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The book is Elizabeth Stuart Phelps's 1868 novel The Gates Ajar: a plotless, actionless New England tale in which virtually nothing occurs except a single long didactic conversation. However, the conversation is an éducation passionelle in the nature of love, and it seems to have given readers the sense of listening in on a revelation of cosmic order. From a wise aunt, the book's young heroine learns in this conversation that heaven will not be the icy abstraction envisioned by Calvin but, instead, a pleasant continuation of life in a nice American home, complete with a piano in the parlor and, for the children, a cookie jar in the kitchen. Dante too was wrong about heaven, the book implies, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti was right: even in the presence of God, we'll still remember the people we loved in this fallen world. Elizabeth Phelps's own fiancé had been killed at Antietam, and when she spoke to her readers about such things she seemed to them to be speaking with authority. "The angel said unto me 'Write!'" she declared, "and I wrote." For many years after 1868, The Gates Ajar remained a best seller.
And so the horticulturists of Como Park got busy on the simile, "This garden is like being in heaven." With seeds and hoses, they tended a plot of their earth into a parallel-text translation of a book made of paper and ink, just as Elizabeth Stuart Phelps had tended her readers' inchoate feelings into a translation made of words.
And now, thanks to the photographers of the Keystone View Company, the garden and its name live on after their originating text and its originating notion of heaven have lapsed into silence and forgetful death. As it leaves the earth of St. Paul behind and heads into its future, the photographic record of a moment in text is on its way toward pure wordless form. The log of its journey has only one entry written in words. One day in 1897, it notes, instruments (gardening tools; a camera) recorded a momentary flash of wordy light in the sky over some silent flowers.
Source: James D. Hart, The Popular Book: A History of America's Literary Taste (1950; Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963) 120-21.