Meet National Book Award Finalist Victoria Johnson
The Author of American Eden on Hamilton, Teaching, and Dispensaries
The 2018 National Book Awards will be held on Wednesday, November 14 at the 69th National Book Awards Ceremony and Benefit Dinner at Cipriani Wall Street in New York City. In preparation for the ceremony, and to celebrate all of the wonderful books and authors nominated for the awards this year, Literary Hub will be sharing short interviews with each of the finalists in all five categories: Young People’s Literature, Translated Literature, Poetry, Nonfiction, and Fiction.
Victoria Johnson’s American Eden: David Hosack, Botany, and Medicine in the Garden of the Early Republic, a biography of Alexander Hamilton’s personal physician, who built the country’s first botanical garden, is a finalist for the 2018 National Book Award in Nonfiction. Literary Hub asked Johnson a few questions about her book, her favorite works of art, and her writing life.
Who do you most wish would read this book? (your boss, your childhood bully, Michelle Obama, etc.)
Lin-Manuel Miranda! I started the research for American Eden in 2010. It’s about the dramatic, forgotten life of David Hosack, a man who cared deeply about his fellow citizens and worked his whole life to make things better for them. He also happened to be the attending physician at the Hamilton-Burr duel. When I learned a few years into my research that there was a musical about Hamilton in the works, I was intrigued. When I actually saw the musical, suddenly these characters I’d been trying to conjure up from their written words were there in front of my eyes—including David Hosack. I was reduced to a puddle of tears by this fact every time I saw the show.
But there’s a more important reason I’d want Lin-Manuel Miranda to read the book, or at least know about it. Researching and writing a book this complex (it took me to at least thirty archives) was often an emotional and even physical struggle. I still recall the moment a few years ago when I happened across a remark by Lin saying something like (I’m paraphrasing from memory), “Looks left. Looks right. Looks at you. Says, ‘Let’s go.’” I soon realized that members of the Hamilton cast—this triumphantly successful phenomenon—were sharing their own struggles and fears with one another and the whole world. Writing can be emotionally solitary. At so many difficult moments in the past few years, I was energized and encouraged by their very public display of group affection. Actually, maybe I don’t need Lin to read American Eden, but just these words of gratitude.
Which book(s) do you return to again and again?
Susan Cain, Quiet
Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton
Erik Larson, Devil in the White City
Andrea Wulf, The Invention of Nature
Which non-literary piece of culture—film, tv show, painting, song—could you not imagine your life without?
That’s Hamilton, of course. I’ve long been an opera fan, not a musical theater fan. This work was a revelation for me about what musical theater can be. Like everyone else, each time I listen to Hamilton, I hear something new in the synthesis of words and music that was there all along but was too subtle or complex to grasp on the first 100 or so hearings.
If you have a day job, what is it? How do you negotiate writing and working?
I’m a professor, and like all professors, I have teaching and administration duties that take up most of my week. I’ve had some incredibly supportive and generous colleagues and deans who helped protect my time, both at the University of Michigan, where I taught for thirteen years, and more recently at Hunter College. In order to research and write American Eden, I also had to protect my “spare” time, and that meant making tough decisions over and over about not seeing people I adore. Most people understood and stuck with me. Susan Cain’s book Quiet helped me so much with these choices, and I recommend it all the time to my students and friends. Quiet helped me understand why I crave disappearing for weeks, months, years, at a time into my archival documents and my imagination.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
It was this. When you are writing a biography about someone, figure out the most important relationships in that person’s life—and write the story of those relationships. People are fascinated by watching humans interacting. Will they love each other? Hate each other? Snipe behind one another’s backs? Reconcile after falling out? I am so grateful I got this advice from one of the country’s greatest biographers before I started writing American Eden.
How involved did Hosack get in testing plants on himself or others, and what do you think David Hosack would make of dispensaries?
When Hosack contracted yellow fever during a terrible epidemic that hit New York in 1798, he choked down bitter infusions of a medicinal plant called boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum), which is a sudorific—meaning it induces sweating and can help break a fever. Hosack was already using boneset on a lot of his patients instead of bloodletting and mercury, which were both potentially fatal yet were the treatments of choice among his colleagues. As he was cultivating his botanical garden, Hosack often tested medicinal plants on himself and his patients. Lucky for him and for them, his medical instincts usually led him toward the gentlest treatments.
It’s funny you ask about dispensaries. The best-selling book in the “Horticulture” category on Amazon for months—almost always outpacing American Eden—has been a guide to growing medical marijuana. I’ve often wondered what Hosack would think about that! My guess is that he would approve heartily of medical marijuana, because it’s so much gentler than some other available options for pain alleviation and managing chronic illness. But he wouldn’t love seeing marijuana used recreationally, I’m pretty sure. He made a point of not drinking alcohol, because he wanted to keep his head clear at all times for his patients, and he told his medical students that people who drink alcohol (and also eat overly rich diets) “dig their graves with their teeth.” I should note, though, that he and his wife threw famously lavish parties every Saturday night for years at their townhouse, where they served fantastic food and drinks to a star-studded list of guests. He was a man of contradictions who loved socializing.