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  • Writer's pictureMartha Keen

Katharine Sergeant White, Book Critic of Plant Catalogs

1882-1977 | United States

"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. It is the season, too, when the amateur gardener like myself marvels or grumbles at the achievements of the hybridizers and frets over the idiosyncrasies of the editors and writers who get up the catalogues. 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."

Day Lilies or Daylillies? Rest assured that Katherine S. White would take note as to how a grower chose to write the name.

When I first learned of the book "Onward and Upward in the Garden" by Katherine S. White, and realized that within its volumes, the author reviewed catalogs by seedsmen and plantsmen, one can imagine that I was mystified that such a specific category of literary criticism even existed. (Granted, Katherine S. White may very well comprise the entirety of it.) However, I was truly surprised and delighted to realize that her work first appeared as a 14 part series over the course of 12 years in The New Yorker magazine, debuting on March 1, 1958 with the lines quoted above. Not only does she analyze speciality growers and their new releases, she also studies the style of prose and even choice of words the writers employ.

Katherine Sergeant was raised in Brookline, Massachusetts and graduated from Bryn Mawr College in 1914. In 1925 she began her 35-year career a The New Yorker, then only six months in business. She proved to be indispensable as an editor, and cultivated long-standing relationships with many of the magazine's best contributors through letter writing, as The New Yorker's first fiction editor. Among other things, she is credited for informing the publication's advertising policy, as well as pushing for the inclusion of poetry and reviewing children's books. It was at the office that she would meet her husband, author E. B. 'Andy' White, whom she married in 1929.

Gardening was for Katherine White a lifelong passion and pastime, though never a career. Curiously, Katherine's disposition and avocation suited her more to editing than to writing, despite being a sharp wordsmith and critic, and it's been said that writing was an especially belabored process for her. It wasn't until Katherine and Andy moved to Maine permanently in 1957, after several prior remote working arrangements there, that she produced the only writing created for print publication in her career. The pieces were exactly of the bold taste and balance of humor and seriousness, that The New Yorker has come to embody.

"Onward and Upward in the Garden" was compiled by E. B. White in 1979, two years after Katherine's death, as an anthology. It makes for an especially wonderful read during the month of March, when it can certainly still feel that words are as close as one can get to flowers.

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