The English Pupil
The English Pupil
Andrea Barrett 1996Introduction
"The English Pupil" by Andrea Barrett appears in Barrett's highly acclaimed collection of eight stories, Ship Fever and Other Stories (1996). Like all the stories in the book, this one is about science and scientists, and it focuses on the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778). Linnaeus was famous for the innovative way in which he classified and named the three kingdoms of the natural world, animal, vegetable, and mineral. His work marked the dawn of a new era in natural history. Linnaeus also sent many of his pupils on travels all over the world, where they discovered new species, used Linnaeus's methods to classify them, and brought specimens back to Sweden.
"The English Pupil" is set at Hammarby, Linnaeus's country estate in 1777, when he is old and confused and has only a few weeks to live. He looks back on his life with a mixture of pride and regret. Barrett skillfully distills a wealth of significant historical and scientific facts about Linnaeus and his followers and weaves them into a compelling narrative that explores not only Linnaeus's life and work but also the depth and complexity of the relationships between the old master and his young disciples, many of whom died on their travels.
Andrea Barrett was born on November 16, 1954, in Boston, Massachusetts, the daughter of Walter Barrett and Jacquelyn Knifong. She grew up on Cape Cod, within walking distance of the ocean and always had a love of the sea.
Barrett did not finish her high school education. In the fall of her junior year, she started applying to colleges, and she left high school at the end of her junior year. She was accepted by Union College in Schenectady, New York, without a high school diploma. Barrett graduated from Union College with a Bachelor of Science degree in biology.
Barrett planned to become a biologist and enrolled in graduate studies in zoology at the University of Massachusetts. But she dropped out during the first semester. Later, she took graduate classes in medieval and Reformation theological history.
It was not until after her formal studies that Barrett started writing. She did not attend any writing school but taught herself how to write fiction through trial-and-error.
Barrett's first novel was Lucid Stars (1988), in which she tells the story of the breakup of an American family over a period of twenty years. In her second novel, Secret Harmonies (1989), Barrett tells the story of a family in rural western Massachusetts struggling to make sense of their lives.
In The Middle Kingdom (1991), Barrett's third novel, an unhappily married American woman on a 1986 visit to Beijing with her husband becomes fascinated with China, makes Chinese friends, and discovers a way to happiness and self-understanding. Barrett's fourth novel, The Forms of Water (1993), tells the story of several generations of a family living in upstate New York.
At about the time of the publication of this novel, Barrett had started to teach college creative writing courses. She was reading many short stories, a genre she had always loved, and studying them closely, in addition to reading her students' stories. She wanted to learn how to write short stories herself, and this desire was the origin of her first collection of stories, Ship Fever and Other Stories, which was published in 1996. All the stories in the collection, which includes "The English Pupil," are about science and scientists. Ship Fever won the National Book Award for fiction and put Barrett firmly in the literary limelight.
In 1997, Barrett used a Guggenheim foundation grant to do research for her next novel by traveling to Baffin Island, the largest island in the Canadian Arctic. The resulting novel was The Voyage of the Narwhal (1998), the story of a nineteenth-century Arctic expedition that is based on Barrett's historical and scientific research.
Barrett's second collection of stories, Servants of the Map, was published by Norton in 2002. It was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in fiction in 2003. In the same year, Barrett received the Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Barrett has taught in the MFA program for writers at Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa, North Carolina; as of 2006, she was teaching at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts.
Married to biologist Barry Goldstein, Barrett enjoys a leisure interest in playing African percussion instruments. In Rochester, New York, where they lived as of 2006, she and her husband played in a local musical group.
"The English Pupil" begins outside the town of Uppsala, Sweden, on a very cold late December afternoon in 1777. Carl Linnaeus, the famous naturalist, who is now seventy years old and dying, is riding in a horse-drawn sleigh. He orders his coachman to take him to his country estate, Hammarby, which lies beyond city limits. The coachman agrees only reluctantly, since he has been told by his employers not to take the sleigh outside of the city.
Linnaeus watches the landscape go by and thinks of Lappland, which he had explored when he was in his mid-twenties, learning about the natural world, which had amazed him with its beauty.
Linnaeus has suffered a series of strokes and now his once-famous memory has almost gone. He tends to forget what he is doing and where he is, he cannot remember the names of plants and animals or of places and people. His legs, one arm, his bladder and part of his face are paralyzed. He can barely speak.
When they arrive at Hammarby, Pehr, the coachman, lifts Linnaeus up and carries him into the house. Then he unhitches the horses from the sleigh and shoves the sleigh into the house, near the fireplace. He lifts Linnaeus back into the sleigh and begins to light a fire. Then after Linnaeus gestures toward his tobacco and pipe, Pehr lights the pipe and places it in Linnaeus's mouth. Linnaeus is happy to be at Hammarby; no one but Pehr knows where he is.
Linnaeus remembers his favorite dog, Pompey, who is now dead, and the names of some of his students, those whom he had taught at the university in Uppsala as well as private students who had come to Hammarby. They were of many nationalities, including an Englishman, who, Linnaeus thinks, is "still around." He remembers taking the students out to the botanical gardens in the city and keeping them there for twelve or thirteen hours at a stretch.
Pehr interrupts his thoughts, saying that his family will be looking for him. Linnaeus knows this is true and reflects that his family always wants something from him. His wife, Sara Lisa, always told him there was not enough money, and she was worried about their son, Carl Junior, who is lazy, and their three daughters, who need new clothes.
Linnaeus thinks back to his achievements in creating a system for the naming of plants. He had named almost everything, and he had become famous.
A man and a woman arrive at the house. Linnaeus thinks the woman must be his daughter Sophia, and the man may be her husband, although he has no memory of a wedding. The man then introduces himself as Rotheram, one of his pupils. Then Linnaeus's mind seems to wander, and he wonders whether the man is another student, maybe Lofling, or Christopher Ternström, or Hasselquist or Falck.
Sophia says they have been looking everywhere for him, and the young man raises him gently to a sitting position. Linnaeus's mind wanders, and he thinks back to the exploits of several of his pupils, when they and he were young. He imagines the young man is Christopher Ternström, who had sailed to the East Indies and eventually died of a tropical fever on an island off Cambodia. Then he imagines he is Fredrik Hasselquist, who had traveled widely gathering plants and animals and keeping a precise diary, and who had died when he was thirty. He remembers other students also, who had managed to return alive from their travels. He remembers a pupil named Rolander and wonders whether that is the man who is with him now. Rolander had lost his mind in Surinam and had come home with insects and seeds which he claimed to be pearls and which had been mistakenly washed away by the gardener. Linnaeus thinks he is still alive and living in Denmark on charity.
Sophia asks him why he did not come back, and the man asks Pehr how long Linnaeus has been weeping. Linnaeus wonders whether the man is Lofling, who had tutored his son, Carl Junior. Lofling had traveled widely and made a name for himself as a naturalist before dying of fever in Spain.
As Sophia asks her father if he is happy and strokes his hands, he remembers more of his "apostles," as he calls them, students who had traveled the world as an extension of himself: "extra eyes and hands and feet, observing, gathering, naming."
He remembers Pehr Forskal, who traveled to Egypt and made a fine collection of new plants in Cairo; he died of plague in Arabia. He remembers Falck, too, who had traveled to St. Petersburg and beyond. Lonely and depressed in Kazan, he had shot himself.
Outside, it has begun to rain, and the man whom Linnaeus thinks of as Rotheram says they must leave now because the rain is ruining the track.
Linnaeus again remembers the student with a similar name—Rolander, who carried on his research even though on his way to Surinam he had been struck down with dysentery. Linnaeus remembers Kahler and Hasselquist and Pehr Kalm. He remembers the principles on which his system of naming was based and which he had passed on to his pupils. His apostles, he thinks, "had taken wing like swallows, but they had failed to return." He had a theory about swallows, that in the winter, they lived below the ice in lakes, waiting for spring. He had argued with a colleague over this theory, and he relishes the fact that he triumphed over all those who had opposed his work.
Linnaeus sees in his mind a group of men on the left of the fire. He thinks they are the students he has previously thought of, but there is another man there as well, whose name was Carl Thunberg. Thunberg had traveled to Japan, where he learned about Japanese flora on the island of Deshima. Thunberg was the pupil who kept in touch with Linnaeus most regularly, sending letters and herbarium specimens home and scrupulously following Linnaeus's methods.
