Please put American Eden: David Hosack, Botany, and Medicine in the Garden of the Early Republic by Victoria Johnson at the top of your summer reading list. The book tells the captivating and forgotten story of Alexander Hamilton’s and Aaron Burr’s personal physician, Dr. David Hosack. In addition to being present at the duel that ends Hamilton’s life, Hosack was a world-class botanist and visionary. He conducted some of the first pharmaceutical research in the United States and his famous garden/lab lies buried beneath Rockefeller Center. It is a feast for the mind.
WHAT IS YOUR MOTTO?
It’s actually a question: “What is this an opportunity for?” I learned it from one of my mentors, and I pass it on every semester to all my students.
WHAT WAS THE MOST IMPORTANT THING YOU LEARNED IN HIGH SCHOOL?
That you can conjure up a living, breathing character and her or his entire world through great writing.
WHAT DO YOU WEAR THAT MAKES YOU FEEL STRONG?
I have a necklace made from a small medal struck in the 1830s to honor David Hosack, the hero of American Eden. The medal depicts his life’s great passions: nature, medicine, books, music, and art. I feel connected to him across two centuries when I wear it.
WHAT IS ON YOUR NIGHTSTAND?
Piles and piles of books! I’m currently rereading Elizabeth Gilbert’s sweeping botanical novel The Signature of All Things, which is set at the same time as American Eden.
WHAT GIVES YOU GOOSE BUMPS?
Seeing David Hosack on a Broadway stage in the Hamilton musical after several years of researching his life story.
WHAT IS YOUR BAD DAY BACKUP PLAN?
My motto (see above) gets me through a bad day with my optimism totally intact.
HOW DO YOU DEFINE SUCCESS?
Having a career—writing and teaching—that feels both playful and meaningful.
WHAT MAKES YOU FORGET TO EAT?
Archival research. When I’m hot on the trail of a historical figure through old letters and documents, I feel possessed—like I couldn’t stop if I wanted to.
FAVORITE WORK OF ART?
A gorgeous painting of persimmons that hangs above my dresser, done by my sister Jessica Honigberg. She is a classical musician AND a talented painter.
Fiction: any of the novels by my sister Elizabeth Kostova, who has been writing since we were little girls. Her novels have the fine-grained beauty of poetry. Nonfiction: Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature, an absolutely riproaring biography of the great nineteenth-century scientist Alexander von Humboldt.
WHAT FICTIONAL CHARACTER DO YOU HAVE A CRUSH ON?
Can it please be on a non-fictional character? Because the more I learned about David Hosack, the more I came to love his boundless curiosity, sense of humor, compassion, and commitment to helping his fellow citizens live happy, healthy lives. Otherwise: Mr. Jarndyce of Bleak House, by Charles Dickens.
Victoria Johnson is an associate professor of urban policy and planning at Hunter College of the City University of New York. To learn more about Victoria, pick up a copy of her new book, American Eden: David Hosack, Botany, and Medicine in the Garden of the Early Republic, and follow her on: