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: 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.
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?” 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. 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.
Bryan Aubrey, Ira Mark Milne – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 24, Andrea Barrett, Published by Gale Group, 2006