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Garden Work: The Horticultural Formation of American Literature, 1850–1930

Kaye Wierzbicki, Harvard University, Junior Fellow 2014–2015

My primary project for my time at Dumbarton Oaks was the revision of my doctoral dissertation, “Garden Work: The Horticultural Formation of American Literature, 1850–1930,” for final submission to the English Department at Harvard University and eventual book publication. My book argues that the most pressing theoretical and aesthetic questions facing American authors at the turn of the twentieth century dovetailed with the period’s most trenchant debates occurring in landscape architecture. As a result, American authors began to pay close attention to landscape design and, eventually, to become garden theorists themselves. The Library and Rare Books Collection have proven particularly useful as I continue to flesh out the historical and aesthetic implications of my research questions. For example, the holdings of Victorian floral dictionaries in the Rare Books Collection gave me new insight into a genre that, while actively resisted by many of the writers in my study, was nevertheless a product of rigorous artistic sensibility and a fascinating set of assumptions about the relationship between text and plant. Works of landscape history also helped me uncover new horti-literary relationships to integrate into my project, such as that between writer Edgar Allan Poe and landscape architect Nathan Franklin Barrett, for whom Poe served as a strangely powerful inspiration. Perhaps most importantly, however, Dumbarton Oaks is a community that allows humanistic researchers to learn from the expertise of landscape practitioners. As a result of many walks, talks, and lunch conversations within this interdisciplinary community, I come away from Dumbarton Oaks with a more nuanced sense of how abstract, theoretical ideas about gardening have been tempered by practical problems of engineering, planting, domestic economy, and management. This new perspective has allowed me to reevaluate many of the assumptions I had made in the early stages of the project, and to uncover potential avenues for future work.