Culture / featured-column

Professor Victoria Johnson’s journey to National Book Award nominee

Professor Victoria Johnson’s path from classical singer to professor to nominee for the 2018 National Book Award is unconventional, but a closer look reveals the threads between these vastly different chapters of her life.

National Book Award Nominee Victoria Johnson
National Book Award Nominee Victoria Johnson

She first studied classical music and singing at Columbia University, and while writing her doctoral dissertation on opera, she began studying organizations, as opera is typically performed by large arts groups. She then taught the sociology of organizations at the University of Michigan but kept finding herself drawn to her passion for the natural environment. Then she started making connections between the two.

“The logical switch was to botanical gardens because they’re very similar to opera houses, though we don’t normally think of opera and plants in the same category,” she mused. After all, both institutions put on a performance, she noted, and require each worker’s commitment to a larger cause.

She took to studying gardens across the country as part of her expansion into the study of botany and stumbled upon one book that introduced her to David Hosack, who founded the first botanical garden in the United States in 1801 — a space now occupied by Rockefeller Center.

“When I read that, it was one of the moments where everything just stopped,” she recalled. “It just grabbed me. From that moment on for the next eight years, I was working on this book.”

Her 518-page final product, titled “American Eden: David Hosack, Botany, and Medicine in the Garden of the Early Republic,” captures Hosack as a person. Reviewed by The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, it’s acclaimed for finding a forgotten history and bringing Hosack’s experience to life. The nominees for the National Book Award, presented by the National Book Foundation, were selected in October. The winner will be announced on Nov. 14.

The genesis of the book aligned with the start of her career at Hunter. She took the position as a professor of organizations in the Urban Policy and Planning Department both for her love of New York (where she spent some time growing up) and for what Hunter represented — “a great source of upward mobility in the city.” Simultaneously, she started a fellowship at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library.

“I just wrote madly every day,” Johnson said, while praising the Hunter administration for supporting her fellowship. “As an academic, there are so many parts of your job, and so many of them are interesting but they really pull you away from writing.”

Professor Joseph Viteritti, head of the Urban Planning and Policy Department noted that Johnson “gets Hunter in an extraordinary way,” and lauded her not just for her writing skills but the whole package.

“It’s really hard to express what asset she is,” he said.

Johnson knew that she wanted to write a book for a broad audience, making it part history and part narrative. Hosack is famed for being the doctor called to the Hamilton-Burr duel, having been the physician to both families, but Johnson’s writing allows him to escape the shadow of his patients’ fame and gain recognition as a dominant influence on botany and modern science in the early days of the United States.

“He has been the most important person of my life for many years,” she laughed. “The person I’ve been sort of living with emotionally is this man who died in 1835, who’s turning 250 next summer.”

The book was first rejected by her publisher, Liveright, for being too academic, but she reworked it over the course of 18 months to ensure that that the content focused on Hosack’s emotional state. It was accepted and published on her second attempt this past July. She learned it would be submitted for the National Book Award a week before the publisher submitted it.

“Inside I thought ‘Oh, hahaha, that’s nice of you,’” she recalled. When she made the longlist in October she tried not to pay it any attention. Making the shortlist was transformative.

Johnson is currently on a book tour, hosting weekly talks in addition to teaching two classes. She describes her life – in what one could say is an understatement – as full.

“I started getting emails that you might call fan letters, but ‘fan letters’ doesn’t capture what it feels like,” Johnson said, describing how readers have told her that her work has truly affected them. “I experience it with teaching in a more diffuse way. Feeling that your work is making a difference.”

At the mention of Johnson’s name, a current student, Abigail Duncan, gushed, “Very cool. Very, very cool. The whole class is kind of waiting for that day, Nov. 14.”

When Johnson told her students the news, one student asked, “If we win, do we get to have a party?” She says she gets chills whenever she tells that story from the use of the word “we.” That’s an emblem of the sense of community she strives to create in her classroom.

Her students are among a network of “cheerleaders” that Johnson says has influenced her success. She keeps herself surrounded by supportive people and powerful women, whether her two sisters or her colleagues or her students at Hunter. She credits one of her sisters, a novelist, with being particularly crucial to helping her overcome what she called “post-book depression.”

“You submit the book and there’s this kind of crash,” she described. “You think you’re going to be so relieved that it’s out of your hands and instead it’s almost like your body and mind say, ‘Now you’re going to process this marathon you’ve been on.’” In sharing her successes, she finds it important to highlight the hidden, harder sides of creating.

Win or not, she hopes to take Hosack’s story further, perhaps even focusing solely on the women in Hosack’s life, and to continue encouraging her students to take whatever path comes their way. Her book, she said, has created a life that she never imagined.

“There’s a good cure for book depression,” she quipped. “It’s getting shortlisted for the National Book Award.”

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