Friday, September 14, 2018

Humboldt’s Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Latin American Journey That Changed the Way We See the World by Gerard Helferich

Blow-by-blow recap of Humboldt’s New World adventures
During the 19th century, Prussian explorer and scientist Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) was one of the most famous men in the world. By the age of 30, he had already received much acclaim in Europe for his scientific research, but it was his expedition to the Americas from 1799 to 1804 that really made Humboldt a household name worldwide. Humboldt was one of the first European scientists to travel extensively through South America, Cuba, and Mexico. While traversing the desolate llanos of Venezuela, dodging jaguars in the jungles of the Orinoco basin, canoeing on tributaries of the Amazon, and climbing the highest volcanoes of the Andes, Humboldt collected thousands of plant and animal specimens, gathered copious geological and meteorological data, researched the history and culture of the Native inhabitants, and tested and developed new theories of geological processes. Through the numerous books he published about his expedition, Humboldt captivated the public with his descriptions of the natural wonders of the New World and changed the way people viewed nature in general. In his excellent 2004 book Humboldt’s Cosmos, Gerard Helferich recounts this amazing journey in comprehensive detail.

Given the blow-by-blow nature of Helferich’s narrative, the main narrative of the book is likely heavily based on Humboldt’s own Personal Narrative of Equinoctial Regions of America, but it is a heavily annotated version, as Helferich adds much historical context and supplemental content to Humboldt’s story. Helferich deftly compares each of Humboldt’s achievements to the discoveries of his scientific predecessors and points out how Humboldt influenced the scientists who followed him. Sometimes Helferich gets a little carried away with his historical asides, like when he gives multi-page mini-histories of the Spanish conquests of the Inca and Aztecs, which happened centuries earlier, but the subject matter is so fascinating that such excesses are soon forgiven.

Because the book is so loaded with detail, one might accuse Helferich of not seeing the forest for the trees. In contrast, I just recently finished Andrea Wulf’s 2015 book on Humboldt, The Invention of Nature, which mainly focuses on the forest at the expense of the trees. Wulf does a better job of showing the big picture of Humboldt’s overall impact on world history, politics, and science, as well as the extent of his fame. Helferich, however, does a much better job of making you feel like you’re on the ground with Humboldt, experiencing what he experienced. For instance, Wulf only cursorily touches on Humboldt’s time in Cuba and Mexico, while Helferich devotes whole chapters to those portions of the journey. Wulf, however, provides an entire chapter on Humboldt’s Siberian expedition, which Helferich only briefly mentions because it is outside the Latin American scope of this book. In general, Wulf’s book covers Humboldt from more of a historian’s perspective, while Helferich’s account is more science intensive. Both books are excellent and full of fascinating insight. For those unfamiliar with Humboldt, Wulf’s book is likely the best one-volume introduction to the man’s life and work. Helferich’s book is for those who prefer more of an expedition narrative than a historical biography, or who simply want more specific detail.

For even greater specificity, I plan to proceed to Myron Echenberg’s 2017 book Humboldt’s Mexico. With all the books on Humboldt lately, it would seem we are in the midst of a resurgence in Humboldt appreciation, which is a very good thing, because this important scientist and fascinating historical figure certainly deserves to be better known today. Helferich’s account of Humboldt’s Latin American odyssey will give 21st-century readers a thorough understanding of why Humboldt, so undeservedly forgotten today, was such a big deal two centuries ago.
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