Linnaeus listens as the men standing around him relate some of their stories. Thunberg describes the Japanese people and their gardens; Hasselquist tells him of Palestine; Lofling describes the tropics, and Forskal describes Alexandria. Falck and Kahler also make remarks. Linnaeus silently conjures up some memories of his own.
Sophia tells him that they must leave now. Linnaeus sees his apostles holding leaves, twigs, and blossoms, all named by them on his advice. They are excitedly exchanging them among themselves. But he notices that Sophia and the English pupil do not notice the men. They are helping Pehr, the coachman, push the sleigh back outside, where a light rain is turning the snow to slush. Pehr douses the fire. The group of pupils looks displeased, and Linnaeus sees them holding the plants he had named for them.
Two sleighs make their way home from the estate. The first is Sophia's borrowed sleigh. In the second, the English pupil joins Linnaeus. In Linnaeus's mind's eye, he sees a third sleigh following them, containing the apostles. Linnaeus looks up at Rotheram and tries to express his grief over those whom death has taken from him, and the anxiety and care that are his present lot. Rotheram tells him to rest; they will be home soon.
Pehr Artedi was a friend of Linnaeus's youth who became known for his study of fishes. He drowned in a canal in Amsterdam after a night of drinking. Linnaeus edited his book about fish.
Falck was a Linnaeus apostle. Linnaeus thinks he sees him standing by the fire. Named in the story only by his last name, the historical person was Johann Pehr Falck (1732–1774). Falck traveled to St. Petersburg, Turkistan, and Mongolia. In Kazan, according to Linnaeus's memory, he was lonely and sad and shot himself.
Pehr Forskal (1732–1763) was a Linnaeus apostle who traveled to Alexandria, where, Linnaeus recalls, he concealed himself from marauding Bedouins by dressing as a peasant. Forskal made a collection of new plants in Cairo and traveled to Arabia, where he died of plague. Historically, he is known for being the first man to describe the plant and animal life of the Red Sea. His travel diary has been frequently republished. Linnaeus thinks he sees him standing by the fire at Hammarby.
Fredrik Hasselquist (1722–1752) was one of Linnaeus's apostles. Linnaeus remembers him as modest and poor. Hasselquist traveled widely throughout the Middle East, keeping a precise diary that Linnaeus edited. Hasselquist died in a village near Smyrna, Turkey, when he was thirty. Hasselquist's main interest was in learning about biblical plants and animals. Linnaeus thinks he sees Hasselquist standing by the fire at Hammarby and talking with some of the other apostles.
Martin Kahler was a Linnaeus apostle. Linnaeus recalls how Kahler returned from his travels with nothing, his health broken by shipwreck, fever, and poverty. Pirates stole the chest containing his collections.
Pehr Kalm was a Linnaeus apostle. All that Linnaeus remembers of him was that he crossed the Great Lakes and walked into Canada. As a matter of historical fact, Kalm (1716–1779) traveled to North America in 1748. His work included a description of the now extinct passenger pigeon.
Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778) is the renowned eighteenth-century Swedish botanist. In the story, he is seventy years old and in very poor health, the result of a series of strokes. He is partially paralyzed and can hardly speak, sometimes only able to produce a syllable at a time. His memory is also failing him, and he cannot even be sure that the woman who comes to the house is his own daughter Sophia. He passes the time by reflecting on his achievements and those of his followers, whom he calls his "apostles." He recalls when he was a vigorous man of twenty-five, he explored "Lappland" and was stunned by the beauty of the natural world. He is proud of the fame and honor his work brought him and that he managed to fend off all the attacks that were made on his work. He is also proud of the work of his apostles, but he is conscious that many of them died as a result of the travels that he inspired them to take, and this fact appears to weigh on his mind. He weeps as he recalls them, since almost all of them are dead. But in his wandering mind, he recreates some of them in his imagination, even believing that they are grouped together near the fire in the room in which he is sitting. Linnaeus does not appear to be closely attached to his family, except perhaps for Sophia; he is a man who chose to focus his life on his work rather than his family.
Sara Lisa Linnaeus
Sara Lisa is Linnaeus's wife. Linnaeus remembers how she would complain that there was not enough money to provide for their children. He thinks of her as a practical woman; she also appears to have a bad temper. Pehr fears that she will be angry, and ready to blame him, for the fact that Linnaeus has gone to Hammarby without anyone's knowledge. Linnaeus also thinks that his wife criticizes his every word. He recalls an incident in Sophia's childhood, when she dropped a tray full of dishes and he bought a new set to spare the child her mother's wrath.
Sophia is the youngest of Linnaeus's three daughters. He thinks of her as unlike the others, and she is his favorite, with her "fine straight nose, her beautiful eyes." He remembers how when she was small he would take her to his lectures, and she would stand between his knees and listen. Sophia arrives at Hammarby with a young man who is probably her husband or fiancé, and they escort Linnaeus home.
Pehr Lofling (1729–1756) was a Linnaeus apostle. Linnaeus recalls Lofling taking dictation from him when he was crippled by gout. Lofling made a name for himself in Spain where he moved in 1751. He then traveled to Venezuela, South America, and from that location, he wrote letters and sent bird specimens to Linnaeus. He died in Venezuela of fever.
Pehr Osbeck was a Linnaeus apostle who went to China and returned with a huge collection of new plants.
Pehr is the coachman who drives Linnaeus in the sleigh to Hammarby. He has a wife and family to support and is worried that he will get into trouble with his employers for taking the sleigh beyond city limits. He is a quiet man who takes great care to look after Linnaeus as well as he can.
Daniel Rolander was one of Linnaeus's apostles. He came back from Surinam with only a pot of Indian fig covered with cochineal insects, which his gardener mistakenly washed away. Rolander had lost his mind in Surinam. He thought the insects were pearls. When Linnaeus pointed out his error, Rolander was angry and left for Denmark, where Linnaeus believes he lives on charity.
Rotheram was Linnaeus's English pupil. Linnaeus thinks the man who arrives with Sophia at Hammarby is Rotheram, although this is probably a delusion of his failing mind. Linnaeus recalls how Rotheram fell ill several years ago, and Sophia nursed him. Rotheram was close to the whole family. Historically, although it is not given in the story, Rotheram was Dr. John Rotheram (1750–1804), an English naturalist. Rotheram was one of only two people present at the death of Linnaeus in 1778. (The other was Samuel Christoffer Duse, Sophia's husband.)
Christopher Ternström was one of Linnaeus's apostles. Linnaeus recalls him as a passionate botanist. Ternström sailed to the East Indies in search of a tea plant and some living goldfish. He died of a tropical fever on an island off Cambodia. Linnaeus believes that he sees Ternström as one of a group of men standing by the fire at Hammarby. Although the story does not state it, Ternström (1711–1746) was the first of Linnaeus's apostles.
Carl Thunberg was one of Linnaeus's apostles. Thunberg had traveled to Japan and was passionate about learning all he could about Japanese flora. He spread knowledge of Linnaeus's methods amongst the Japanese. Linnaeus remembers that Thunberg introduced into Japan the treatment of syphilis by quicksilver. Linnaeus thinks he sees him standing by the fire and talking with other apostles.
Age and Youth, Present and Past
There are a series of contrasts in the story between age and youth, present and past, death and life. Linnaeus is bitterly and painfully aware of these two sets of opposing realities, and he attempts to bridge the gap between them. The contrasts bring out the irony of Linnaeus's present condition. The aged, decrepit man was once famous for his prodigious memory, and his life's work consisted of naming and classifying things in the natural world. Now his mind is so diminished that he can barely recognize his own daughter and is confused about the identity of her companion. At the height of his powers, Linnaeus was like the Biblical Adam, who gave names to all the animals (Genesis 2:19). To name something is a sign of knowledge and power and is associated also with memory: "Nomenclature is a mnemonic art"; that is to say, it assists the memory. Conversely, to forget and to no longer be able to name things accurately, is a sign of the loss of power and the inability to create order in one's environment.
A sharp contrast is drawn between Linnaeus's aged condition now and the memory of his youthful vigor, when, "wildly energetic," he explored the natural beauty of Lappland. In those long-gone days, "with the whole world waiting to be named, he'd believed that he and everyone he loved would live forever." The same contrast of age and youth is drawn regarding his apostles, whom he remembers in the fullness of their young manhood, when they went boldly off to explore the distant corners of the globe. The contrast is between the vividness of life in all its exoticism and diversity—the sheer range of the unusual experiences lived by the apostles—and the weak flame that life has become in the old man.
