WITH AUTHOR AMÉLIA P. HUTCHINSON, SENIOR LECTURER EMERITA, THE UNIVERSITY OF GEORGIA - May 23, 2021
May 23, 2021
Amélia Hutchinson: As the author of several Portuguese grammars published in the Anglo-Saxon world, I find it interesting that the first Portuguese grammar published in America was dedicated to Joseph Correia da Serra. His interests span from language to culture and, particularly, the emerging science of botany. I very much enjoyed the role played by botany in your novel, Eleonora and Joseph. Could you speak about that literary choice?
JR: Joseph Correia da Serra's interests were indeed broad and diversified. Above all, Correia excelled as a botanist but, when I started the book, I felt rather reluctant to approach his accomplishments in the field. I wanted to concentrate on the diplomatic part of his life in America and his friendship with Thomas Jefferson.
Little by little, however, I realized how the study of botany was at the core of who Correia was and how this was, undoubtedly, the activity that gave him the most satisfaction and pleasure. This is also where his major contribution laid. Thus, it is no accident that the stamp that came out in Portugal with his effigy, names him as a botanist and not a diplomat.
Correia's academic oeuvre is small, but his accomplishments are huge. A member of the Republic of Letter - a network of scholars who incessantly debated the new fields of knowledge - he brought together the Old and the New World. He knew everybody famous in the field of botany while living in Paris, having met a large number of these dedicated savants at the Jardin des Plantes. After ten years in the French capital and disillusioned with Napoleon, Correia moved to Philadelphia. Here, at the American Philosophical Society, he helped shape a new generation of learned men in the field.
I always think that moving so often during his life (he lived in Naples, Rome, Lisbon, London and Paris before arriving in America) - something unusual at the time - explains why Correia didn't sit down and create a body of work as relevant as he helped others accomplish. But his eloquence and networking is well documented.
As I understood Correia's life more and more deeply, I made sure scenes in the novel included strolls in the countryside with Jefferson. These were the so-called "Promenades Philosophiques." For this purpose, I decided to center the discussions on botany on the Monticello gardens. I was also interested in Correia's many excursions - alone or in the company of other botanists - to collect plant specimens in various parts of the New World.
There is a book that influenced my thinking on how to approach botany in the early nineteenth century in America. It is The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert, you might be familiar with it. Reading this novel, I realized the delicacy and gracefulness of the subject matter, the practice of naming newly discovered plants after a luminary in the field, and the fun - and harshness - of going into the wilderness. These men of science were explorers in the true sense of the word. They travelled by boat, on horseback, and by foot - never really knowing how to escape the dangers ahead. Gilbert influenced me also on describing the art of gardening, of which Jefferson was a master. During his retirement, he was a major horticulturist. He was forever exchanging by mail baby trees, plants and seeds - and debating soil, climate, and best conditions for experimenting with floral species.
This question led me, early on in the novel, to choose André Thouin's letter of introduction to Jefferson as the one I wanted to use in the book. Correia arrives in America with a remarkable list of those letters (including one from the Marquis de Lafayette), and I chose Thouin's when I realized botany was going to be a recurring theme in the book. This also led me, for instance, to decide to include a dialogue between Correia and Jefferson about the Lewis and Clark expedition.
Amélia Hutchinson: Tell me a bit about the network of scholars in botany across the Atlantic Ocean and particularly throughout the Portuguese empire.
JR: The Portuguese empire was since the early fifteenth century a huge source of communication between peoples, ways of being, languages and cultures. It was Russell-Wood who so well approached this matter in his book, The Portuguese Empire, 1415-1808: A World on the Move. So Joseph Correia da Serra is heir to a tradition where this modus operandi was prevalent.
It is amazing to think that what Correia da Serra and Jefferson did in the early nineteenth century - to ship seeds, plants and fruits that were then seen far, far away for the first time - was a practice already in use much earlier. The Portuguese empire was a maritime enterprise, where the "flux and reflux" of people and goods was a daily endeavor across continents, from Ceuta to Japan.
The Republic of Letters had no geographical location, it was a group of savants scattered in the Western World. Vessels played a major role in making transportation viable - not only across the Atlantic Ocean, but in the Mediterranean Sea as well. The flora (and also fauna) of the various regions was an integral part of the trade going on. This trade was huge both for the cultivation of plants, as well as their culinary and medicinal use.
This in part explains the emergence of botanical gardens in the Western World, and Portugal built a few of them, all remarkable for their floral diversity. The oldest one is the Botanical Garden in Ajuda, Lisbon, where I place the last conversation between Correia da Serra and his son Edward. They sit below the Dragon Tree (dragoeiro, or Dracaena draco), and, under its inviting shade, recount details of their lives.
Amélia Hutchinson: My cultural work touches also in times past, in particular the Medieval period. What excites you about the Enlightenment and being a novelist in today's age?
JR: For one, escapism. As you know, it is great to forget about contemporary issues and go back into the past. Dwell on it, try to figure it out. We went through four years of a very bleak time in America and the world. More recently, we have lived with a pandemic for over one year, and all our regular habits as human beings have been altered.
I constantly need a sense of renewal. Nature gives it to me. And the study of the past does that as well. I know you share this view of mine, it's very satisfying!
I particularly like the Enlightenment because I feel a sense of rejuvenation in it, how a new society surfaced from the Ancien Regime, a system that didn't serve the citizenry anymore. The society that emerged then is the one we still live in today.
Moreover, I love to think of one's mind as being able to behave like a time machine.
Woody Allen showed this in his remarkable short story, The Kugelmass Episode. When asked by the "magician" the past literary figure he would like to meet, he answered without hesitation Emma Bovary. Next, Kugelmass is in the bedroom of Charles and Emma Bovary in Yonville. It's a brilliant short story!