The Literary Hill

June 2018


Traveling on His Stomach
Next time you dip into some guacamole, you might want to give a nod to David Fairchild. The intrepid botanist dangled from precipices in the Andes, braved hostile natives in the Java Sea and was arrested while in search of an elusive citron in Corsica – all so Americans could enjoy more of the world’s natural bounty.

In “The Food Explorer: The True Adventures of the Globe-Trotting Botanist Who Transformed What America Eats,” author Daniel Stone gives due to the man who “brightened the palette of American agriculture.” Born in 1869, Fairchild made it his life’s work to travel the world collecting native fruits and vegetables and investigating new growing methods that could benefit American farmers.

With the tepid support of the US Department of Agriculture and the wholehearted backing of Barbour Lathrop, his patron and traveling companion, Fairchild embarked on his global mission at age 27, scouring continents in search of hardier varieties of hops, faster-growing squash and tastier lemons. He is credited with introducing avocadoes, mangoes, dates, Egyptian cotton and more to America, and he helped broker a deal with the Japanese government that brought us DC’s famous cherry blossom trees.

In “The Food Explorer,” Stone has restored this pioneer to his place of prominence in American agriculture – and has done so with a book that conveys both Fairchild’s fierce passion and his own respect for a man who could risk so much for the taste of a mango.

A former White House correspondent for Newsweek, Stone writes for National Geographic, and his work has appeared in Scientific American and The Washington Post and on CBS’s 60 Minutes. Find him at

Elliot Carlson discusses his book about the World War II reporter tried for espionage at the Southeast Library, June 11, 7 p.m.

Loose Lips
Seventy-five years ago, with the US and Japan at war, a case arose that, in the words of author Elliot Carlson, “raised fundamental issues at the core of American democracy.” How do you balance freedom of the press with the public’s right to know, especially during wartime? Does secrecy have a place in a free society?

In “Stanley Johnston’s Blunder,” Carlson tells the story of the newspaperman who broke the news that the US Navy knew of Japan’s plan to attack Midway Island. How Johnston got this classified information, which came close to exposing top-secret intelligence programs aimed at deciphering Japanese codes, forms the core of an intriguing tale.

To shine a light on this forgotten piece of history, Carlson gained access to reams of archival materials, including long-sealed testimony from the grand jury that heard the case when Johnston and other members of the Chicago Tribune were charged by the Roosevelt administration with espionage. But, as he writes, the story is much more than a collection of government records. “It is also a human story” and one with far-reaching implications for journalists, security personnel and freedom-loving people everywhere.

Journalist Elliot Carlson will discuss “Stanley Johnston’s Blunder” at the Southeast Branch of the DC Public Library, 403 Seventh St. SE, 202-698-3377, June 11, 7 p.m.

Kim Roberts (left) displays her new literary guide to DC with Karen Lyon at the 2018 Literary Hill BookFest. Photo: E. Ethelbert Miller

Walking in Their Footsteps
As Kim Roberts writes in her eloquent introduction to “A Literary Guide to Washington, DC,” writers here have often chafed against the perception that “government is DC’s only business.” Her well-researched book should put paid to that notion.

Sized to carry along on a walk, the guide provides information about the famous literary lights of Washington as well as its lesser-known writers. Organized chronologically, the book touches on pre-Civil War writers such as Francis Scott Key, who lived at The Maples here on the Hill, and on Civil War authors such as Walt Whitman and Solomon G. Brown, a natural scientist and poet who was the first African American employee of the Smithsonian.

The Reconstruction walk takes readers through LeDroit Park, focusing on the life and work of Paul Laurence Dunbar; the Gilded Age focuses on Lafayette Park and the haunts of Henry Adams and his “Five of Hearts” group; and the Harlem Renaissance tour explores the U Street locations frequented by Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and Jean Toomer.

With profiles of nearly two dozen writers, maps showing various sites associated with them and samples of their work, “A Literary Guide to Washington, DC” is an invaluable resource for anyone interested in books, local history and, most of all, the diverse and talented authors who have called DC home.

Kim Roberts is a literary historian, writer, editor and poet. Learn more at 

John Y. Cole’s illustrated history of the Library of Congress takes readers inside one of America’s greatest legacies.

Mr. Jefferson’s Library
As Librarian of Congress Carla D. Hayden writes in the foreword to John Y. Cole’s new illustrated history, the Library of Congress is “so much more than beautiful architecture wrapped around bookshelves.”

In “America’s Greatest Library,” Cole explores every aspect of this remarkable institution, including a chronology of key moments in its establishment, construction and ongoing role in the nation’s history and culture. Essays elaborate on the people and programs that helped shaped the library, and the many illustrations demonstrate its impact, from a parade of distinguished visitors to the stunning breadth and depth of its collections.

Where else could you find the Gutenberg Bible, a handwritten letter from Thomas Jefferson and the sheet music for “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” all in one place? This rich and informative compendium is ripe for browsing and a splendid adjunct – if not the next best thing – to visiting the library itself.

John Y. Cole was director of the library’s Center for the Book from its founding in 1977 until 2016 and helped establish the National Book Festival and many other library programs. Since 2016, he has served as the library’s first official historian. 

On the Hill in June

  • East City Bookshop hosts the paperback launch of “The Burning Girl” by Claire Messud, June 11, 6:30 p.m., plus a jam-packed schedule of book clubs and readings throughout the month. For a full listing, go to
  • The Hill Center presents a Talk of the Hill with Bill Press, featuring New Yorker staff writer and CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin, author most recently of “American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst,” June 11, 7 p.m. Call 202-549-4172 or register online at