Topics for Further Study
- Collect four or more flowers or plants, identify them, and research how and why they acquired their names. Make a class presentation in which you show the plants, identifying them according to Linnaeus's method and discussing your findings.
- Read Barrett's story "Rare Bird," in Ship Fever and Other Stories, which centers on Linnaeus's theory that swallows hibernate under water. How does this story complement "The English Pupil"? What more does it tell the reader about Linnaeus, the scientific method, and the role of women in science? Make a class presentation in which you summarize the story and explain its relevance to "The English Pupil" and the history of science.
- Research the current debate between the theories of evolution and creationism. What are the main arguments on each side? On which side of the debate do you think Linnaeus would stand? Should creation science and evolution both be taught in public schools? Form a team with two or more students and debate the issue.
- What is science? What is the scientific method? How does the story illustrate the scientific method? Is science the most useful and reliable way of gaining knowledge? Research two major scientific discoveries that have changed our understanding of the world in which we live or which have greatly benefited human life. Write an essay in which you describe your findings.
Almost all the apostles are dead, though, a fact that Linnaeus dwells on repeatedly. Contrary to his youthful belief, nothing lives forever, and death is everywhere recalled in this story, not only of humans but also of some of Linnaeus's beloved animals. Pompey the dog, lovingly recalled, is dead. His monkey, Grinn, a present from the queen, is dead, as is Sjup, the raccoon, and the parrot who sat on his shoulder at meals and the weasel who wore a bell on his neck and hunted rats. Linnaeus sits in his kitchen "surrounded by the dead." All the dear departed are recalled with a sharpness of detail that eludes Linnaeus in the present. It is as if only the past is real for him now. Because so much has been lost, the present somehow has to be transformed into the past or the past made to live again, to ease his pain. This is why he creates in his imagination a group of the apostles, as they were in life, standing around the fire, and also why his mind leaves his body and seems to become the apostles themselves and re-travel their route: one moment he is Ternström, the next he is Hasselquist. This mind travel is for him a release from the burden of being the great Linnaeus, famous and learned but now half-paralyzed and with his mind fading away. These friendships with his young apostles have meant so much to Linnaeus over the course of his life. The apostles were like extensions of himself, "his own organs: extra eyes and hands and feet." This connection suggests an underlying theme of friendship and loyalty in pursuit of mutual goals; the ideal relationship between a teacher and his students that survives in spite of mental incapacity and even death.
Imagery of the Natural World
The Linnaeus of the story has loved the natural world so much that it has embedded itself in his thinking and the way he uses language. When he expresses his thoughts to himself or when the narrator explains his state of mind, it is through metaphors and similes drawn from the natural world. The erosion of his memory, for example, is conveyed by a metaphor of a gradually expanding dark lake: "His mind, which had once seemed to hold the whole world, had been occupied by a great dark lake that spread farther every day and around which he tiptoed gingerly." Similarly, the facts that were once at his command now "darted like minnows across the water and could only be captured by cunning and indirection."
Because he can no longer recognize people or be fully aware of what is going on around him, Linnaeus has a habit of translating his present experience into images of nature that remain clear to him. The man who accompanies Sophia, for example, bends down to address him "like the moon falling from the sky," and when the man—Rotheram or whoever he is—introduces himself, his voice "is like the wind moving over the Lappland hills."
In a story that focuses so much on death and loss, some of the images convey continuity in nature; the individual may die, but the species lives on, and through their discoveries, the "apostles" continue to live, also. For example, Pehr Forskal dies of plague, but months later, Linnaeus receives a letter from him containing a stalk and a flower from a tree Linnaeus has always wanted to see, "the evergreen from which the Balm of Gilead was obtained." The image suggests resurrection and a kind of immortality for the apostle who sacrificed his life in the pursuit of knowledge. This point is also conveyed by the fact that Linnaeus sees in his mind's eye the apostles holding the plants that he had named for them, including "Artedia" (for Pehr Artedi) and "Osbeckia," for Pehr Osbeck.
Linnaeus's vision of the apostles standing by the fire indicates that they still live in his mind, and he sees them holding "leaves and twigs and scraps of blossoms, all new and named by them with their teacher's advice." Once again, these images drawn from nature suggest rebirth and new life, and they also affirm the eternal bond between teacher and student.
The Life and Work of Carl Linnaeus
Carl Linnaeus was born in 1707 in Sweden. His father was a Lutheran minister. Even as a child, Linnaeus was interested in botany. At the age of five, he looked after his own garden. As a young man, he studied medicine and natural history at the University of Lund and University of Uppsala, graduating with a degree in medicine from the latter. In 1730, he was appointed lecturer in botany at the University of Uppsala, and two years later he embarked alone on his journey to Lappland in northern Sweden, the natural history of which was almost unknown at the time. This is the trip referred to in "The English Pupil" and as a result of his published findings, Linnaeus became well known in Sweden. According to Arvid HJ. Uggla, Linnaeus's diary of his Lappland adventure "is one of the treasures of Swedish literature. It shows his brilliant power of quick perception and intuitive description of what he saw."
Linnaeus's reputation was further established by the publication, with the financial help of the botanist Jan Fredrik Gronovius, of his Systema Naturae in 1735, in which he detailed the system he had developed for the classification of plant species. The system was based on the number and arrangement of the plant's reproductive organs; a plant's class was determined by its stamens (male organs), and its order by its pistils (female organs). This system made it easy for newly discovered plants to be placed in a certain category, and it quickly became immensely influential, even though the book amounted to only seven pages in extra large folio. Two years later, in 1737, Linnaeus published his Genera Plantarum, which described all the known species of plants.
In 1736, Linnaeus visited England, where he met the leading botanists of the day; he also traveled to Holland and then to Paris. As a result of his travels, he became a well-known figure in European scientific circles. Returning to Sweden in 1738, he practiced medicine with considerable success. In 1739, he was elected the first president of the newly established Academy of Science in Stockholm. In that year also, he married Sara Lisa Moraea, the daughter of a distinguished doctor.
Linnaeus was awarded a professorship at the University of Uppsala, Sweden's most prestigious university, in 1741. His students found him an inspiring teacher and traveled the world researching natural history, bringing back interesting plant specimens to Sweden and promoting Linnaeus's methods of classification internationally. Linnaeus referred to them as his "apostles," and many of them were among the leading scientists of the eighteenth century.
Compare & Contrast
- Eighteenth century: This is a time of political turmoil for Sweden. In 1718, following the death of King Charles XII and defeat in battle, Sweden is forced to give up almost all its overseas possessions. Up to that point, it had been a formidable military power. Sweden then establishes a parliamentary government and drastically reduces the power of the monarch. This period, from 1718 to 1772, is known as the age of liberty. Natural science, culture, and the Swedish economy flourish in the longest period of peace Sweden has known since the second half of the sixteenth century.
Today: Sweden is a liberal parliamentary democracy that has created a high standard of living for its citizens by adopting a mixed system of high-tech capitalism and extensive welfare benefits. Timber, hydropower, and iron ore are the most important elements in the economy, which depends heavily on foreign trade.
- Eighteenth century: Beginning in 1741, Linnaeus is responsible for the Uppsala University Botanical Garden. Under Linnaeus's influence, the garden houses more varieties of plants than any garden in the world. Linnaeus uses the garden for his scientific observations and for teaching his students.
Today: The Linnaeus' Garden at Uppsala is a reconstruction of Uppsala University Botanical Garden as it was during Linnaeus's days. It contains approximately 1,300 species of plants and is arranged according to Linnaeus's own plan that reflects his sexual system of classification. The marsh pond contains the flower named after Linnaeus, Linnaea borealis.
- Eighteenth century: During this period, known as the Age of Enlightenment because of the dominant belief in the power of reason to improve the lot of humanity, naturalists believe that the world was created by God and is under His beneficent supervision. Although Linnaeus accepts that new species of plants have appeared as a result of hybridization, he believes that all species were potentially present from the beginning, in the Garden of Eden.
Today: The theories of evolution and natural selection put forward by Charles Darwin in the nineteenth century remain profoundly influential for modern naturalists. Naturalists still continue Linnaeus's practice of classification of species, and much of his system remains in use, but the emphasis is on the evolutionary rather than fixed relationships between different groups of organisms.
