Let’s start at the beginning. There are several special reasons I wanted to read this new Humboldt biography.
When I was still teaching German, my high school in Reno, Nevada participated in a student exchange with a school in Berlin-Köpenick. The Berlin school’s name was Alexander-von-Humboldt-Oberschule. (Now it’s the Alexander-von-Humboldt-Gymnasium.) Our Reno-Berlin GAAP exchange took place in 1995/1996. (I also conducted earlier GAAP school exchanges in Freiburg.) I’m pleased to say that AvH still has an ongoing GAAP exchange with a high school in Texas. There are also secondary schools bearing the name Alexander-von-Humboldt-Gymnasium in Bremen, Hamburg, Schweinfurt, Neuss, and other German towns and cities.
Humboldt’s name is also found on many schools at all levels all across Germany and in many other parts of the world. I even have a rather tenuous tie to the Colegio Humboldt, a Germany-sponsored K-12 private school in Puebla, Mexico. I once visited the school and knew a teacher there. The Humboldt school in Puebla – with classes in German and Spanish – was founded in 1911.
I live in Nevada, a state that also features the name Humboldt on a river, a county, and a ghost town. Humboldt was also one of the names considered for the state when the Territory of Nevada was seeking statehood in the 1860s, a fact mentioned in Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature.
Today Alexander von Humboldt’s name designates towns, parks, counties, mountains, rivers, an ocean current, capes, bays, a glacier, a geyser, and even landmarks on the moon. Who was this guy? Why did Andrea Wulf write a new biography about him?
Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859)
Although his name is virtually unknown in the English-speaking word today, Alexander von Humboldt was as famous and admired in his time as Albert Einstein was in a later era. Baron von Humboldt (as he was often called in English) was as well known as Napoleon Bonaparte. Humboldt and Napoleon were born in the same year. Years later, in 1810, the French leader tried unsuccessfully to kick the German explorer out of Paris. Humboldt greatly admired the United States and Thomas Jefferson, so much so that in 1804 he made a long detour to Washington, D.C. in order to meet with the American president on his way back to Europe following his five-year exploration of what is today Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Mexico and Cuba.
Alexander von Humboldt and his older brother Wilhelm were born into a wealthy, upper-class Berlin family with Prussian royal connections. Alexander was born on September 14, 1769 in Berlin. Until university, he and his brother never attended school. They were tutored privately at their family estate in Tegel, which was then a wooded suburb ten miles north of Berlin. Although they enjoyed a privileged upbringing, the boys did not have a happy childhood. Alexander was only nine when his father, Alexander Georg von Humboldt, died. The boys’ mother, Marie Elisabeth, was cold and distant, but she did make sure her sons were well educated. Because there was no university in Berlin at that time, Alexander and his brother briefly studied at the rather provincial Prussian university in Frankurt an der Oder before attending the renowned university in Göttingen in 1788.
The Influence of the Explorer and Scientist
Alexander von Humboldt worked with and/or influenced great men such as Simón Bolívar, Charles Darwin, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Hundreds of plants and animals are named for him. When he died in 1859 at the age of 89, his passing was noted all around the globe. “The great, good, and venerated Humboldt is no more!” were the words of the American ambassador to Prussia. The news reached London via telegraph from Berlin within hours of Humboldt’s death: “Berlin is plunged in sorrow!” As the sad news spread over the world, people were shocked that the “age of Humboldt” had come to an end.
A New Way of Viewing Nature
The more one learns about Alexander von Humboldt, the greater one’s respect and admiration. He was one of a kind, a unique man who often was thinking of ten things at once. Even his speech was rapid. But it was his unique approach to observing the world, its flora and fauna, its volcanoes, its rivers, its geology, its climate, and almost everything in it that made him great. In Wulf’s portrayal of Humboldt, the author emphasizes the great extent to which he has shaped, directly and indirectly, how we now view the natural world. To quote from the book:
“Humboldt’s books, diaries and letters reveal a visionary, a thinker far ahead of his time. He invented isotherms – the lines of temperature and pressure that we see on today’s weather maps – and he also discovered the magnetic equator. He came up with the idea of vegetation and climate zones that snake across the globe. Most important, though, Humboldt revolutionized the way we see the natural world. He found connections everywhere. Nothing, not even the tiniest organism, was looked at on its own. ‘In this great chain of causes and effects,’ Humboldt said, ‘no single fact can be considered in isolation.’ With this insight, he invented the web of life, the concept of nature as we know it today.”
Interesting Facts I Learned About Humboldt’s Life
Although I knew something about Alexander von Humboldt (after all I named my publishing house for him), I was surprised by how much I didn’t know about him. Here are some of the more fascinating tidbits gained by reading The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World:
- Alexander and his brother Wilhelm were opposites in many ways. Although they got along reasonably well, they seldom agreed on anything. Wilhelm was the more conventional, studious of the two, while Alexander had a much more adventurous spirit, rejecting a desk-bound existence. Wilhelm married and had eight children. Alexander never married and demonstrated almost no interest in women.
