An inveterate trailblazer

The Humboldt Current

August 17, 2007

During the course of the 19th century, there were many European visitors to America. Most came to see a new civilisation at first hand and to draw lessons for Europe's future. Their focus of attention was all too frequently America's nascent democratic society or its burgeoning industrial power. The central claim of this fascinating book, however, is that probably the most influential of all these visitors was someone who scarcely set foot on the American shoreline: Alexander von Humboldt.

Humboldt landed at Philadelphia in May 1804 and remained in the US for barely six weeks. Yet he came to regard himself as "half American" and, according to Aaron Sachs, it is "quite possible that no other European had so great an impact on the intellectual culture of 19th-century America". Humboldt, we are told, was the first ecologist. In his own words, his ambition was to "recognise the general connections that link organic beings" and to "study the great harmonies of nature". He understood the environment's cosmic interrelatedness and, in doing so, displayed humility, not hubris.

The greater part of Sachs's text examines the manner in which this environmental perspective inspired some of the most momentous and significant voyages of exploration carried out by Americans in the 19th century. His central characters are J. N. Reynolds, Clarence King, George Wallace Melville and John Muir. Their travels took them to Antarctica, the American West and the Arctic. Taken together, they make for a curious bunch. Only Melville was, to use Sachs's phrase, a "conventional family man", and even he had a tortured private life. The others, like Humboldt himself, preferred the intensity of bonds with other men. Their travels were not always successful, however. Reynolds never reached the Antarctic landmass. Melville's pursuit of the North Pole left many a frozen corpse in Siberia. King's triumph in climbing the nation's highest peak, Mount Whitney, was shortlived, when it was revealed, only two years later, that he had ascended the wrong mountain. Nevertheless, their stories are enthralling as well as offering tributes to scientific endeavour and human perseverance.

According to Sachs, the Humboldt current in American life went into decline at the beginning of the 20th century, the victim of anti-German sentiment during the First World War and the more general trend towards the professionalisation of science. The "racist strand" of Darwinianism, he also contends, played its part in forcing the Humboldt current out of the mainstream.

Herein lays Sachs's all too evident subtext. In his view, Humboldt remains "an astonishingly relevant figure for the 21st century", and his American disciples bear witness to an ecological tradition that might yet inspire today's environmentalists. "The key," Sachs proclaims, "is perhaps to integrate the spirit of journeying into one's everyday life." Ultimately what matters, he continues, is receptivity and "the genuine attempt to connect with differentness".

No doubt such clarion calls to "a holistic approach to activism" can be justified by appeals to Humboldtian subjectivity and the virtues of personal narrative, but they deflect from the merits of what might otherwise have been an impressive work of intellectual history. As it is, we are told that Humboldt "anticipated current critiques of unjust land distribution, cash cropping, the tragedy of the commons, violence against isolated indigenous groups" and so on. His followers can help the environmental movement escape from the "rut of nostalgic yearning for beautiful scenery".

In this vein, the text concludes in a flurry of ecological verbiage, inviting us to rethink our relationship with the world in the Humboldtian fashion, all bearing testimony to the fact that, as an author, Sachs lacks one of the Humboldtian virtues he praises: humility before his subject.

The Humboldt Current: A European Explorer and his American Disciples

Author - Aaron Sachs
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 512
Price - £17.99
ISBN - 9780199215195

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