51. Laura Lee Burroughs – Flower Arranging, Vol. 1 to 3 (1940-1942)

The Burroughs family were fairly prodigious writers even before Burroughs came along. His maternal grandfather, James Wideman Lee, was a successful Methodist author, his uncle, Ivy Lee, wrote for his PR clients, and his mother, subject of this blog, was the author of a range of popular flower arranging guides.

The guides were a promotional stunt by the Coca-Cola corporation, presumably aimed at winning middle class mothers over to their deliciously tooth-rotting beverage. Priced at only 10 cents, and advertised on “Refreshment Time with Singin’ Sam” (Coke’s own radio show), the first and second volumes each sold over a million copies.

The third volume, which is in some ways the most interesting, did not do so well. Reality Studio, who have written a fascinating blog on these books (here) argue that, come 1942, Americans had more pressing things on their minds than flowers.

The drop-off in interested may also have been impacted by a title change (the third volume is called Homes and Flowers, rather than Flower Arranging), an increased emphasis on scavenging things from thrift stores and “wrecking yards” (which might have been a little too bohemian for her staunchly middle class readership), and the age-old impact of readership fatigue.

Volume 2, after all, is much the same as volume 1, which makes one question whether buying 3 would really be necessary.

All three books provide handy tips for creating flower arrangements. Some look a little dated now, but many retain a clear sense of form and direction. They are more formal than modern arrangements (which attempt to replicate the organic and natural), but for that reason end up producing some unexpected lessons that we, as Burroughs readers, might take away about form and structure.

She uses little diagrams, for a start, to help her visualise the direction of the stems and the overall shape. These are presented next to each arrangement and provide a sort of stripped-back, Bauhaus interpretation of what a skilled flower arranger ought to be seeing when they look at the arrangement.

“Always try to visualise what you are going to do before you start – just as an artist makes a working drawing and an architect a plan.”

She describes the importance of focal points: “like a market place in a small town – that busy place where all roads meet and people congregate. If you were building an important store or doing a bit of soapbox oratory, you would choose a site as near that square as possible. Whatever is there is noticed first.”

She imparts the necessity of strong material: “remember that about half the success of this work comes from recognising material when you see it […] keep your eyes open when you go to the country. You will notice things that you have never seen before.”

“Those arrangements that are the most fun are the ones you make out of some ridiculous everyday material that others look at but do not see.”

From these little epigrams, a picture emerges of Laura Lee Burroughs as a creator. She understands the importance of form, the pleasures of incongruity and, more than anything, the charm of finding unexpected beauty hiding in plain sight.

I don’t believe it’s at all out of the question to see Burroughs’ mother at the root of many of his own thoughts and instincts; whether that’s the importance of collecting material, of visualising things in a plan, or the writer’s task of being more observant than the everyman.

Of equal interest are some of the scenes featured in the photographs. They were all shot in the Burroughs’ home. Although some are clearly more staged than others, tidbits leap out as clear points of interest.

Firstly, the preponderance of Chinese arts and miniatures suggests Burroughs’ parents had a taste for these outside of the photoshoots. Burroughs interest in “Chinamen” (fed by his boy’s magazines, Jack Black’s opium dens, and Conrad’s South Sea novels) may have its origin in these nick-nacks.

Another tantalising image is provided in Volume 2, with an arrangement placed in front of the family bookcase. To my great disappointment, the focus is just out, but enough to make every title unreadable. All that remains is the impression created by the rows of hardbacked, leatherbound titles; the kind of books one finds in antique stores – ie. classics.

It’s here where I thank my lit degree, as the hard work of reading all that stuff is by now long behind me. That Burroughs was familiar with the canon from a young age (long before Harvard) is, based on this photo, I’d say certain.

Fascinating glimpses into the Burroughs family children’s parties are provided by these photographs as well.

The most interesting features a set of pirate figures. Were these William’s toys? If so, they might give us an insight into the origins of Captain Mission. The same might be said for Pan (who inhabits two arrangements) and my theory of Burroughs’ combination Pan-Pook-Puch spirit.

The pirates surround a boat with a sail made from red chrysanthemums (very Genet), and under the arrangement Laura Lee has written “in case the young are technical about sails, this was copied from one on a Chinese junk”. Little William, avid reader of seafaring adventures, is practically audible here, being fussy with his mother and her lax grasp of seamanship.

Captain Flint says women are bad luck to have on a pirate ship, after all…

A final point that jumped out at me, reading Volume 2 (this one was the hardest to track down), was that one of these parties was for “the local Scout group”. The Scouts of course required many bottles of Coca-Cola (there are numerous arrangements featuring Coke in the collection, and the editor is quite adamant in stating that it MUST be served ice cold).

It struck me that Burroughs must have been a Scout. I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me until now. His Los Alamos years draw all the attention, and he is painted as a bad woodsman based on his unhappiness there, but his early reading of Seton and Longfellow, and his Revised Boy Scout Manual, both point to him being, at one time, a committed Scout.

It strikes me that this is another area I must look into.

Oh, and a postscript regarding flower arrangements… Laura Lee Burroughs has a penchant for placing a single, long and heavy-headed flower at the apex of her arrangements. Whether this is the origin of some of Burroughs’ phallic flowers in the later dream books is yet to be seen.