Linnaeus remained a teacher for the rest of his life, until ill-health prevented him. He also continued to publish important new works. In 1753, he published Species Plantarum, a description of the six thousand species of plants then known. Each species is named as simply as possible, with one word in addition to the generic name. Linnaeus regarded Species Plantarum as his greatest achievement.
In 1758, Linnaeus bought a small one-storey house at Hammarby, outside Uppsala. He liked to spend as much time as he could there, away from the bustle of Uppsala. He built a larger building at Hammarby for the sake of his children's future, which was completed in 1762.
In 1761, Linnaeus was granted a Swedish patent of nobility, and from then on, he was known as Carl von Linné. During his later years, he suffered from ill health and became increasingly pessimistic. His memory began to fail when he was sixty. In 1774, he had a series of strokes, and he died in 1778. His son Carl (the lazy one, according to "The English Pupil") succeeded to his professorship at Uppsala but had little of his father's ability.
Reviewers were generous in their praise of Barrett's collection of eight short stories, Ship Fever and Other Stories (1996), in which "The English Pupil" appeared. Donna Seaman in Booklist comments that Barrett "has used science as a conduit to understanding the human psyche…. [Her] stories are precise and concentrated, containing a truly remarkable wealth of psychology and social commentary." The reviewer for Publishers Weekly makes a similar point: "The quantifiable truths of science intersect with the less easily measured precincts of the heart in these eight seductively stylish tales."
For Thomas Mallon, in the New York Times Book Review, the figure of Linnaeus hovers over all eight stories as a "kind of muse." Mallon points out that in "The English Pupil," Linnaeus "still makes use of 'the thread of Ariadne' that he had strung through nature's species—only now it helps his wavering consciousness keep his daughters straight." (Mallon is referring to the passage in which Linnaeus thinks of the physical characteristics of his daughters in order to discover that the young woman visiting him is Sophia, who is unlike the others and "seemed to belong to another genus entirely.")
Lisa Schwarzbaum, who reviewed Ship Fever and Other Stories for Entertainment Weekly after it was announced that the book had won the National Book Award, also thought that Linnaeus is presented "as a kind of magnetic north to whom all scientists bend." She offers the opinion that each of the stories "is intricate and beautifully chiseled; taken together, the tales flow one to the other, linked by the author's fascination with and tender appreciation of science and scientists."
Her appreciation was shared by the reviewer for the New Yorker, for whom "The title novella is devastating: as with every story here, you enter right into it, and cannot entirely leave it behind."
Aubrey holds a Ph.D. in English and has published many articles on twentieth-century literature. In this essay, Aubrey discusses the character of Linnaeus and the challenges he faced, as revealed in the story and historical sources, as well as his relations with his "apostles."
The writer of any short story about a historical personage is faced with the challenge of deciding at what point in the person's life the story is to take place. Will it be at the time of his or her greatest achievements, for example, or at a time of great controversy or perhaps when the person is old and is looking back at his or her achievements? Andrea Barrett chose the last of these options. Carl Linnaeus died in January 1778, only one month after the time in which the story takes place. Choosing to set the story during that dark time in his life, when Linnaeus was incapacitated by a series of strokes, supplied Barrett with the contrasts and ironies between former greatness and present impotence that make "The English Pupil" effective. Barrett also packs a great deal of historical detail into her thirteen-page story. As perhaps befits a writer on science and scientists, the facts, incidents, and ideas that the author has Linnaeus recall in the story are historically accurate, and Barrett must have done much research in order to pick out some of the most colorful incidents in his life. Just to give one example, Linnaeus and the hundreds of followers whom he led on walks through the Uppsala countryside really were accompanied by musicians as they returned triumphantly to town. Eventually, as Patricia Fara reports in Sex, Botany, and Empire: The Story of Carl Linnaeus and Joseph Banks, the rector of the University of Uppsala banned students from participating in these mass excursions because he thought it encouraged them to neglect their duties.
In packing her story so densely, Barrett drops a number of clues to the kind of man Linnaeus was and the challenges he faced. His description of nature as "an alphabet written in God's hand," and the motto inscribed over his bedroom door, "Live blamelessly; God is present," suggest a man imbued with a deeply religious spirit. This was indeed the case. As the son of a Lutheran country pastor, Linnaeus took his religion seriously, and his beliefs were in keeping with the spirit of the eighteenth century. He believed that the natural world was created by God and that every creature in the mineral, vegetable, and animal kingdoms had its fixed place in the chain of being, from the simplest of organisms up to the highest expression of life, the human being. Linnaeus had a literal belief in the Biblical account of creation in Genesis and thought that the Garden of Eden had been a small island at the equator on which all the world's plant species had been present. In the botanical gardens that he cultivated at Uppsala, his aim was to recreate the order and plenitude of that original divine garden, a paradise on Earth. Linnaeus, it must be remembered, lived a hundred years before Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species (1859), which put forth Darwin's theory of the origin and evolution of species through natural selection, which would bring into question the notion of a stable, fixed natural order created by a beneficent God.
Given the religious framework of Linnaeus's beliefs, his skill as a classifier, and his choice of profession, it is perhaps not surprising that he thought of himself, as Heinz Goerke points out in his biography of the naturalist, as a "second Adam," a man charged by God with the naming of the three kingdoms of nature and classifying each one according to its natural hierarchy. Perhaps unsurprising also is the fact that although Linnaeus believed in the omnipotence of God and offered up the praise of a humble worshipper, there was more than a trace of arrogance in his convictions about his own role in the divine plan. He believed he had been specially appointed by God to fulfill a mission. Goerke states:
In no other naturalist of the period does the conviction of being the Lord's elect, predestined of God, find such clear expression. For this reason, he felt sure that none of his colleagues could equal him in science, let alone excel him; to him only this task had been given.
As the story makes clear, Linnaeus had his enemies, those who attacked his work, and perhaps it was the arrogance of the man, his "autocratic procedure in the matter of nomenclature," as Goerke puts it, that irked his opponents as much as what they claimed was the unnatural and arbitrary manner of his sexual system of plant classification. A picture emerges in "The English Pupil" of a man proud of his success and his fame—his pride is obvious in his story of how the king of England built a garden called Kew and named each plant according to Linnaeus's system—and also ready to do battle with his opponents. Recalling the disagreement he had had with an English naturalist over his theory that swallows wintered beneath the lakes, Linnaeus remembers, "But always there had been people … who criticized his every word. He had fought off all of them. The Queen had ennobled him: he was Carl von Linné now."
Most of Linnaeus's opponents were foreigners; in Sweden, he was an honored man and had no serious rivals. Although he apparently dreaded public quarrels, Linnaeus knew how to take care of himself in these intellectual conflicts, and at times, he could not only be unreasonable but also vindictive and sly. When one contemporary, a man named Johan Georg Siegesbeck, from St. Petersburg, criticized his system of naming plants, Linnaeus retaliated by naming a particularly unpleasant weed, Sigesbeckia. When Lorenz Heister, a professor of medicine and botany, attacked Linnaeus's system in letters and articles, Linnaeus gradually removed his name from the later editions of his botanical works.
But it is with Linnaeus's pupils, and his relationship with them, that the story is principally concerned. Historically, it was in 1750 that Linnaeus first described the students he dispatched to distant parts of the world as his "apostles." The term indicated that he saw their work as a missionary one. They were to take direction from him, follow his system, and make his name famous as they collected and documented the natural world as they encountered it. Scholars of Linnaeus consider the work of his apostles, since he directly inspired them all, to be part of his life's achievement.
What Do I Read Next?
- Like Barrett's story, Gjertrud Schnackenberg's poem "Darwin in 1881," which can be found in her Supernatural Love: Poems 1976–1992 (2000), examines the mind of a great scientist as his life draws to a close. Also like the story, the poem interweaves past and present as Darwin looks back on his life. He does not view it with any sense of accomplishment.
- Barrett's novel Voyage of the Narwhal (1998) begins in May 1855, when the Narwhal sails from Philadelphia to the Arctic in search of a long-lost expedition. On board is the naturalist Erasmus Darwin Wells, who sees this voyage as a chance to make his reputation. The voyage does not go according to plan, and by September, the ship is ice-locked and will have to see out the winter in the Arctic. As the weather worsens, morale sinks. The well-researched story has many twists and turns and is full of memorable characters.
