Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Humboldt’s Mexico: In the Footsteps of the Illustrious German Scientific Traveller by Myron Echenberg

Tangential asides inspired by Humboldt’s travels
Two subjects of great interest to me are the life of Alexander von Humboldt and the history of Mexico, so when I learned about Myron Echenberg’s 2017 book Humboldt’s Mexico I was eager to read it. During Humboldt’s landmark scientific expedition to the Americas from 1799 to 1804, he spent about a year in Mexico, but Andrea Wulf’s recent biography of Humboldt, The Invention of Nature, barely mentions this period of his travels, and Gerard Helferich’s book Humboldt’s Cosmos only devotes one chapter to it, so the promise of further information on this period of Humboldt’s Latin American journey heightened my interest. As the subtitle faintly indicates, however, there is a lot more about Mexico here than about Humboldt. Echenberg explains in his preface that the odd numbered chapters of the book will focus on Humboldt’s travels, followed by a chapter on a related topic. The truth, however, is that often you only get a few paragraphs of Mexican travelogue quoted from one of Humboldt’s publications, followed by Echenberg expounding at length on whatever subject strikes his fancy. A mix of history and travel writing covering Mexico past and present, the resulting book is not unlike a collection of the sidebar articles one finds in a Lonely Planet guidebook.

Some of the digressions are totally reasonable. There is much in this book about the history of Mexican mining, for example, which is perfectly justifiable since Humboldt was trained as a mining engineer in Prussia, and one of the main reasons he visited Mexico was to examine its silver mines. Echenberg may have taken things a bit far, however, when he devotes an entire chapter to the silver jewelry industry in Taxco, including a lengthy biography of Taxco silver artisan and entrepreneur William Spratling, followed by mini-biographies of Spratling’s students! Echenberg wanders even further afield when he draws tenuous comparisons between Humboldt and Diego Rivera, which provides an opportunity to discuss the Mexican mural movement. Rivera is my favorite artist, but even I found his presence here gratuitous. Even more inexplicably, Echenberg devotes an entire chapter to an archaeological site, Zempoala, that Humboldt didn’t even visit. The author’s justification for inclusion is his own mystification that Humboldt never mentioned the site. That’s just an example of how content with only the slightest connection to Humboldt is included, simply because the author finds it interesting. Humboldt’s Mexico is not a badly written book at all, but really the editor should have reined this one in a bit, because Echenberg goes off on tangents that are all over (and sometimes totally off) the map.

On the bright side, having traveled to about half of the locations that Echenberg discusses in this book, I did enjoy his travel info and informative historical recaps of the sites in question. The chapter entitled Culture and Higher Learning in Humboldt’s Mexico gives a very enlightening overview of the cosmopolitan intellectual landscape of Mexico City in the early 18th century. I mostly enjoyed the book because I am a confirmed Mexicophile, but if you’re specifically looking for information on Humboldt, this probably is not the book for you.

For those wanting to learn more on this subject, a very good documentary entitled Humboldt in Mexico: The Gaze of the Explorer was released in 2017 from Mexican director Ana Cruz. In addition to scenes of reenactment, it features several expert talking heads discussing Humboldt’s life, science, and legacy. As far as I can tell, Amazon doesn’t sell it, but you can perhaps get a copy through your local library.
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