Monday, March 23, 2020

Humboldt: The Life and Times of Alexander von Humboldt by Helmut de Terra

Comprehensive biography for a popular audience
Alexander von Humboldt
During his lifetime, Prussian scientist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt was one of the most famous people on Earth. After having undertaken a very scientifically productive expedition to the Americas from 1799 to 1804, the popular books he published on his travels and discoveries made Humboldt a household name on both sides of the Atlantic. By the twentieth century, however, his profile had significantly diminished in the United States, and his accomplishments had been largely forgotten. The biography Humboldt: The Life and Times of Alexander von Humboldt is an attempt to correct this undeserved fade into obscurity. Published in 1955, the book was written by German explorer, archaeologist, anthropologist, and geologist Helmut de Terra. Though de Terra was German, I believe he wrote and first published this book in English, as its primary purpose is to reintroduce Humboldt to an American audience.

This book is intended for a popular audience, so it bears minimal footnotes and no endnotes, though de Terra does provide a bibliography. As is common to popular biographies, the author sometimes enters into his subject’s head and indulges in brief scenes of novelization, but for the most part de Terra maintains a scholarly rigor throughout. He quotes extensively from letters and other firsthand accounts of Humboldt, and identifies each author in the text without providing detailed citations. His prose is effortlessly articulate but sufficiently detailed, providing a comfortable but informative read for any adult reader of reasonable scientific literacy. De Terra does an exceptional job of conveying the specifics and importance of Humboldt’s scientific discoveries in language free of arcane scientific jargon. In fact, the most difficult passages in the book are not scientific but historical, when de Terra provides context by summarizing the complicated history of Germany and its rulers.

Many books on Humboldt focus intently on his American expedition, but this truly is a cradle-to-grave biography of the man’s life. De Terra does provide sufficient coverage (five chapters worth) of the American journey, but he doesn’t give short shrift to the other periods of Humboldt’s life as so many other Humboldt scholars do. Regarding Humboldt’s 1829 scientific expedition across Russia to Siberia and the border of China, which most Humboldt scholars discuss very little, here de Terra devotes a chapter and a half to the subject. This book also includes useful, well-drawn maps of all of Humboldt’s celebrated travels with his routes clearly delineated.

Another positive aspect to de Terra’s approach is that he recognizes the importance of publishing to any scientific career. If you are looking for a summary of Humboldt’s writings and published research, this book provides a fine overview of his authorial output. Though primarily a professional biography, de Terra’s account also delves deeply into Humboldt’s personal life. In one passage de Terra confidently asserts that Humboldt was a homosexual (a matter of debate among Humboldt scholars), but he doesn’t oversell the idea or develop it into a full-blown thesis. De Terra also amply examines Humboldt’s elderly years, which bear a surprising correlation to the life of Voltaire. Both served as reluctant dignitaries under reigning monarchs and as hubs of global scholarly communication through their extensive networks of colleagues and correspondence.

Today’s readers looking for a one-volume synopsis of Humboldt’s life and impact would probably prefer a more contemporary take like Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature, but de Terra’s life of Humboldt is an absorbing and rewarding read for those who wish to delve deeper into the life and science of this fascinating genius.
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