Thursday, August 18, 2011

Founding Gardeners, by Andrea Wulf

Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation, by Andrea Wulf.  Knopf, 2011.  349 pp.  978-0-307-26990-4.

... in which we learn about how much America's Founding Fathers loved their gardens, and how this contributed to the shaping of a country.

Andrea Wulf, a British design historian, takes us on a journey around the world with George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and James Madison in Founding Gardeners.  For the purposes of this book, "gardening" is used loosely, and can refer to gentlemen who simply oversee the planting and cultivation of an estate, either with servants or slaves.  Each chapter is devoted to either a particular man or a particular significant event in early American history.  Wulf's writing is full of colorful details and is very engaging.  She addresses topics like Washington's beloved gardens and plantations, Jefferson's world-wide search for plants to bring to America, Adams' love and pride in his fully American garden, Madison's tour of Europe and his prolific plantation in the USA, the Constitutional Convention, the creation of Washington, D.C., and the westward expansion during Jefferson's presidency.

The little details are really the highlight of this book.  I enjoyed reading about the different styles of gardens that were popular in that time period, and how these gardens differed between the USA and Europe.  It was also a new dimension to the prominent people from that time period... in school, students don't typically spend a great deal of time discussing George Washington's personal hobbies.  It was somewhat endearing to read of Jefferson going around documenting all of the country's best plants, so that he could show his colleagues in Europe that everything was bigger and better in America.  I certainly enjoyed the chapters that focused on each man individually more than the chapters focusing on larger events, since these chapters often seemed duller and less accessible.  The chapter on the Constitutional Convention, in particular, seemed to go on and on forever, and I didn't really enjoy the chapter on the building of DC, either.

I can't really give a very good critique of the historical veracity of many of the claims in this book, as I haven't had a course in US history since the 2002-2003 school year, when I was a junior in high school.  However, since the book's central claim was that the Founding Fathers' love of gardening and plants impacted the decisions and ideologies of each man, it seems like Wulf was stretching a little too much in trying to make her thesis work.  The way she describes Washington made it sound like leading the American troops in the war was nothing more than a tedious distraction, when all he wanted to do was go home and tell his slaves how to plant his crops.  

This is a hard book to rate, partially because it's pretty far out of my area of expertise.  I enjoyed reading half of it, but the other half bored me and central thesis seemed to be a bit of a reach to me, so I'm going to give it a 3/5. 

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