Monday, July 26, 2021

Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America During the Years 1799-1804, Volume 2 by Alexander von Humboldt

From the Orinoco to the Amazon and back
Alexander von Humboldt
Prussian explorer Alexander von Humboldt’s expedition to the New World from 1799 to 1804 was a landmark event not only for the history of scientific exploration but also for the nascent genre of nature writing. Humboldt’s journey to Venezuela, Colombia, Peru, Cuba, and Mexico yielded at least 30 volumes of published findings. Most of these books were specialized tomes on botany, zoology, mineralogy, or cultural geography. His Personal Narrative, however, was intended to be the all-encompassing account of the expedition for general readers. In this three-volume work, Humboldt combines copious scientific data with personal reflections on his travels, including numerous diversions into a variety of fields that represent his staggeringly broad range of interests and expertise.

Though the first volume of the Personal Narrative was a fascinating read, the second volume is more enjoyable, for a few reasons. One is that the entire narrative takes place in Venezuela, since the previous volume already covered the journey to get there. Also, the events related in Volume 2 are unified by a single compelling mission. Humboldt and his traveling companion, the French botanist Aimé Bonpland, set out to investigate the rumor of a natural canal, the Casiquiare, that connects the watersheds of the Orinoco and Amazon river basins. The pair traveled 1,725 miles to establish the veracity of this unique geographical feature. In addition, Humboldt’s writing in this second volume is more accessible than that of Volume 1. His prose reads less like a string of empirical data and more like a series of scientific travel essays.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Humboldt production without multiple asides into topics that interest him, often resulting in digressions within digressions. Humboldt, the ultimate generalist, left no field of study untouched in his explorations. He was an expert not only in the animal, vegetable, and mineral kingdoms, but also in geography, meteorology, astronomy, anthropology, linguistics, and the politics and history of South America. The vast range of subjects he pontificates upon include the influence of physical geography on the worldwide development of agriculture, a tree that produces a milk-like sap, the results of his extensive (and dangerous) experiments with electric eels, the unjust treatment of the Indigenous population by the Spanish missionaries, the chemical properties that determine the different colors of water in various rivers and lakes, the history of cannibalism, the truth behind the rumors of a tribe of women warriors (from which the Amazon river gets its name), and one of Humboldt’s favorite subjects, people who eat dirt (a practice more widespread than you’d think). In all cases Humboldt compares his observations in Venezuela with phenomena he has witnessed and studied throughout the world.

One taxing aspect of the Personal Narrative is that much of Humboldt’s text is devoted to geographical information that could better be conveyed through maps—the direction of mountain ranges, the tributaries of rivers, and so forth. The reader spends a great deal of time wading through a jumble of place names and compass points. Perhaps the original editions of the three volumes included a map or two, but you won’t find them in the public domain versions that you can now download for free. If Humboldt didn’t provide maps, he should have, and if he did, then much of his descriptive text is redundant. Even so, Volume 2 of the Personal Narrative is still a wonderful, intellectually stimulating thrill ride through the sun-drenched plains and dense jungles of South America, with one of history’s great polymaths as your enlightened tour guide.

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Monday, July 19, 2021

The Modern Prometheus by E. Phillips Oppenheim

Guilt-ridden romance
E. Phillips Oppenheim
I recently discovered the work of British author E. Phillips Oppenheim (1866-1946) and have enjoyed reading a couple of his books. He published over 100 novels, most of them thrillers involving espionage, crime, or political intrigue, and many of them bestsellers. Other than 
The Great Impersonation, which is probably his best-known work, I really don’t know which of his books are considered his best. So when I decided to read more Oppenheim, I just scrolled through the novels in the Delphi Classics’ Collected Works of E. Phillips Oppenheim and chose one randomly by title. Looking for a shorter work, I settled on The Modern Prometheus, published in 1896. The title intrigued me because it is reminiscent of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus. I did not expect Oppenheim’s novel to bear any similarity to Frankenstein, but it is surprising that the story doesn’t seem to have any relation at all to the myth of Prometheus.

In the opening chapter, we are introduced to Francis Kernham, a reluctant celebrity in his hometown of London. He is a self-made man who has struck it rich digging for gold in a foreign land (the details of his meteoric career are never really revealed). He has returned to London for the first time in a decade, and his primary goal is to track down an old flame. Ten years earlier, Kernham was a struggling writer in a relationship with an equally struggling young actress. He left her to seek his fortune, knowing full well that he was possibly abandoning her to an iniquitous fate, forcing her to capitalize on her beauty and become a “kept woman” (somebody’s mistress) in order to survive. Motivated by both love and guilt, Kernham is now resolved to find his lost lover and face the truth of her unknown fate.

Oppenheim’s forte may be spy stories and adventure tales, but this is just a romance, and a rather dreary one. It is unclear to the reader why any two people in this novel are in love with each other because we never actually see any of the characters enjoying one another’s company. Though there’s a lot of grandiose talk here about love, the only factors that seem to bind couples together are money and physical attraction. The latter element might be sufficiently captivating for a movie, depending on the casting, but not for Victorian prose. For a novel of this era, The Modern Prometheus is admirably forward in its discussions of premarital and extramarital affairs. This is no erotic thriller that capitalizes on scandalousness, however. The narrative is still hampered by the Victorian code of mores that binds gentleman and ladies. Any sexuality that’s hinted at in the narrative only serves to pile on more guilt.

For the first half of the book, Oppenheim does a great job of keeping the reader guessing as to what exactly is going on between Kernham and his mystery woman. Each chapter ends with a bit of a cliffhanger that makes one look forward to the succeeding chapter. Once the basic premise is revealed and established, however, the novel becomes awfully formulaic and clichéd. In scenes seen countless times in old movies and pulp fiction, the characters all take turns renouncing love in the name of honor.

The Modern Prometheus is one of Oppenheim’s earlier works, so perhaps he was still finding his mature authorial voice. His later works call to mind the thrillers of Arthur Conan Doyle or Agatha Christie. Though this novel was a disappointment, I will continue to delve blindly into Oppenheim’s prodigious body of work, where I know there are gold nuggets to be found.
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