The Passage to Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Shaping of America

Humboldt is unfashionable in our postcolonial age, but it’s time for a renaissance, says Jeremy Jennings

December 31, 2009

Alexander von Humboldt scarcely set foot in the United States of America. His only visit was in 1804 and he spent most of his five weeks there in conversation with Thomas Jefferson in Washington. Yet, like Alexis de Tocqueville after him, Humboldt was to consider himself half-American and, if we are to believe Laura Dassow Walls, his influence over American intellectual opinion in the 19th century achieved cult status.

The celebration of the centenary of his birth in 1869, it seems, was something of a grand national holiday, with the parade in the small city of Dubuque, Iowa, stretching for over two miles. Moreover, there can be no doubt that Alexander von Humboldt was a truly remarkable man. Not only was he the author of the scientific bestseller of the age but he also – quite literally – put the American continent on the map. One can only marvel at his extraordinary expeditions across South America and at the beauty of his pictorial record of these journeys. To many, he was the second Columbus.

Not the least of the qualities of Dassow Walls’ erudite and wide-ranging narrative is that she enables us to understand something of the man’s genius and polymathic range. Humboldt’s fundamental assumption, she tells us, was that neither humans nor nature could be understood in isolation. Rigorous scientific investigation was combined with poetic creation and a sense of spiritual revelation. It was also imbued with a deep sense of social justice and a concern for the oppression of all human beings (most notably victims of slavery). Holding fast to the idea of the unity of the human species, Humboldt believed that all were “designed for freedom”. From this follows a series of claims. The first is that Humboldt “stands at the head of environmental and ecological thinking today”. The second is that Humboldt is “perhaps the most deeply and perennially misunderstood major intellectual of his time”. The third is that Americans have forgotten that Humboldt was their teacher. The name that defined an age, Dassow Walls tells us, has vanished.

That Humboldt should have been forgotten is all the more remarkable given the fame and number of his American progeny. Whitman, Thoreau, Emerson and Poe were among his many admirers. Yet forgotten he has been, and this, says Dassow Walls, is to be regretted. Much of her study seeks to explain the disappearance of Humboldt’s legacy, which is due in part, she says, to the misappropriation of his ideas and to changes in literary taste. There were doubts about where, if at all, God fitted into his vision of the cosmos. More importantly, he was eclipsed by Darwin and displaced by the separation of science from speculative philosophy. The coup de grâce came with the rise of American anti-Germanism after 1917.

But in an age of mounting environmental concern, is the time not ripe for a revival of Humboldtian discourse? Dassow Walls certainly thinks so. In losing Humboldt, she tells us, we lost the cosmos. Must we now, she asks, lose the planet? Frankly, this is anyone’s guess, although the signs are not good. We seem no nearer to the emergence of a global human community than we were two centuries ago. Humboldt’s accounts of the tragic destruction of the human and natural habitats of South America therefore make for sober reading.

Here, however, is the irony. As Dassow Walls acknowledges, Humboldt has been silenced again, this time by the ideologues of postcolonial studies for whom he is just another example of the imperial eye. Sometimes it is hard not to despair.

The Passage to Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Shaping of America

By Laura Dassow Walls
University of Chicago Press
424pp, £24.00
ISBN 9780226871820
Published 18 September 2009

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