Richard Horan is a man on a mission. Inspired during a visit to Abraham Lincoln’s home, he was struck by how much history the tree outside the home had silently witnessed. As his family vacationed their way through the homes of other famous Americans, Horan stopped to collect seeds from the trees he encountered. Over the next few years, he amassed quite a collection of seeds. Encouraged by family and friends, an idea he’d been tossing around in the back of his mind finally fomented: he would visit the locations that inspired important people in American history. He would collect seeds from trees and plant them. Once they grew he’d be able to offer their seedlings as gifts to some of his literary- and history-minded friends. But mostly, these trees would serve as his own unique homage to American history.
When I first started this book, I was charmed. It has a niche audience, yes, but Horan writes with such a passion for these seeds that you can’t help but root for him. Plus, with all the traveling and talk of nature, it fits the mood of summer perfectly. Some of the earlier entries in the book reflected what I though the book would be about: I figured he’d visit the trees that inspired literary greats (as the subtitle suggests), then talk about specific passages in these authors’ works that alluded to said trees. However, the full title of this book–Seeds: One Man’s Serendipitous Journey to Find the Trees That Inspired Famous American Writers from Faulkner to Kerouac, Welty to Wharton–is a bit of a misnomer. Though Horan does visit the homes of many American literary greats, his journey also takes him to other places–some famous, some random–that have little obvious connection to American literature. Fair enough. It doesn’t seem right that one would talk about American trees and American nature without paying a visit to some of John Muir’s favorite territory.
But after a while, I felt that the book started to lose focus. What starts out with charming, serendipitous discoveries related to literature turns into a fragmented collage of locales that include American history (Gettysberg, Monticello), sports (Muhammad Ali), and music (Louis Armstrong). At one point, he even visits Yaddo, a writer’s retreat that most people have probably never heard of. Though Yaddo has hosted a roster of notable authors, Horan’s experience there made it clear that it was unlikely any writer could have felt inspired by the place (a sentiment later confirmed by Eudora Welty). As the book is supposed to be about trees that inspired writers, I thought it was senseless to include Yaddo at all. Without that solid theme (literature) running through the book to hold everything together, it felt like some parts of the book devolved into a few guys taking a road trip and stopping for acorns along the way.
What really irked me the most were the names he chose to center his project around. It reads like a roster of the Literary Canon of Dead White Guys. Yes, there are a few women in the mix (ones that have made the cut into the Literary Canon of Dead White Women, anyway), but even then, it felt like a couple of those names were there mostly because of the men they were linked to (the Fitzgeralds, Harper Lee & Truman Capote). In his afterword, Horan writes that he ran out of time and intends to keep updating his travels on LiterarySeeds.com, but come on. Not one brown writer? Really?
I think people who like nature writing might like this book more than people who are reading it for insight into nature’s influence on historical figures. There were parts of Seeds that I enjoyed, and I think the premise of the book is interesting. Ultimately, though, it was too unevenly executed for my liking.
Seeds: One Man’s Serendipitous Journey to Find the Trees That Inspired Famous American Writers from Faulkner to Kerouac, Welty to Wharton was published by Harper Perennial on April 19, 2011.