- Dr. Copernicus (reprint, 1993), by John Banville, is a historical novel based on the life of the astronomer Nicolas Copernicus (1473–1543), who asserted that the Earth is not the center of the universe. The novel explores the effect this major discovery, which permanently altered the way humans viewed God, the world, and themselves, had on Copernicus and the Catholic Church.
- QED: A Play (2002), by Peter Parnell, is an exploration of the life of twentieth-century physicist Richard Feynman. Like "The English Pupil" and "Darwin in 1881," the play is set near the end of its subject's life, when Feynman has just realized that he has terminal cancer. The play, which was a hit on Broadway, captures Feynman's lively personality and explores the ideas that won him the Nobel Prize in physics.
- The Museum of Paleontology at the University of California, Berkeley, maintains a webpage at http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/history/linnaeus.html that includes a biography of Linnaeus, an explanation of his scientific thought, and many links to other relevant websites, including sites on which Linnaeus's botanical garden and his manor home and garden at Hammarby (the setting for "The English Pupil") can be viewed.
There were seventeen Linnaeus apostles (some sources say the number was nineteen), and they traveled to all the continents. Their destinations included Arabia, China, Southeast Asia, Japan, Australia, the Arctic, and North and South America. There was plenty of work to do, since in the mid-eighteenth century, only one tenth of the plants and animals in the world were known.
Linnaeus benefited greatly from the work of his apostles. Pehr Kalm, for example, in his work in North America, especially Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and Canada, discovered many new plants and informed Linnaeus of his work, greatly increasing Linnaeus's knowledge. Linnaeus's book, Species Planatarum (1753), listed more than seven hundred North American species, ninety of them discovered by Kalm.
Many of these adventurous young naturalists, as "The English Pupil" makes clear, met early deaths as a result of their brave exploration of unknown lands. Some of them regretted their choice of work, and as Goerke notes, Fredrik Hasselquist reportedly cursed his teacher for starting him out on such a hazardous career. Linnaeus was also, according to Goerke, reproached by the wife of Christopher Ternström, who claimed that Linnaeus had lured her husband away from her and made her a widow.
The poignancy of the story lies in Linnaeus's sorrow and possible feelings of guilt over the fate of so many of his apostles. Has he lived blamelessly, as the inscription above his door commands him to? Only he knows. Certainly, he knows how much he owes to the apostles. At Uppsala, he remembers, his pupils would sit and listen to him lecture about the specimens they had discovered and brought home. Linnaeus may be known and revered for his vast knowledge of "Fossils, crystals, the causes of leprosy and intermittent fever," as well as exotic creatures and plants such as the mud iguana of Carolina and Siberian buckwheat and bearberries, but "all these things he had known about because of his pupils' travels."
From the evidence of the story, the bond between master and disciple was a deep one. Linnaeus still believes that he and the disciple Thunberg (whom he imagines is in the room with him) share an intimacy that only they can understand. (They exchange a secret signal, or so Linnaeus thinks.) The naturalist seems to have thought of many of the apostles as his own family. When he thinks of the death of his two-year-old son, Johannes, he places it by remembering the deaths of Hasselquist and Lofling that took place immediately before and after.
It is this awareness of loss, rather than the triumph of his many accomplishments, that weighs most heavily upon Linnaeus at the end of the story. Indeed, his final words, which are, with the exception of one word uttered earlier, the only words of his that appear in quotation marks in the entire story, are full of despair: "The death of many whom I have induced to travel has turned my hair gray, and what have I gained? A few dried plants, accompanied by great anxiety, unrest, and care."
But the final note is a compassionate and moving one. Rotheram, the English pupil, says to the old man, "Rest your head on my arm. We will be home before you know it." The image of the old master resting his head on the arm of the disciple is an affirmation of the bond of affection between Linnaeus and all the apostles, living and dead. It also suggests the continuity of the scientific enterprise, the transmission of knowledge from one generation to the next. Individuals may die, but the quest for knowledge and understanding of the natural world goes on.
Source: Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on "The English Pupil," in Short Stories for Students, Thomson Gale, 2007.
Contemporary Authors Online
In the following essay, the critic gives an overview of Andrea Barrett's work.
Andrea Barrett is an acclaimed writer. "She crafts powerfully vivid works of fiction," lauded Samuel Baker's Publishers Weekly profile of Barrett. Lucid Stars, her first novel, spans more than twenty years in detailing the dissolution of an American family. The novel's heroine, Penny Webb, falls in love with, and is soon married to, carefree skier Benjamin Day. Almost immediately, Penny finds herself pregnant and unhappy, for Benjamin has already begun forsaking her for other women. Penny realizes a measure of consolation by attending to her twin children and indulging her interest in the stars. Benjamin eventually leaves Penny for a younger woman: He remarries, fathers a third child, and then leaves his second wife for a still younger woman. Penny, meanwhile, comes to perceive the various family members—herself, the twins, her ex-husband, his ex-wife and child, and his third wife—as similar to the shifting heavenly bodies in space. James Marcus, writing in the New York Times Book Review, called Lucid Stars "a spacious and sympathetic debut."
Secret Harmonies, Barrett's next novel, is also about family ties. Here an engaging young woman, Reba Dwyer, wallows in rural Massachusetts with her meek, introspective brother, Hank, and her handicapped sister, Tonia. After a period of rebellion, Reba parts from her family and enters a conservatory. While there, she fails to ingratiate herself with her ostensibly more sophisticated fellow students and, when her father suddenly abandons the family, Reba returns home. She eventually enters into a dreary marriage with a longtime friend, whom she soon begins compromising with a series of unfulfilling sexual flings. Faced with further unhappiness, Reba finally begins to understand the necessity of coming to terms with herself and the often elusive nature of contentment. A reviewer in Publishers Weekly called Secret Harmonies "[p]oignant and atmospheric," and praised Barrett's "[e]legant, accessible writing."
In her 1991 novel, The Middle Kingdom, Barrett once again writes about a character overcoming unhappiness to gain a measure of understanding about self-identity and life. Overweight, thirty-year-old Grace Hoffmeier accompanies her estranged husband to Beijing and then falls ill with pneumonia. She lies in a Chinese hospital and feverishly recalls her college days, her earlier marriage, and her romance with her husband, who has continued touring Beijing with a new lover while Grace recovers from her illness. After regaining her health, Grace also finds a lover and, moreover, a job in Beijing. In addition, she learns to focus on the present, without regrets for the past or anxieties about the future. "Ms. Barrett is a solid writer, and The Middle Kingdom is a thoughtfully plotted book," judged Cheri Fein in the New York Times Book Review. "An interesting story of personal growth," commented Library Journal contributor Kimberly G Allen.
In 1993 Barrett published The Forms of Water, a multi-generation tale about a family living in upstate New York. The aging patriarch, Brendon Auberon, convinces his nephew, Henry, to steal a nursing-home vehicle and conduct him to the abbey where he had once lived as a monk. The journey of Brendon and Henry alarms other family members, who unite in an attempt to apprehend the old man and return him to his nursing home. During the ensuing action, various characters recall earlier, often unhappy events, many of which contributed to the dissolution of the extended family. A Belles Lettres reviewer described The Forms of Water as a "well-structured novel" and complained only about the extended summary that concludes the novel after the actual chase has ended. The reviewer added, however, that this ending, which was decried as "tedious," constituted "a small flaw in an otherwise satisfying novel." A contributor to Publishers Weekly praised the novel, noting that "Barrett writes with keen, finely tuned sensibilities."
Barrett followed The Forms of Water with Ship Fever, and Other Stories, her first collection of short stories. Like her novels, many of the stories in Ship Fever deal with family ties. "The Marburg Sisters," for example, is the tale of twin sisters, one of whom becomes a scientist while the other enters the drug culture. However, other stories are less characteristic of Barrett's novels. In "The Behavior of the Hawkweeds," for example, a woman courts a student by relating the story of botanist Gregor Mendel, who vainly renounced decades of research to gain acceptance from fellow scientists. And in "Rare Bird," which is set in the eighteenth century, a female ornithologist compromises her own values while attempting to disprove the contentions of a fellow scientist. The title tale likewise occurs in the past. Here a doctor uncovers a typhus epidemic among immigrants arriving in Canada from Ireland, a land then in chaos due to the horrific potato famine of the mid-nineteenth century. Nation reviewer Molly E. Rauch noted "the ambitious range" of Ship Fever, and Thomas Mallon wrote in the New York Times Book Review that the collection's "overall effect is quietly dazzling."
