to me like the cabbagy Tenniel roses of the Queen’s Croquet Ground – the white ones Alice found the card gardeners hurriedly painting red against the arrival of the Queen. Lewis Carroll was prophetic; today the garden men are quite busy changing the colors and flowers as they are changing their size and shape.
The people at New York Review classics have done a superb job with the design of this reprint as well – the original edition of Onward and Upward in the Garden was a pretty pink affair but decidedly understated; the cover of this paperback bursts with the bright colors of spring, making it a pretty, handy thing and setting it off quite sharply from the somber tones of, say, the NYRB Aeschylus or Victor Serge or any of the line’s darker, heavier titles. The hipsters will doubtless be confused.