Jennifer Atkinson speaks at the Smithsonian Institution

Atkinson signing books

IAS faculty member Jennifer Atkinson speaks at the Smithsonian Institution on "Cultures of the Garden: The Hidden Histories of an American Obsession" (an author panel with Jennifer Atkinson and Dr. Robert S. Emmett). Atkinson's talk previewed her forthcoming book, Gardenlandin which she argues that gardening literature is not just a place to find advice about roses and rutabagas: it also contains hidden histories of desire, hope and frustration, and tells a story about how Americans have invested grand fantasies in the common soil of everyday life. Given the popularity of gardening practices today, we are increasingly aware that gardens appeal to desires for beauty, community, creative expression, contact with nature, and meaningful work. Yet the fantasy-elements of gardening have always been with us, and in order to understand their unique role in our daily lives, we must also understand their past. 

Atkinson's talk at the Smithsonian chronicled the development of this genre across key moments in American literature and history, from nineteenth-century industrialization to the twentieth-century rise of factory farming and environmental advocacy, to contemporary debates about public space, social justice, and even humanity’s place on a changing planet. In exploring the hidden landscape of desire in American gardens, Gardenland examines works ranging from literary fiction and horticultural publications to science fiction. Ultimately, Atkinson asks what the past century and a half of garden writing might tell us about our current social and ecological moment – and offers surprising insight into our changing views about the natural world, along with realms that may otherwise seem remote from the world of leeks and hollyhocks.

Jennifer Atkinson at the Smithsonian Institution