Ship Fever "opened up diverse new audiences for Barrett," recognized Baker, who reported: "In 1996, Barrett surprised the published world by winning the National Book Award for fiction, in a decision that startled many industry insiders. Since then, the powerful volume that garnered the prize [Ship Fever] … has won additional acclaim." It was, perhaps, because of Ship Fever's general focus that many were surprised it won the prestigious award. As Katherine Livingston indicated in Science, "Books about science are rarely considered for literary awards." "The lit-crowd chorus who wish their favorite books were chosen instead have no cause for complaint," commented Entertainment Weekly contributor Lisa Schwarzbaum, calling Ship Fever an "admirable winner." Describing Barrett's collection of short fiction, Schwarzbaum praised: "Each [story] is intricate and beautifully chiseled; taken together, the tales flow one to the other, linked by the author's fascination with and tender appreciation of science and scientists."
Barrett's literary focus on science is not surprising, given her course of studies in college. Barrett intended to work in the field of science; she earned a degree in biology and did graduate studies in zoology. It was only while doing writer papers during her second stint of graduate studies, this time in medieval and Reformation theological history, that she began thinking of writing as a career.
In 1997 Barrett made use of a Guggenheim foundation grant to do research for her next project. Using what she experienced on a trip to Baffin Island, Barrett created The Voyage of the Narwhal—"a dynamic and insightful historical novel" that Booklist's Donna Seaman believes "is even more prizeworthy" than Ship Fever. "[The Voyage of the Narwhal] resembles many of the stories in Ship Fever in its 19th-century setting and in its choice of a scientist as its protagonist. But by unfurling a larger canvas with The Narwhal, Barrett extends into new territory her uncanny ability to make stories of science past illuminate today's world," assessed Baker, who summarized the novel: "The Narwhal imagines the trails of botanist Erasmus Darwin Wells, who signs on to a polar expedition led by his sister's dashing but dangerously immature suitor. The novel's drama eventually encompasses not only how they search for a previous, lost team of explorers, but also how they navigate the sea of publicity when they return to their native Philadelphia."
Barrett did not intend her "epic of 19th-century polar exploration" to be an adventure story, noted Baker. As she related to Baker: "What I was after was much more ruminative. In fact, although the research I was drawing from is full of adventure, I think this book is much less full of adventure. Its people are painters and writers, they're thinking and mulling, they're seeing, they're looking. They're not going out and slashing polar bears to death."
Though The Voyage of the Narwhal was very warmly received, some critics, including a Publishers Weekly reviewer, have found fault with the slow pace of the story. John Skow's Time assessment refers to it as a "powerful, brooding novel … that moves like an advancing ice age." Rating The Voyage of the Narwhal as an "A-," Megan Harlan judged in Entertainment Weekly: "Despite the disappointingly pat finale, Barrett … masterfully navigates the waters of envy and egotism." Seaman used the descriptors "authoritative," "imaginative," "gripping," and "masterful" when praising the story. The Publishers Weekly reviewer also gave a very complimentary review, stating: "Barrett delivers a stunning novel in which a meticulous grasp of historical and natural detail, insight into character and pulse-pounding action are integrated into a dramatic adventure story with deep moral resonance."
Source: Contemporary Authors Online, "Andrea Barrett," in Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2003.
Andrea Barrett and Peter Kurth
In the following interview, Barrett discusses her success, her work, the process of writing, and the themes of science and history that are central to her writing.
When Andrea Barrett won the National Book Award in 1996 for Ship Fever and Other Stories, she remembered to bring the notes for her acceptance speech to the awards ceremony at the Waldorf-Astoria but forgot her glasses, stepping on emcee Calvin Trillin's foot as she walked on the stage and thinking she might vomit when she got there. "I've never been to a black-tie thing in my life," Barrett remarked later. "I didn't even go to my prom." It was a year of intense controversy for the award and its judges, who had ignored what seemed to be the hands-down favorite that season, David Foster Wallace's "Infinite Jest," in favor of Barrett's calm, lucid, supremely intelligent fictions on the theme of science and the scientific mind. After years of writing in virtual obscurity, with four novels already behind her, Barrett suddenly found herself at the center of the literary map.
Two years later, with the publication of The Voyage of the Narwhal, Barrett has confirmed the wisdom of the judges' decision and solidified her position as one of the most eloquent and thoughtful storytellers working today. Her tale of a 19th-century Arctic expedition and its aftermath, solidly based in historical and scientific research, has won rave reviews and, for Barrett, spectacular sales, at a time when serious fiction is thought to remain outside the realm of mass appeal. Barrett spoke to Salon from her home in Rochester, N.Y., where she lives with a dog, three cats and her husband, biologist Barry Goldstein.
[Peter Kurth:] Let's start with literary fame. You've had two years of it since you won the National Book Award for Ship Fever. How has success changed your life?
[Andrea Barrett:] Well, the phone rings a lot more, and people are asking me to do more things. And my books are more available. That's surprising and wonderful. But it hasn't really changed things in the sense that I'm still at home writing most of the time, which is where I'm meant to be. I live in the same city. I'm married to the same guy. I've tried not to let it change things in the larger sense because I'm really happy at home writing. So that's what I'm tying to do.
Did the award take you by surprise?
It could not have taken me more by surprise. I mean, just the nomination. I don't think it's possible to be more startled on this earth than I was.
You've just finished a book tour for The Voyage of the Narwhal. Have you found that audiences and interviewers are interested in more than just your books when they talk to you? That they want to find out what makes a literary lioness tick?
Yes, that was something I didn't really know about before I started doing this. There were two things I didn't expect. One was the interest in me as a person. There's actually nothing interesting about me except what I write. And the other is that people have an interest I didn't expect in the subject matter of The Voyage of the Narwhal, as distinct from the book itself. People are just really curious about Arctic history and the Franklin expedition and the mid-19th century. So that has been interesting and curious, too, because I'm not really an authority on these things. I'm a novelist. I find myself having really fascinating conversations with people about all sorts of aspects of exploration and Arctic history and things like that.
The Voyage of the Narwhal seems an unlikely bestseller in many ways.
I'm not sure it is a bestseller. Or not yet anyway.
It's on the San Francisco bestseller list. My publisher says if you're on any list at all, you can call it a bestseller.
[Laughs] I guess we can call it that, then. But I do agree with you. I'm very startled by its success. I didn't think it would appeal to people in that way, or not that many people. It surprises me. I'm glad—of course I'm glad. It's been an interesting education in a way and so has this whole tour business and talking to the people at readings. I think that in newspapers and things we all talk so much about how nobody's reading anymore and how the quality of writing has gone down and the quality of reading has gone down, blah, blah, blah. I start to believe it after a while. And then I go out and about and I see these people who are into reading, people who are into buying books, and I think, I just have not given people enough credit. Maybe it's still true that if you write what really interests you, other people will be interested in it, too, no matter how seemingly obscure or arcane it is. If you can make a narrative out of it.
Your interest in Arctic history goes back a long time, doesn't it?
Yes, I've been interested in it since I was a little girl. I grew up on Cape Cod. We didn't live right on the water, but I could walk to it and did every day. And that must have got this started in me somewhere. I was always within sniffing range of the ocean and usually within sight of it. I think the landscape you grow up in probably does mark you in ways you don't even understand.
Is it true you were a high school dropout?
Well, it's hard to explain, but I didn't finish high school, that's true. It was the early '70s and you could do things like that. And the fall of my junior year I just started applying to colleges hoping someone would take me. I really didn't want to be in high school anymore, so I left at the end of my junior year and just went right to Union College in Schenectady without a high school diploma.
Were you already writing?
Oh, no, that came late, way after college. I was going to be a biologist. My undergraduate degree is in biology, and I went briefly to graduate school in zoology. And I also went for a little longer but didn't finish in history. I studied medieval and reformation history and I didn't start writing until I was done with both those things.
Did you know where you were headed when you started?
I really didn't know anything, and for various reasons I couldn't go to writing school, so I was just wandering around trying to teach myself, which actually is a traditional way of learning to write. Although not here [in the United States], and not in the last 25 years. But it still works.
It seems to. You had four novels published before Ship Fever.
Uh-huh. Ship Fever was my fifth book.
And do you see them all as part of a piece, or did you vary your form very much?
