Wendell Johnson on David Fairchild

Wendell Johnson, for whom the Wendell Johnson Speech & Hearing Clinic at the University of Iowa is named, was one of the leading “1st generation” teachers of General Semantics from the 1940s into the 1960s. His People in Quandaries and Your Most Enchanted Listener are classics within the GS literature.

Wendell Johnson

In the fall of 1956, his introductory General Semantics course at the University of Iowa was broadcast over the campus radio. Most of his lectures were recorded from these live broadcasts. The following is an edited version of a rough transcript of the lecture in which he introduced his students to David Fairchild (1869-1954) by recounting a personal anecdote. [More on Fairchild and excerpts from his The World Was My Garden.] Several digressions not pertaining to Fairchild have been omitted.

[Wendell Johnson speaking]

“So I want to tell you a story of another man. As you may know, it was in 1946 that I published a book, People in Quandaries. Now one of the things you find out, or that I found out, was that there are an awful lot of people who write letters to the author. I didn’t know this before.

“One day I got a long 8-page letter, hand written, from a gentleman in Coconut Grove, Florida. He wrote on and on about his gardens, and the difficulties that he was having with his gardens. He was so interested in People in Quandaries because – and this puzzled me to no end – because [as he explained] some of the material in the book seemed to throw light on problems he was having as a gardener. I didn’t quite get the hang of this. He indicated in the letter that he was familiar with Semantics and had been for years.

“Well, a week or two later my wife was reading a book aloud that had just come into our house. Something about this book, as I heard the book read, reminded me of the letter I got a week or two before.

“I asked her, “who is the author of that book?” And she answered, “David Fairchild.” Well, “David Fairchild” had signed the letter I had received from Coconut Grove, Florida. The book she was reading was titled, The World Was My Garden.

Cover of The World Was My Garden

“Now, this was a most intriguing book. Fairchild had written the book several years before, in 1938. It was a book pretty much about his own life, his memoirs. He had become very ill about that time and some friends of his had persuaded him during his convalescence to write this book to preserve the record of a remarkable man with a very, very, out-of-the-ordinary career.

“He was born in 1869 at Michigan State College. His grandfather had been one of the founders of Oberlin College in Ohio, which was the first American College to grant degrees to women, which it did in 1841.  Oberlin was also the first American college to allow Negroes to attend. I mention these two facts, although there are hundreds of others I could mention, to indicate that he had a background which was conducive to try new things, to adventuring.

“When he was ten years old, his father moved to Manhattan, Kansas, to become the President of the Kansas State Agricultural College. Now this means that he grew up in an atmosphere in which he became very much interested in agriculture, but also he spent his days with people who were doing various kind of experiments. So he took rather naturally to doing experiments, to having an experimental point of view or approach to things.

“Well, he became interested very early in plants and growing things, and in man’s relationship to the growing things about him. One of the things he learned during his career was a somewhat odd, I think, and sobering fact. What he observed was that we develop prejudices not only to certain others [humans], but we also develop prejudices toward plants, especially edible plants, those that bare food. In other words, we have food dislikes and you might even say food prejudices.

“Now, I don’t know whether you have ever stopped to think much about your food dislikes. First of all, let me rule out something that I don’t mean to be talking about. I’m not talking about physiological reactions to some kinds of food that we call allergic and are not just psychosomatic but are real biochemical incompatibilities for some people. The fact of the matter is that for many people, the foods to which they have incompatibilities are not always foods they dislike.

“I’m talking about food dislikes for which we have no physiological incompatibility. Just what are these dislikes? Are they like the attitudes we have towards various races, or various nationalities, or religious groups?

“Well, if you read David Fairchild, I think you would begin to think so. We are going to have much more to say about this before we get done in the course … but there are semantic aspects of nutrition and David Fairchild was most concerned with them.

“He joined the staff of the United States Department of Agriculture in 1889 when he was a young man of 20. As a “plant explorer,” for the Department, he traveled about the world finding plants that were not native to this country, and then introducing them to this country. All sorts of plants, some of them flowering plants, some of them plants that bore food of various kinds. Probably half or more the foods you eat today that are not native or that have not been for a long time habituated to this country have been introduced to you by David Fairchild. He developed a very wonderful garden out in Coconut Grove, Florida. [See Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden]

“He married a daughter of Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone. Through his wife Marian and her father’s connections, he came to know most of the very important people of his day.

“If you ever go to Washington, take a good look at the cherry trees, the Japanese cherry trees. They were introduced to Washington by David Fairchild and his wife. And I do hope that you will be able to have the thrill of reading this wonderful, wonderful book of his, The World Was My Garden.

Alfred Korzybski

“David Fairchild met Alfred Korzybski, the author of Science and Sanity [which I discussed during our last lecture], in Washington just after Korzybski had come over to the United States from Poland where he had been an officer on the general staff of the Russian czar’s army in the first world war. After the Russian army collapsed, Alfred Korzybski came over to this country and spent the remaining years of the war [as a government consultant on munitions testing].