- After his return from his five-year journey of exploration in 1804, Humboldt refused to live in Berlin, preferring Paris instead. He considered Berlin a dull backwater town, while Paris offered the intellectual interaction he sought. He had his permanent residence in France for two decades before finally returning to Berlin to stay in May 1827. He was 57 years of age when King Friedrich Wilhelm III “requested” his presence as a chamberlain at the Prussian court.
- Humboldt did far more than have a friendly chat with Thomas Jefferson in Washington, D.C. in 1804. Although the two had a common interest in science and nature, at President Jefferson’s request Humboldt also provided accurate maps and much detailed information about Mexico, a land that now bordered the recent Louisiana Purchase. During his one-week stay in Washington, Humboldt shared “treasures of information,” as Jefferson put it.
- Humboldt strongly opposed slavery. He avoided that topic in his exchanges with President Jefferson, who was a slave owner.
- In 1794 Humboldt first met and spent time with Goethe in Weimar and Jena. The two men became good friends who enjoyed exchanging ideas and letters, even while Humboldt was in South America and later.
- Humboldt’s Naturgemälde, or “representation of nature” was a unique way of displaying his concept of the unity of nature. He first sketched it in the Andean foothills after climbing the snow-capped Chimborazo mountain in June 1802. The Naturgemälde depicted plants distributed according to their altitudes and locations, precisely where Humboldt had documented them.
- Frenchman Aimé Bonpland, Humboldt’s friend and fellow explorer in Latin America, decided to return to that continent in 1816. He was imprisoned in Paraguay for ten years. He never returned to Europe, but did correspond with Humboldt while in his 80s.
- Humboldt first met Simón Bolívar, later El Libertador of much of South America, in Paris. Humboldt later encouraged Bolívar in his revolutionary efforts, and Bolívar was inspired by Humboldt’s ideas. The two corresponded over the years, even during Bolívar’s battles of liberation.
- Humboldt liked to have a breakfast of black coffee, which he called “concentrated sunshine.”
- The French Revolutionary Wars (1792-1802) made it difficult for Humboldt to find a way to get from Europe to a destination for his exploration and research. Most of the nations of Europe were at various times in armed conflict with Napoleon and French forces. After numerous attempts to find a sponsor and a destination, Humboldt finally turned to the Spanish king for permission to undertake a voyage of exploration to Latin America and the lands under Spain’s control.
- Wilhelm von Humboldt thought his brother was “too French” after Alexander had been living in Paris for many years. Many people in Berlin considered Alexander something of a traitor, in light of Prussia losing territory to Napoleon during the French Revolutionary Wars.
- Humboldt never changed his negative opinion of Berlin, his birthplace. When he moved to the Prussian capital at the behest of the king, he negotiated a provision that he be allowed to spend a few months in Paris each year.
- Kosmos, Humboldt’s greatest literary work, took Humboldt many years to complete. After long promising his publisher a manuscript, and following many delays, the first volume was finally published in Germany in April 1845. Later translated into English and many other languages, Cosmos was unlike any previous book about nature – with a depth and breadth never seen before. It became a huge bestseller (including unauthorized translations). Cosmos: A Sketch of the Physical Description of the Universe made Humboldt better known in the United States. Originally planned as two volumes, five volumes were published between 1845 and 1862.
The Book: My Take
While I enjoyed reading Andrea Wulf’s examination of Humboldt’s life and work, I was mildly frustrated by a few aspects of her approach. She left out or skimmed over parts of Humboldts’ major five-year expedition, a key element of his life and essential to understanding the man and his work. While she does an excellent job of covering most of Humboldt’s and Bonpland’s exploits in South America, she barely mentions their first Cuba trip (in 1800) and a three-month stay there before sailing to Cartagena and continuing his exploration of northwestern South America. She devotes several chapters to people who were influenced by Humboldt only indirectly, but only a few pages to his time in Cuba and Mexico. I understand the emphasis on Humboldt’s influences and his “web of life” scientific philosophy, but I would have enjoyed more detail about Humboldt’s time in Mexico and Cuba. Humboldt himself wrote extensively about those visits.
But these are minor complaints regarding a masterful work by Andrea Wulf. I am always amazed when I read about people like Humboldt who ventured off into unknown harsh conditions with heavy equipment and sensitive instruments at a time when travel was far more difficult and dangerous than it is today. “Inconvenient” fails to encompass the many hazards and challenges Humboldt encountered. He undertook his 1829 Russia/Siberia expedition (his last) when he was almost 60 years old. But it would be critical to providing comparative data for Cosmos and Humboldt’s other works.
BOOK (AMAZON): The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World (Kindle) Also hardcover and audio versions.
Online sources of Humboldt’s writings:
- avhumboldt.net – Digitized versions of Cosmos and other works by Humboldt
- Introducing Humboldt’s Cosmos by Laura Dassow Walls via the Center for Humans & Nature
- Publications by Alexander von Humboldt – A list (some with links) of Humboldt’s works in English, French and German versions