Author Q&A

Open book with Victoria Johnson


In the background of the infamous duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr stands a 35-year-old physician.

That seems to be the defining moment of David Hosack's life. That's why in "American Eden," a National Book and Pulitzer finalist, Victoria Johnson set out to tell the nation that Hosack was much more than a doctor, uncovering a man who not only created the first public botanical garden in America, but also advanced medicine and science throughout the Western Hemisphere.

"I didn't set out ever to write a biography," Johnson recalled. "But when I studied [Hosack's Elgin Botanical Garden in Manhattan], I realized that the man who had created it was an absolute visionary who deserves to be remembered in his own right. And I began to go down the trail of his story."

While Johnson was born in Ithaca, N.Y., her childhood was filled with references to New York City.

"I grew up with maps of New York City over the centuries all around the house and lots of New York books," she said. "And the first book I ever remember seeing the spine of was [Robert Caro's] 'The Power Broker' about [public official] Robert Moses."

Yet, despite her love for the metropolis, Johnson's work gravitates toward the city's history, a "rural Manhattan" in which Hosack's botanical garden occupied the spot where Rockefeller Center is today.

"I was interested in Hosack's place in the post-revolutionary generation," she said. "His elders were the people who framed the government and fought the revolution ... and I became very interested in trying to tell the story of that generation, which I think we know less about as a nation, and their role in creating these civic institutions that would stabilize that fragile, young democracy. And Hosack was one of the leaders in this effort, particularly in New York City. He founded or co-founded an astonishing array and number of institutions at a time when New York City lacked most of the major institutions that we think of as part of an important city."

While Hosack's botanical garden disappeared from Manhattan and eventually, national memory, Johnson finds that makes it all the more important that his story is told.

"His [work] is so diffuse," she said. "We like to single out an inventor or an entrepreneur or a movie star and celebrate that one person. And what he did is as important and just as hard and that is to teach people about institution-building and philanthropy, [which] keeps our cities humane and great. I think it's so important to celebrate that. We have hundreds of thousands of Americans doing that kind of work every day and not being celebrated for it."

The Associate Professor of Urban Policy and Planning at Hunter College shared some of her favorite books before her lecture at The Mount on Monday at 4 p.m. and Tuesday at 11 a.m.

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Q. What books inspired you to write "American Eden?"

A. The book that first gave me the idea to write "American Eden" was a book called "Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City" by a landscape ecologist named Eric Sanderson. It has digital recreation done by a really brilliant digital artist named Markley Boyer. And this book, which was published in 2009 in time for the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson's arrival in New York, recreates visually and in scientific data what Manhattan Island looked like ecologically when Henry Hudson arrives. And so, this is a visual image and record of a lost landscape. My father had just given me that book when I read a book that touched on David Hosack. It mentioned this botanical garden that had been at the heart of Manhattan. And if I hadn't read "Mannahatta" right then, I wouldn't have thought it possible to recapture in writing what that landscape that David Hosack moved through looked like because it was so alien to me. I love New York today. It looks so different from 1609 but also 1801, which is when David Hosack bought 20 acres of farmland at the heart of Manhattan and founded his botanical garden. And so "Mannahatta" opened up my imagination to think maybe I could tell this story and recapture in words this lost landscape.

Another book I recently read that had a similar effect on me was "The Island of the Center of the World" by Russell Shorto, which is about Dutch Manhattan, and that book gave me the courage and a kind of model for how you make long-lost historical characters moving through a very different landscape and culture feel incredibly vivid and lively and present.

Another inspiring book was called "Founding Gardeners. The Revolutionary Generation, Nature and the Shaping of the American Nation" by Andrea Wulf. And that book is a history of the first four American presidents and their passion for botany, agriculture and the natural world. Again, it was a model for a way to talk about botany, which is not immediately accessible to every reader and to do it in a way that is lively and page-turning.

And finally, Ron Chernow's biography of Alexander Hamilton. Hosack was the family physician to both the Burrs and the Hamiltons, and that's why he was chosen for the duel. Chernow is able to write 600-page biographies that you can't put down, and that's an extraordinary talent. I took not only a lot of substantive inspiration, but literary inspiration from his talents as a biographer.

Q. What is your favorite biography?

A. "The Invention of Nature" by Andrea Wulf. That is about the great Prussian explorer and scientist, Alexander von Humboldt, and it is an absolute page turner that manages to be passionate and erudite and entertaining at the same time.

Q. What book do you find yourself coming back to?

A. That would be "To the Lighthouse" by Virginia Woolf. I treasure it for her ability to write about human emotions and our relationship to the landscapes of our childhood and family life and the natural landscape of where we live. She fused them to talk about the ways landscape transform and heighten our emotions and vice versa. I knew for David Hosack and the landscapes of rural Manhattan — you know, rural Manhattan is a phrase that almost sounds funny to us today — [ I had] to recapture those landscapes in a literary form. I found myself going back over and over to "To the Lighthouse." I probably read it 20 times and am rereading it at the moment again.

Q. What's on your night stand right now?

A. Right now, I've got over 40 books on my night stand [laughs]. But the one I'm currently reading is, I'm rereading "Founding Brothers" by Joseph J. Ellis. That's about the friendships and rivalries of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, Hamilton, etc. It's got a wonderful chapter on the Hamilton-Burr duel, and so I'm rereading the whole book in preparation for a history podcast interview I'm doing.


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