“Fairchild and Korzybski met in the early 1920’s. Fairchild was instrumental in introducing him to many of the men with whom he worked. After Korzybski developed General Semantics, Fairchild remained interested in General Semantics throughout his life. I have indicated some of the reasons why he was interested.

“Just a few more remarks might be helpful in trying to define a little better [why David Fairchild] was so intrigued with General Semantics. He had tried to enlist interest among various editors and publishers as to the problem that he was having trying to introduce foreign foods to and also foreign plants [to American consumers].

“For example, Walter Heinz Page, who was later to become United States Ambassador to England was, at that time, a magazine publisher. He summed up Fairchild’s challenge: people just will not eat foods they have never heard about, and they have very little interest in any kind of plants, shrubs, trees and flowers they haven’t heard about.

“They are likely to have more interest in flowers but a great many people would never think of trying to transplant flowers that they see in out-of-the-ordinary botanical gardens into their own yards. They’ll go right on growing zinnias year after year … because they do like zinnias so.

“Do you like avocado salad? The avocado was introduced into this country by David Fairchild in 1899 and it was difficult, very, very slow. When did you eat your first avocado? Of course you’re too young I suppose to make this a fair task, but I am old enough perhaps to make a test of it. I think I ate my first avocado possibly 10 years ago, something like 40-45 years after David Fairchild introduced it into the United States. I don’t know whether I am especially typical. I rather suspect so in regard to this.

“Even today there’s probably not one person in ten thousand in this country who has ever seen a cherimoya. Have any of you ever seen a cherimoya? It’s native to Madeira Island. It was described by Fairchild in 1906 which was 50 years ago, as a fruit that ranked in flavor and texture with the very best of our fruit. Yet it was curiously neglected then and still is. Why is this? Why don’t we hurry right down to the food market and demand cherimoyas. Get them in here tomorrow!

“Are you likely to do this? Probably not. If they don’t have apples you’ll think it’s odd. We do like apples, so why not cherimoyas?

“Now as I pointed out to David Fairchild, this was a problem not in nutrition, not in economics, not a problem that we would call a horticulture issue. This was a problem of prejudice, of attitude of the way we evaluate the world about us, including the growing plants, and foods, fruits and vegetables about us. These evaluative reactions of ours are influenced by educational and cultural factors. If you stop to think of it long and hard, you will see that it is bound in with the very most intimate relationships of our lives.

“Isn’t it odd to see someone go to a restaurant such as Antoine’s in New Orleans and order a hamburger? But there are thousands who do, or do the equivalent of this. What is this? How do you account for behavior like this?

“Is this something that you counteract by publishing a better cook book with recipes that are easier to follow, or that are written more interestingly?

“Do you counteract this by giving courses in nutrition and making people familiar with the chemical characteristics of foods?

“Do you publish advertisements, showing beautiful women and men of distinction eating avocados?

“You might begin to see what kind of a problem this is fundamentally. Not incidentally, but fundamentally, this is the kind of a problem that has to do with the way we react to symbols, to the names of things.

“There are many a men who haven’t eaten an egg in as long as they can remember. They say, “I don’t eat eggs.” What kind of a behavior is this? What is such a man reacting to? It’s obvious that he hasn’t reacted to an egg, at least for as long as he can remember. Well then, what is he reacting to? The name egg? The letters E-G-G, perhaps? Probably, in a basic sense. But I think we can say to a large degree, what such men are reacting to fundamentally is what we might call the meaning of the word egg.

“Which meaning? What is the meaning of an egg? Or the word egg? Or the sight of an egg? The appearance of it? Maybe the odor of it. [We can’t know, other than it’s the meaning of that object for that man – the personal meaning of egg.]

“It is said that men react far more to the words of their environment than they do to the facts of their environment. This is the sort of thing that David Fairchild was concerned with.

“This was his major problem as a plant explorer, as man who is mainly concerned with introducing into this country new plants and new foods. This was to him a very grave sort of a problem because he was trying to increase the wealth of the United States. He was trying to make life richer for everybody who lived here. He found the going hard because people were not interested in foods they had never heard of, from far away places with strange sounding names like avocado, and papaya and things like this.

“So he became interested in the study of General Semantics. Because he was looking for clues to the mechanism that might be basic to this kind of behavior – the rejection of the unfamiliar in the realm of foods and plants. A kind of behavior that serves like a blow on the head could keep us from having new experiences. A sort of paralysis in its effects on us to form prejudices against unfamiliar foods, almost like having a physical incapacity. It’s as good as having an ulcer, it keeps you from eating the foods.

“To David Fairchild this was terribly important. That’s why he got interested in General Semantics. There have been others and I want to remind you again that this is not a course in nutrition or horticulture or botany. It’s a course in how we react not to things but to the names of things and the appearances of things and to what we call the meanings of things.”