, Volume 20, Issue 3, pp 577–579

Alexander von Humboldt: Counternarrative of a dissenter?

Laura Dassow Walls: The passage to cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the shaping of America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009, xv+404pp, US$35.00 HB


    • History Department570 Park Hall, State University of New York at Buffalo
Book Review

DOI: 10.1007/s11016-010-9514-0

Cite this article as:
Daum, A.W. Metascience (2011) 20: 577. doi:10.1007/s11016-010-9514-0

When, in 2009, Charles Darwin’s bicentennial was celebrated all over the world, Alexander von Humboldt—whom Darwin admired and whose American travel account he head read on the Beagle—remained in the Englishman’s shadow. The fact that Humboldt had passed away in 1859 at least allowed historians to honor yet another anniversary, i.e., exactly one and a half centuries of post-Humboldtian commemoration. Darwin’s seminal insights into the principle of evolution, the variability of species, and the struggle for life among these (which others abbreviated in the even more powerful—and misused—phrase “survival of the fittest”) seemed to outmatch the sprawling, hard-to-compress oeuvre of the Prussian naturalist Humboldt. The history of Humboldt’s publication alone is so complicated that, in 2000, a 500-page bibliography was published in Germany to trace the man’s published record. More importantly, Darwin’s thoughts still mobilize public opinion and fuel outcry on the part of Christian fundamentalists, thus guaranteeing media resonance even in the Internet age. In contrast, there seems to be much patina on the figure of Humboldt. As charmingly erudite as he was a person and as fascinating his journeys to America and Siberia (often forgotten, though, in light of the first) were, it has always been and remains hard to pin down Humboldt, his views, and his original achievements. The most important of those achievements concern the geography of plants, the establishment of isolines, and his encouragement to pursue comparative scientific research using the most up-to-date instruments, an approach that historians condensed long after his death in the term “Humboldtian science.”

Why then does Humboldt matter today? And why, as Laura Dassow Walls wants us to believe (rightly so, as I think,) did Humboldt matter for the North American society and in particular for the intellectual life in the United States during the long nineteenth century? After all, the United States is generally not regarded as an Humboldtian turf, as opposed to Latin America where Humboldt is still a household name today. Walls is not the first to tackle these questions. In fact, research on Humboldt has flourished since the 1990s. Various academic disciplines have rediscovered the “second discoverer of the New World” and begun to revisit Humboldt’s oeuvre, accompanied by exhibitions catering to lay audiences. Though still mostly visible to experts, it may seem that there is a Humboldt industry in the making that is on its way to becoming comparable to the occupation with Darwin which began so much earlier. And, indeed, the renewed interest in Humboldt has led to following, too, Humboldt’s deep traces in the United States, a continent he visited only for a few weeks at the conclusion of his American journey in 1804. In 2006, Cornell scholar Aaron Sachs, previously an environmental journalist, summarized his findings on the United States’ “Humboldt Current” in a massive monograph under the same title. Sachs traced Humboldt’s legacy of finding “unity in diversity” concerning all natural phenomena in the activities and writings of some of America’s foremost naturalists, among them J. N. Reynolds who explored the South Sea; Clarence King, first director of the U.S. Geological Survey; the Arctic explorer George Wallace Melville; and best known today, John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club. Sachs paid attention, too, to Humboldtian ideas in the thinking of North American philosophers, literary writers, and visual artists. It is therefore hardly a surprise that Walls’ book displays some overlaps with Sachs’s. Yet Walls presents an original, highly readable, and fascinating book that is a major contribution to understanding today’s Humboldt renaissance as well as the man himself and his work. Equally remarkable is the fact that Walls, a professor of literary studies, has absorbed a vast array of scholarship produced by historians of science. She demonstrates an admirable familiarity in handling the disparate branches of recent Humboldt research published in the English-speaking world and, without any polemical tone, puts forward arguments that question several assumptions about Humboldt that have been suggested by critics of imperialism and scholars immersed in post-colonial studies.

