Even today, most garden writing in Britain is still haunted by the ghosts of Percy Thrower and Arthur Hellyer. It is nuts and bolts stuff – professionals telling amateurs what to plant or build and why and how and when. The American garden writer Henry Mitchell, however, was something else.
Above all, he was as much a writer as a gardener: and a good one. Know a man by his friends – and Mitchell’s included the novelist Eudora Welty and the New Yorker essayist E. B. White (who also wrote the children’s classics Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little). Like Welty, Mitchell was a Southerner and proud of it. A privileged Southerner, too. Born in 1923, the son of a prominent Memphis physician, he was educated at the best schools, then at the University of Virginia, and reminiscences of his youth in the inter-war South permeated his writing until his death seventy years later. Favourite places and characters appear and reappear, like fragments of the novels and short stories he never wrote. The man who rollerskated across Texas. The tenant farmers who grew portulaca ‘in washpans and other ingenious containers on the sagging wood porches of their shacks, commonly flanked with hounds who woke up occasionally to snap at bees’. His formidable aunts, Marie Trigg and Frances Bodley. The hot tamale shop a few blocks from his boyhood home, which Aunt Frances forbade him to visit because ‘it was an utter den of utter iniquity’. The huge and beautiful sunflowers along the railway by the tamale shop, which made the visits she forbade irresistible. The holly grove into which as a young man, when working on a cotton farm one winter, he drove his first car, an open-topped Jeep, to get warm in the grove’s shelter – and as a result learned to love hollies. The house called Ashlar Hall ‘which I suppose startled people who were not expecting a Norman castle on the Tennessee-Mississippi border’, a house whose ‘châteleine was remar
The full version of this article is only available to subscribers to Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly. To continue reading, please sign in or take out a subscription to the quarterly magazine for yourself or as a gift for a fellow booklover. Both gift givers and gift recipients receive access to the full online archive of articles along with many other benefits, such as preferential prices for all books and goods in our online shop and offers from a number of like-minded organizations. Find out more on our subscriptions page.Subscribe now or Sign in