My Summer in a Garden

Republishing of Charles Dudley Warner's gardening book

BOB EDWARDS, host:

Early last month, MORNING EDITION began a series called The Armchair Gardener, a winter distraction for listeners unable to dig in the dirt. The first installment followed three zealous plant lovers through the gardening section of a bookstore. Today an all but forgotten author who helped invent American garden writing. Here’s NPR’s Ketzel Levine.

KETZEL LEVINE reporting:

Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody ever does anything about it. That clever quip is often attributed to Mark Twain. In fact, it was coined by his good friend and next-door neighbor Charles Dudley Warner, whose chatty little gardening book, “My Summer In A Garden,” has been out of print for more than a century. And it might have stayed out of print, too, if not for contemporary garden writer Michael Pollan, who’d been asked by his publisher to be on the lookout for neglected gardening books. His search turned up an enormous surprise.

Mr. MICHAEL POLLAN (Garden Writer): You know, I’ve been writing about the garden for 15 or 20 years, and you think you know who your influences are, and you think you know which books set the table that you’re sitting down at, and here was this book I hadn’t read and I realized had influenced me in its humor, in its informality and its colloquial voice. It was all here, all these things that contemporary garden writers perhaps think that they invented.

Mr. ALLAN GURGANUS (Author): `The love of dirt is among the earliest of passions, as it is the latest. Mud pies gratify one of our first and best instincts. So long as we are dirty, we are pure.’

LEVINE: The words of Charles Dudley Warner, read by author Allan Gurganus, words Gurganus has rolled around in since he was a teenager when a fellow gardener gave him this 19th century book. It was Gurganus who gave his copy to Michael Pollan. Together, they’ve ushered the book back into print. Written in the years following the Civil War, when books about gardening were primers and almanacs, strictly how-to stuff, Warner’s collection of folksy columns for The Hartford Courant quite literally gave voice to the American gardener, gardeners such as Allan Gurganus.

Mr. GURGANUS: What he did by inserting his first person voice into the sort of encyclopedic garden writing of the period was address his neighbors. It was all very relaxed, and you realize that he probably knew many of the subscribers to his newspaper, and part of the candor and the warmth of the collection comes precisely from overhearing a man address people that he loves.

LEVINE: I’d love you to read Warner’s description of the onion. Do you have that there, page 93?

Mr. GURGANUS: I’ll see where it is in my book. `The onion in its satin wrappings is among the most beautiful of vegetables, and it is the only one that represents the essence of things. It can almost be said to have a soul. You take off coat after coat and the onion is still there, and when the last one is removed, who dare say that the onion itself is destroyed, though you can weep over its departed soul? If there is any one thing on this fallen Earth that the angels in heaven weep over more than another, it is the onion.’

LEVINE: That’s such a beautiful passage. You know, he always…

Mr. GURGANUS: Isn’t it lovely?

LEVINE: …seems to pull something moral out of the vegetable garden.

Mr. GURGANUS: That’s true. And it’s always…

Mr. POLLAN: Well, that’s very much a trait, I think, of American garden writing. It starts in the garden, but it always seems to end up somewhere else, and in that, it’s very different than British garden writing, which is very happy to stay right there in the garden.

LEVINE: He really was the first garden writer that sort of sets himself up as nature’s dupe, if you will, you know, that admits that control in the garden is an illusion.

Mr. GURGANUS: That’s right. I think part of the joy of this book is his pointing out like a real moralist not only what he’s done correctly in his garden but his flaws and disasters. I think that, in a way, is one of the things that makes him new in the history of garden writing, and it makes him seem, as you read him, like a contemporary, because we neurotics of the 21st century are all too willing to admit our faults and failings.

LEVINE: But for all its warmth and personality, Warner’s book has its detractors.

Mr. POLLAN: Someone else had also suggested the book in passing to me and said, `But you’d never do that because he’s really not PC,’ which only piqued my curiosity. Why was he considered politically incorrect? And you see pretty quickly why that would be.

LEVINE: It all becomes painstakingly clear by page 42, when Warner is visited by then President Ulysses S. Grant. During a surreal tour of Warner’s cottage garden, the two start out talking weeds and end up completely dismissing immigrants, particularly the Chinese. Other ethnic and religious groups fare no better. I asked Michael Pollan if he’d thought twice about reissuing “My Summer In A Garden.”

Mr. POLLAN: Yeah. It gave me pause, but for me, it didn’t disqualify it. You know, garden writing has this quality of over the back fence conversation that goes on, and it does have some of that discourse you’d catch in a bar or, you know, in common conversation at the time, and this is what people talked about or at least what, you know, upper-class white people talked about in Hartford in 1875, and it’s handled in this jokey, low, ugly way. But there’s an historical window there, and just because it makes us uncomfortable, I think it’d be a shame to close that window.

LEVINE: Charles Dudley Warner’s views from the garden will be published later this month by Random House.

Mr. GURGANUS: Can I read another passage that I think is delightful?

LEVINE: Author Allan Gurganus.

Mr. GURGANUS: `I have never read of any Roman supper that seemed to me equal to a dinner of my own vegetables. It is strange what a taste you suddenly have for things you’d never liked before. The squash has always been to me a dish of contempt, but I eat it now as if it were my best friend. I never cared for the beet or the bean, but I fancy now that I could eat them all, tops and all. I think the squash is less squashy, and the beet has a deeper hue of rose for my care of them.’

LEVINE: For NPR News, I’m Ketzel Levine.

EDWARDS: There’s more information about Charles Dudley Warner’s rediscovered gardening book on Ketzel’s Web site, talkingplants@npr.org.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I’m Bob Edwards.