Forgotten American Classics (The Orchard)

Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Emily Dickinson – we are all familiar with the names in the American literary canon, but, in this ongoing series, Christian Kriticos identifies some lesser-known American writings and argues for their placement among the greats…

The Orchard by Adele Crockett Robertson

It’s funny, but I haven’t remembered it for years. And then today I could almost feel again the prick of the stubble on my bare feet when Will and I crossed the marsh, ploughed through the mud of Fox Creek at low tide, and scrambled over the stone wall and into the hayfield.

Many of America’s greatest writers have only achieved the recognition they deserve posthumously. Some, like Zora Neale Hurston and Herman Melville, were published in their time, but failed receive great critical praise or significant commercial success. Others, like Emily Dickinson and John Kennedy Toole, did not publish their most significant works during their lifetimes, and were only catapulted into the pantheon of Great American Writers following the posthumous publication of their writings. However, Adele Crockett Robertson’s memoir The Orchard, published around fifteen years after her death, has failed to launch her to fame, despite praise from John Updike, who called the book “bold and beautiful.”

 Robertson’s manuscript for The Orchard was discovered by her daughter after Robertson had passed away. It details her life during the Great Depression. During this particularly difficult period in American history, Robertson chose to move from her life and steady job in Boston to the countryside near Ipswich, Massachusetts, and live in her recently deceased father’s decrepit old farmhouse, hoping to resurrect the old orchard and make a living selling apples.

At the book’s beginning, Robertson has no experience running an operation of this nature, and has to learn to dig wells, work heavy machinery, and repair plumbing. Because of this, the book swiftly becomes a narrative of resilience, charting Robertson’s struggles to adapt to this lifestyle and the constant threats that come with it: thieves, freezing weather which spoil the crops, and the gargantuan fist of the Depression. And yet, amongst all of the hardship, the book is also filled with great hope, as Robertson discovers the unending possibilities for kindness among strangers sharing in a single struggle for survival.

As each season passes, her family urges her to sell the property and return to the comfort and safety of her former urban life. Robertson refuses, however, suggesting that there is some undefinable spiritual quality gained by working the land, worth more than money or comfort, and that it might even strike at the heart of America’s truest and most innocent roots.

Around two hundred pages into the story, Robertson’s narrative breaks off: she never completed the manuscript, setting it aside to care for her husband who had suffered a nervous breakdown. However, although its unfinished nature may account for the book’s failure to attract a wider audience, this imperfect quality adds a layer of thematic resonance; the book, like the old farmhouse, becoming a monument lost to time.

Have you read The Orchard or will you now seek it out? Let us know in the comments below.

Christian Kriticos

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