Well, it got considerably more complicated. I think when other people look at my books they see the first four as related and then these last two as related, and they see a big break in between them. It doesn't feel that way so much to me, even though the earlier ones are contemporary and the latter two are historical. I had always relied on lots of research for the stuff of my characters and their lives. In the earlier books, I wasn't moving them so far back in time, but one of the chief characters in my fourth novel, The Forms of Water, is an 80-year-old ex-monk, which clearly I'm not. He has this long past in China, doing missionary work and living in a contemplative order. So I had to do the same kind of research to build and invent that character as I have had to do in these last couple of books. To me it all seems to have grown naturally, but I'm very aware that it doesn't look like that to other people.
You've been quoted as saying that Ship Fever was a departure for you.
In the sense that it was stories and not a novel, it was a departure. I had written very few stories before. I love short stories, and I had started to teach around the time of my fourth novel and was not only reading more stories but looking at them more intently and watching my students write them. I wanted to learn how to write them, and that's really how that book started. I never had in mind, "Oh, I'm going to make a book of stories about scientists." I just wrote some stories trying to teach myself to do certain
But science and scientists are central both in Ship Fever and The Voyage of the Narwhal. Can you elaborate on that? You've said you're surprised that people are looking at Narwhal as an adventure story. What do you see it as?
I guess I thought of it more as a pure encounter of people with both the landscape and ideas. I was aware that there were adventure elements, but that wasn't was driving the book for me. It was more a question of thinking about the characters and representing, through them, 19th-century ideas of evolution, of species, of how the world works, of what human beings are, whether we're a different species, and letting those ideas work themselves out in the context of the Arctic, the trip up there. That sounds very funny, I guess.
Science itself is an adventure, though.
It is, or at least I perceive it that way. Maybe that's a false and romantic perception on my part, but I just conceive of it that way, in the same way that writing is an adventure. You know, that sense of starting out with a question and the haziest of ideas and just giving yourself over to the exploration and being willing to follow where that leads you and build something from what you find. That does seem to be how science works. I think that's part of why I was so drawn to the Arctic as a field for these ideas to work themselves out in, that sense of exploration. Physical exploration being a really good metaphor for the imaginative exploration of both science and writing. It really resonated with me.
And of course the source material you'd be using from that time was itself highly literary.
Yes, in that miraculous way that almost all 19th-century material is. You know, all those scientists could write. At their worst, they wrote a clear, readable, understandable prose, and at their best it's really glorious. I think Darwin's not a great writer but he's very easy to read, and other people like [Alfred Russell] Wallace are also a good example. They were really splendid writers. From that sense it's very easy material to work with. The language itself is really exciting.
How do you keep the information straight? How do you synthesize this huge mass of historical and scientific material while developing fictional characters and narrative?
Well, that really is how I came to writing fiction. I still have this really clear memory of being in a tiny, tiny bedroom in a rented house in Belchertown, Mass. And I was supposed to be writing a very long paper about the early days of the Franciscan Order, about a schism that had come up in the order. And the sense of excitement of having a room just stacked with Xeroxed copies of articles and books and running, physically running from one to the other in a state of excitement, turning a page here and turning a page there and saying, "Oh, look, how this goes with that, and how these go together." At least for me, that excitement wasn't scholarly. It had to do with making narrative, making story, which all the best historians have always known, but somehow it took another form in me. That is where it came from.
You write very carefully.
Yes, I'm a fussy writer.
Do you do many drafts?
Many drafts. I used to alternate between longhand and typed drafts. I'd write it out in longhand and then keep appending and scribbling and crossing out. And it would get almost unreadable, and then I'd type the draft, and then I'd start scribbling on that. And that would get unreadable and I would write out a draft again because it would help to have it in my hands. I came late to using a computer, but I did use a computer to write both Ship Fever and The Voyage of the Narwhal, and actually I think I probably couldn't have written them without it. I'm sort of reluctant to admit this, but it's true. Not because of the writing process, but because I had to manage so many sources. You know, that sense of needing to leave a trail for myself of where I'm plucking things from, so I can go back later. And if I write, "Oh, they set sail on the Hermaphrodite Brig"—just being able to have a draft where I put parentheses: "Looks like this, has this many masts, learned this from book X, go back and look at the pictures." Just that mechanical ease of computers can make this possible in a way that I think I would have found hard if I could only use pen and paper.
What advice do you have for writers just starting out? Are people always asking you how they can get published?
I don't know what to tell them about getting things published. It's just really different for every person, and things are complicated in publishing right now. I know the thing that helped me the most and that usually helps other people the most is just trying to be patient. And that's the hardest thing that you can do. We all have such a drive to start publishing right away, but for a lot of us it takes a long while to get good at this. Writing isn't rocket science. It's not conversation either. It is an art, and there is a pile of stuff to learn, and it can take a long time to learn and if you can just be patient with yourself and with the time it can take and with your own working habits …
And if everyone around you can also be patient …
That's really hard, too. I was lucky. People were really patient with me for a really long time. It was almost a full decade from when I started writing hard to when I published anything, and, yeah, I think it's hard to get through those years.
Are you still teaching writing?
Well, it's very part time. But I teach in a low-residency MFA program at Warren Wilson College, which is the first and oldest and I think best of these. I usually do one semester a year. I missed two last year, but I'm actually doing it right now, so I go for 10 days at the start of the semester, and we have all these classes and workshops and lectures and we're matched up with students. I work with them through the mail for the next six months, and I just take three students at a time. It's heaven; they're really good writers and they write like crazy and send me all their stuff and I write all over it and write huge letters to them back. I fax and phone.
Are you encouraged by your students?
I am. They're wonderful writers and part of the reason I'm drawn to that program is that I like to teach one by one and by manuscript because that's what I'm good at. I'm not good in the classroom. But I also like it because it tends to draw people who came to writing later, the same way I did. You know, they're grown-ups, they have families, they have jobs. And they've also been trying very hard to write on their own for a long time, and by the time they make their way to the program they're very good and they're gigantically motivated. So they're a blast to teach and they write really beautiful things.
What's the state of the American novel at the end of the century?
Is that a real question?
Why not? People still dither over what the novel is or should be, or if it should be anything, or can be anything.
Well, perhaps insanely optimistically, at the moment the novel looks very good to me. It seems like more people are doing more various forms than I've ever seen before. Maybe the definition of the American novel has broadened and in a good way. I see an awful lot of good novels these days in such disparate categories, everything from people wrestling with history, as I'm doing, to people doing very contemporary and experimental things, people like Nicholson Baker doing Vox. I'm reading W. G. Sebald's The Rings of Saturn right now. There are so many things a novel can be now and I love that. I love to pick up a novel and be completely surprised by both the shape and the subject matter and to think, oh, but it's still a novel, another kind of novel.
What's this I hear about your playing the drums?
Where did that come from?
I saw it on the Internet.
I do. I play African percussion music. I'm very fond of it. My teachers are largely from Senegal, some of them are from Guinea, and there's a group of people in Rochester and also Buffalo that I take lessons from and/or play with and it's actually a big part of my life. I really like it.
You're famous for keeping your works in progress quiet. I assume you're working on something new?
I'm writing some stories again. I don't know where they're going yet, but I'm always working. I'm miserable when I don't work.
Source: Andrea Barrett and Peter Kurth, "The Salon Interview," in Salon Online, December 2, 1998, pp. 1-7.
Molly E. Rauch
In the following review, Rauch likens Barrett to a chemist with her "meticulous" prose and stories, such as "The English Pupil," permeated with science and discovery. Rauch also praises the author's talent to portray human frailty.
Some of my favorite writers have also been scientists. Primo Levi, Vladimir Nabokov and William Carlos Williams are all excruciatingly alert to intricacy, as if the precision and patience of the scientific method had rewarded them with discovery. Andrea Barrett, author of The Forms of Water and The Middle Kingdom, may not be a scientist, but you wouldn't know it from her, prose. In her new collection of stories, Ship Fever, she is as meticulous as any chemist, entomologist or doctor.
In "The English Pupil," Carl Linnaeus, founder of the binomial classification system, is dying. He imagines that familiar ghosts are exchanging "leaves and twigs and scraps of blossoms" at a cocktail party stage left, his dementia increasing as dusk falls. He will tell you that "nature [is] a cryptogram and the scientific method a key" and that "nomenclature is a mnemonic art."