In five chapters, which roughly constitute a chronological sequence, Walls recounts major episodes in Humboldt’s life and tells the story of the North American reading of some of Humboldt’s main works—from his Vues des Cordillèrres to his Personal Narrative (of the American journey) to the late and unfinished Cosmos, which was enthusiastically received in the United States in spite of his dense scholarly prose. Walls thus sketches how Humboldtian ideas were incorporated into the American mind. She demonstrates how Humboldt created an extended transatlantic network with admirers in the United States—in terms of personal acquaintances, intellectual exchanges, and post-mortem influences on thinking about nature in North America. The remarkable group of American Humboldtians includes President Thomas Jefferson, the conservative geologist Louis Agassiz, and the anthropologist Franz Boas no less than some of the stars of America’s literary, philosophical, and artistic elite: Ralph Walter Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Edgar Allan Poe, and Walt Whitman. For sure, individual motivations differed. Jefferson, for example, was keenly interested in Humboldt’s knowledge about natural resources in Mexico. Boas embraced what he called Humboldt’s “cosmography” in its duality of searching for laws in nature and of allowing an affective approach to the diversity—and beauty—of nature. Poe, not coincidentally, dedicated his Eureka, a summary of his lifelong fascination with science, to Humboldt and took up the latter’s idea of integrating human subjectivity into the desire to understand the “whole” of nature as one constituted by both scientific analysis and esthetic feeling. And other than in Aaron Sachs’s account, the polyglot, multi-talent, and diplomat George Perkins Marsh appears in Walls’ story as the “most profoundly Humboldtian of all Humboldt’s American children” (p. 295). He blended human history and nature’s history into his quest for sound environmental policies and his plea for a future, free society, though reframed here through Christian doctrine.

Humboldtian ideas, according to Walls, thus offered an enlightened and simultaneously esthetically appealing understanding of the spatial and natural resources that were available to those seeking to provide an intellectual foundation for the United States as a “Nature’s Nation” (Perry Miller). Moreover, Walls convincingly defends Humboldt’s virtues against critics like Mary Louise Pratt. Her Humboldt refused to think along the lines separating “two cultures” (Ch. P. Snow), advocated a “radical cultural pluralism” (p. 293), gave agency to the suppressed people he met on his American journey, questioned the heritage of Spanish colonial rule, and spoke out against slavery in the United States. Walls portrays Humboldt as a dissenter who attempted to create “a counternarrative to the drumbeat of imperial progress” (p. 8). Not the least, Humboldt set the tone for an environmental discourse by continuously addressing the interconnectedness of biological habitats, natural resources, and human action—with his analysis of and protest against deforestation being only one example.

Two caveats, among others, come to mind when reading this account, as convincing, wonderfully rich, and elegantly written as it is. First, Walls rightly points out that the narrative of American exceptionalism, especially—one would need to add—once Frederick Turner saw the American “frontier” closed at the end of the nineteenth century, has casted out Humboldt and other heterodox traditions. By relying exclusively on English translations of Humboldt’s work, which was primarily published in French and German, and on scholarship written in English, the vanguard of the United States’ Humboldt scholarship, however, again divides the great interlocutor’s oeuvre and separates his international resonance along national boundaries, ironically missing an opportunity for embarking on the kind of intercultural dialogue it rightly praises Humboldt for. Second, there is a certain risk in making Humboldt and especially his idea of “cosmos” more coherent than they were and incorporating both neatly into an alternative narrative of American history. Humboldt himself had a sense of irony, of being untimely and deficient. Indeed, Humboldt insisted on his independence, as Walls emphasizes. But he, too, was dependent on others, opportunistic as much as dissenting, and ingenuous in utilizing his friends of whatever political color for his purposes. In many regards, this uniquely talented man was more aware than his admirers of the limits of what he did and wrote, and he also knew that his opus magnumCosmos was anything but simply a work of popular science. Not so much the coherence, but the openness and ambiguity of Humboldt’s ideas can be held responsible for his wide-ranging reception by scholars and artists, be it in the United States or in other countries. Walls’ magnificent book invites the reader to continue reflecting about this heterodox legacy.

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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010