Category: Literature

Garden Writing is About More than Plants

The biographical, philosophical, meditational, and countercultural world of American gardening literature

Riddle: What literary genre has historical roots that predate Socrates; features hundreds of American writers including Thoreau, Washington Irving, and Edith Wharton; and is a genre that you’ve probably never even heard of?

Answer: American gardening literature.

Don’t roll your eyes.

It’s a thing.

American gardening literature is a blend

In fact, American gardening literature is a big thing.

I have three volumes of gardening literature anthologies in my home library alone. Amazon has an entire department dedicated to “Gardening & Horticultural Essays.” Yes, just “essays.” It has two dozen other departments dedicated to gardening and horticulture in general.

The genre of American garden writing runs the gamut from technical to inspirational, from garden bed blueprints to meditations on weeding.

There are, for instance, seed catalogs that merely list seed specifications. They hardly qualify as literary endeavors. And then there are literary seed catalogs . . . those rare (and free!) publications that are informational, occasionally witty, and serious about their prose (one of my favorites is published by Wild Garden Seeds in Oregon).

Among contemporary books, you have The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible, which is my standard “go-to” book but hardly qualifies as serious literature. And you have Inheriting Paradise: Meditations on Gardening, by theologian-gardener Vigen Guroian, which might be lovely but scarcely talks about gardening techniques.

And then you have The Tao of Vegetable Gardening by Carol Deppe, which is a beautiful hybrid: mostly how-to gardening advice, but laced with a meditational bent that, though rarely overt, informs the book as a whole.

Deppe’s book is what I mean by “American gardening literature.” It’s packed with gardening advice from a highly-educated and experienced gardener (Deppe holds a PhD in biology from Harvard), but it’s about (oh … Read the rest

Dostoyevsky’s Possessed in Modern Day America

“Peter Verkhovensky meet John Styn. John, Peter is the descendant of godless liberal enlightenment thinkers who now wants violence and revolution. Peter, John is the descendant of an ex-Baptist minister who likes to hug a lot.”

That’s what went through years ago when I clicked on a Yahoo feature story about a website called “Hug Nation” that promotes actual and cyber hugging. Hugs, hugs, hugs; it’s all about hugs. Young John Styn started it with his elderly grandfather, Caleb Shikles.

Relevant excerpts: “Hug Nation was the brainchild of Caleb’s grandson, John Styn, a Burning Man disciple, artist and Internet pioneer with pierced nipples, washboard abs, shocking pink hair and a dizzying creative energy. . . [Caleb] went to college, got married and became a Baptist preacher. A civil rights and anti-war activist, he worked with Martin Luther King for a week during a trip to Denver.”

A few things stand out about Caleb. He’s an ex Baptist minister, though he apparently didn’t lose his faith entirely (his funeral was held at a United Church of Christ church). He lived in California. He was part of the civil rights movement and an anti-war activist. Based on the foregoing and a few other things I read about the man online, I’m reasonably certain he had a strong leftward bent. I think it’s safe to say his faith was probably the watered-down version that’ is more interested in what faith can do for the world rather than how the world can bring us to faith.… Read the rest

Federal Government Admits Catholicism is True

Well, not really, but indirectly, through PBS’ Flannery O’Connor documentary

I greatly enjoyed PBS documentary, American Masters: Flannery O’Connor, on PBS last night.

I thought the producers respected her intense Catholicism. I’m sure they could’ve found critics to say sacrilegious things like, “Her dark humor emanates from a religion based on a Jew who had a bad afternoon,” but they didn’t. Her Catholicism came up frequently but always as a fact, never as a jab.

There were two forays into her correspondence with a bisexual and a lesbian (couldn’t leave those things out), but I didn’t interpret either as an attempt to portray Flannery as a repressed lesbian, and I’m sure they could’ve found critics to say things like, “Her dark humor emanates from her nascent lesbianism birthed from her Catholicism,” but they didn’t.… Read the rest

Hate the River-Rat!

I gotta say, I’m really enjoying Will Percy’s 1941 autobiography, Lanterns of the Levee. I’d heard of it for years but never bothered to buy it, much less read it.

The prose is beautiful, if a bit ornate by today’s standard, and he brings up topics that seem terribly antiquated in today’s world, with opinions and sentiments that are hardly politically correct, but not necessarily “Twitter wrong.” They’re just different, things that probably don’t arouse much animosity or admiration today.

It’s not too often one finds a strong opinion on something that doesn’t arouse emotion in today’s polarized world.

This portrait of the “river-rat” person really cracked me up for some reason:

Where he comes from no one knows or cares. Some find in him the descendant of those pirates who used to infest the river as far up as Memphis. . . Illiterate, suspicious, intensely clannish- blond, and usually ugly, river-rats make ideal bootleggers. The brand of corn or white mule they make has received nation-wide acclaim. They lead a life apart, uncouth, unclean, lawless, vaguely alluring. Their contact with the land world around them consists largely in being haled into court, generally for murder. No Negro is ever a river-rat.

Like I said, strong opinions but on topics that I doubt many people have a strong opinion on.

Another example, this time about the poor whites in the Delta:

The poor whites of the South: a nice study in heredity and environment. Who can trace their origin, estimate their qualities, do them justice? Not I. Some say their forefathers served terms in English prisons for debt and were released on condition that they migrate from the mother country to the colonies. The story continues that they congregated in Georgia. The story may or may not be true;

Read the rest

How to Write for Surfer Dudes

fashion art coffee macbook pro
Photo by OVAN on

I spent last summer, taking digital essay lessons. They were part of a series that I call, “Learning to Write for Morons,” by

I learned a lot, but I can condense the lessons into one premise: If you’re writing online articles, you have a split second to keep the reader’s attention and you have, maybe, three split seconds to keep his attention. Tell yourself, “You’re writing for surfer dudes, almost literally. They have the attention span of gnats. Engage them.”