In the eighteenth century, Linnaeus named the natural world—ordering it, providing a common language, setting the terms of future discovery—and he haunts Barrett's stories. While for Linnaeus names should be "clear and stable and expressive," Barrett renders the world as shifting, disappointing and curiously baffling. and though Linnaeus is dying in this story, he stands on the periphery of many others like the ghosts in his own vague imagination, quietly watching. He would, I think, be pleased by Barrett's fascination with the lives of scientists. He would also be distressed by her conviction that science is bent as much by ambition, jealousy and arrogance as it is by discovery.
In the novella "Ship Fever," Dr. Lauchlin Grant leaves Montreal to work at Grosse Isle, a quarantine station for Irish immigrants flooding North America. It is 1847, and the Potato Famine has already killed thousands. Lauchlin immediately recognizes that the "ship fever" plaguing survivors of the grueling ocean journey is typhus: "They shook with chills, their muscles twitched, some of them muttered deliriously. Other were sunk in a stupor so deep it resembled death. On the chest of a man who had tom off his shirt, Lauchlin could see the characteristic rash; on another … the dusky coloring of his skin." Back in Montreal, Lauchlin had longed to be prestigious and successful. But what is fame in the face of this desperate sickness? "These people needed orderlies and gravediggers and maids and cooks; not physicians, not science." Science alone is insufficient, but Lauchlin does what he knows: He tirelessly cares for the violently, repulsive ill.
Trained in Paris, where "human dissection was legal," Lauchlin has modem views of medicine. He avoids bleeding his patients, for which he is criticized. He pores over textbooks, papers and folklore in an attempt to determine whether typhus is miasmatic or contagious. He notes that where patients are crammed together, the fever spreads quickly; he also notes an "infestation of lice" among the immigrants. But Lauchlin hones his understanding of science in other ways, as if to scold Linnaeus for the futility of his ordered, compartmentalizing system:
At night I lie on the pallet in this room for a few hours and listen to the sighs and cries and moans around me, and I wonder how it is I spent my whole life with so little understanding. In Paris, I thought of medicine as a science. I thought that by understanding how the body worked, I might cure it when diseased. What's going on here has nothing to do with science, and everything to do with politics.
In "Rare Bird," Barrett offers another politicized version of the scientific method in which Linnaeus reappears. His theory that doves hibernate under water conflicts with that of a feisty ornithologist in England, Sarah Anne Billopp, who suspects that doves in fact migrate in the winter. She sets out to disprove Linnaeus's theory, overturning in the process the notions of femininity and family within which she has lived.
Constrained by eighteenth-century upper-class expectations, the unmarried Sarah Anne finds her clothes "complicated" and "burdensome," feels her time is "shattered and lost while she defers to her brother's sense of propriety" and thirsts for intellectual companionship. She writes letters to Linnaeus and receives responses that are decidedly cold—and in Latin, no less. She captures, tests and dissects wild doves with her well-educated, widowed, science-minded friend Catherine. But as the narrative focus shifts away from Sarah Anne, she becomes less an obvious heroine that a cipher. She and Catherine disappear under mysterious circumstances, leaving the central tension between propriety and liberation unresolved.
This kind of tension sustains the ambitious range of Barrett's collection, acting like magnetism upon may of her characters. While Barrett jumps from one perspective or speaker to the next, from the pages of journals and letters to the seemingly neutral, distant voice of history, her people wrestle with the inner folds of passion, the bitter lye of disappointment and the banality of death. Resolution in these stories is often partial, halting or transparent. Still, it's not a depressing collection; it is weighted more with circumspect acceptance.
Such range can lead to flaws. The stories that take place in the past—half of this collection—suffer from stumbles into prissy formalism. In "Birds With No Feet," for example, the young explorer, Alec watches his ship explode in flames, insect collection and live menagerie trapped inside. The animals caged in the forecastle are "calling through the smoke" and Alec can do nothing but watch: "His entire life, until that moment had contained nothing so distressing."
As laughably wooden as this response may be, Barrett shines when she dives into the bloody soup of human frailty. In "The Marburg Sisters," an aging father is described with chilling frankness. His daughters know about "the dying and thinning of the skin, until the slightest blow or scratch leaves blood behind. The rubbing together of fleshless bones, the sores and bruises and rashes and welts, the loosening teeth and the bleeding gums, the clumps of hair coming out in the comb, and the alternating waves of hunger and nausea." And in "Ship Fever," Lauchlin carries corpses off the ships with acute awareness: "The eighteenth body he lifted and passed was a young woman, hardly more than a girl, who'd been dead for several days. Her feet were black and twice their normal size."
Science, for Barrett, is not the unalloyed discipline of discovery and patience. In these stories it is a hell of despair and rivalry. Above all, science is action. In "The Behavior of the Hawk-weeds," a story selected for Best American Short Stories 1995, Antonia helps her grandfather [pin the mother leaves [of Rex begonias] to the moist sand and then transplant the babies that rooted from ribs," mirroring a time when her grandfather and Gregor Mendel, the early geneticist, worked "side by side … open[ing] pea flowers and preferred pollen with a camel-hair brush." When science is action it propels the lives of its practitioners; its lessons, as well, transcend the confines of the discipline.
In "The Littoral Zone," married biologist Ruby studies the shoreline, "that space between high and low watermarks where organism struggled to adapt to the daily rhythm of immersion and exposure." But Ruby's inner life reflects her discipline when she finds herself in just such a space with Jonathan, another married biologist: "that odd, indefinite zone where they were more than friends, not yet lovers." Stranded somewhere between the dream and the disappointment, Ruby and Jonathan embody the taut lines Barrett has pulled through her stones, each with their own wrenching rhythms of immersion and exposure. Those rhythms are the sounds of a writer committed to emotion and history, to nuance and absorption. The writing, then, is also a science, shot through with the blaze of discovery.
Linnaeus would be proud.
Source: Molly E. Rauch, Review of Ship Fever and Other Stories, in Nation, Vol. 262, No. 4, January 29, 1996, pp. 32-33.
Barrett, Andrea, "The English Pupil," in Ship Fever and Other Stories, Norton, 1996, pp. 34-46.
Fara, Patricia, Sex, Botany, and Empire: The Story of Carl Linnaeus and Joseph Banks, Icon Books UK, 2003, pp. 19-46.
Goerke, Heinz, Linnaeus, translated from the German by Denver Lindley, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1973, p. 66.
Mallon, Thomas, "Under the Microscope," in New York Times Book Review, January 28, 1996, p. 24.
Review of Ship Fever and Other Stories, in New Yorker, March 25, 1996, p. 91.
Review of Ship Fever and Other Stories, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 242, No. 49, December 4, 1995, p. 54.
Schwarzbaum, Lisa, Review of Ship Fever and Other Stories, in Entertainment Weekly, No. 355, November 29, 1996, pp. 82-83.
Seaman, Donna, Review of Ship Fever and Other Stories, in Booklist, Vol. 92, No. 9-10, January 1, 1996, p. 785.
Uggla, Arvid HJ., Linnaeus, translated by Alan Blair, Swedish Institute, 1957, p. 7.
Blunt, Wilfred, The Compleat Naturalist: A Life of Linnaeus, Viking Press, 1971.
In this comprehensive, well-illustrated biography, Blunt captures Linnaeus's passion for his work and shows how his system was used by naturalists all over the world and was the foundation of modern botanical science. An appendix on Linnaean classification provides a basic survey of his work.
Farber, Paul Lawrence, Finding Order in Nature: The Naturalist Tradition from Linnaeus to E. O. Wilson, Johns Hopkins Introductory Studies in the History of Science series, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000.
Farber examines the contributions of a variety of scientists to classifying and systematizing the natural world. He covers thinkers such as Nicholas Baudin, Julian Huxley, Charles Lucien Bonaparte, Stephen Jay Gould, and Edward O. Wilson. He also argues that the work of cataloging the natural world remains vital today as biodiversity shrinks.
Hawks, Ellison, Pioneers of Plant Study, 1928, reprint, Books for Libraries Press, 1969.
The focus of this volume is biographical and historical. Hawks explores how knowledge of plants has been gained through the ages, from ancient Egypt to the end of the nineteenth century. One chapter (pp. 232-38) is devoted to Linnaeus.
Koerner, Lisbet, Linnaeus: Nature and Nation, Harvard University Press, 1999.
In this scholarly biography, Koerner draws on letters, poems, notebooks, and secret diaries to tell the story of Linnaeus's life. It is an engaging, sometimes amusing, and also tragic portrait.
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