In order to do this, you need to follow these two rules:

1. Write great titles for your pieces (many authorities say you shoud spend as much time on your headlines as you do the article itself, which strikes me as ludicrous, unless perhaps you’re cranking out P.o.S. articles).

2. Lots of white space.

The second rule breaks down into a series of sub-rules: break your articles into sections, each section should be no longer than 300 (preferably, 250) words, use sub-headings, paragraphs should only be two or three lines long (it’s that last one, I think, drives traditional writers mad . . . I know it irritates me, but I use it as motivation to do the bulk of my reading from books).

The first rule also breaks down into a series of sub-rules, but the overarching rule is: Grab the reader’s attention so he’ll click on it.

Ever since reading those rules last summer, I’ve been working on my headlines (maybe you, dear TDE reader, have noticed my sensationalist edge?). I’ve also been noticing the outlandish headlines I see online.

Maybe it has always been this way, but I think that, as more and more people follow the rubrics of online writing, the headlines have become increasingly outlandish. This one from yesterday … Read the rest

Carting Away Hobbits

I’ve started to re-read The Lord of the Rings. While listening to Brad Birzer’s three-part interview on the National Review “Great Books” podcast, I realized that I had forgotten a lot of things about the books.

More troubling, I had forgotten a lot of the charming things about the book. Or maybe I had never noticed the charming things since I read the books in my teens. Charm, after all, is unexpected grace or enchantment, which is something I suppose most teenagers are incapable of feeling or, if they are, of recognizing.

Two weeks ago, I read the Prologue and Tolkien’s libertarian paean to the Shire. Last week, I finished Chapter One, “The Long-Expected Party.” Now I’m Chapter Two, where Gandalf confirms his suspicions about the Ring and Frodo decides to leave the Shire.

I’m greatly enjoying it.

As of this moment, though, my favorite passage is about the hobbits leaving the huge party:

“About midnight carriages came for the important folk. One by one they rolled away . . . Gardeners came by arrangement, and removed in wheel-barrows those that had inadvertently remained behind.”… Read the rest

Faulkner, Foote, Percy, Percy, and Kauffman, P.C.

A snapshot of the southern literary tradition in the early 20th century

Photo by Emily Corley on Unsplash

I think Bill Kauffman has more literary anecdotes than any man alive. If you go to the Quote Machine on the front page of this site (lower right corner), the top four quotes currently are all from Kauffman’s relatively-unknown Poetry Night at the Ball Park.

I ran across this passage last night while recovering from a migraine and just flipping through my random notes:

Among my favorite interviewees was novelist and Civil War epicist Shelby Foote. I showed up at his stockbroker-Tudor home in Memphis about noon. Foote, long-haired, wearing ratty pajamas, answered the door and drawled, “Ah wuz jes’ fixin’ ta go ta thuh whiskey stoah.” He had more cool in one grey hair than every Southern expatriate writer in Manhattan combined.

I don’t know much about Shelby Foote, but I remembered that he was friends with Walker Percy and they both admired William Faulkner, especially Foote.

When he was about 22, in the summer of 1938, Foote and Percy decided to drive to Faulkner’s house, Rowan Oak, in Oxford, Mississippi. Foote concocted a reason to contact Faulkner: He wanted to get a copy of The Marble Faun, which was the first book Faulkner published (a collection of poems).

When they got there, Percy refused to get out of the car. “I don’t know that man and he doesn’t know me and I’m not going to bother him.”

Foote went up to the door by himself, and Faulkner apparently received him graciously (they would go on to be friends). At the end of this first conversation, Foote said that a relative of Will Percy’s was in the car and asked if he wanted to meet him.

Will raised Walker … Read the rest

Solzhenitsyn Saw Cancel Culture

gray wooden house burning
Photo by Simon Berger on

“A left-wing newspaper can print the most subversive of articles, a left-wing speaker can deliver the most incendiary of speeches—but just try pointing out the dangers of such utterances and the whole leftist camp will raise a howl of denunciation.”

Solzhenitsyn & the Engine of History by Robert D. Kaplan

I was pretty stoked when my first issue of The New Criterion showed up. (I don’t know if I was more excited about the issue, or a book that coincidentally arrived the same day, Willie Mosconi’s 1965 classic, Winning Pocket Billiards, which was a mainstay of my youth.)

I was even more excited when I saw that one of its six feature essays is by Robert D. Kaplan, whose 2005 Balkan Ghosts has been grabbing my attention (albeit off-and-on) for the past month and keeps getting better and better. I mean, I thought the chapter on Croatia was excellent, and then Serbia was even better. And now that I’m on Rumania, the land of prostitutes and Dracula? I’m having a hard time putting it down at night.

(Did you know Bucharest has about as much metropolitan history as Chicago? It’s a very new city.)

Well, Kaplan’s essay on Solzhenitsyn didn’t disappoint. I curled up in my library last night and read it straight-through, relishing the non-pixelated print.

He provided an overview of Solzhenitsyn’s massive work, The Red Wheel, and used it to draw comparisons between the Rise of the Soviet Union and the United States today.

Yeah, the essay is a bit chilling, as evidenced by Solzhenitsyn’s words about leftist publications in the opening quote above. He was writing in the 1970s (or thereabouts) about the Communist Revolution (in the mid-1910s) . . . way before cancel culture and technological censorship.

Like … Read the rest