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  • Views of the Cordilleras and Monuments of the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas. A Critical Edition by Alexander von Humboldt
  • Kent Matthewson
Views of the Cordilleras and Monuments of the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas. A Critical Edition. Alexander von Humboldt. Vera M. Kutzinski and Ottmar Ette (eds.), trans. J. Ryan Poynter. annot. Giorleny D. Altamirano Rayo and Tobias Kraft. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013. xxxv + 618 pp., annotations, figures, plates, notes, indices (names, subjects, topics). $65.00 cloth (ISBN 0-226-86506-1).

It would be hard to exaggerate the renown and prestige that Baron Alexander von Humboldt enjoyed throughout the Europeanized world, including the Americas, but especially in Latin America during the first half of the 19th century. Not only did Humboldt’s epic five year (1799-1804) scientific transect through Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador to Peru, and on to Mexico, and Cuba help lay the foundations for many branches of Neotropical natural science including botany, zoology, volcanology, speleology, and geography in general, but returning to Europe he inspired figures such as Simón Bolívar to mount challenges to the Spanish colonial order. The trope of Humboldt as the “second Columbus” or “second discoverer of the Americas” was widely circulated throughout the 19th century in the wake of his travels and equally epic production of his monumental thirty-volume Voyage aux regions equinoxiales du nouveau continent (1805-1838). The volume under review contains much of the material on New World antiquities, ethnography, and linguistics that Humboldt published from his American travels. The reverse coin side to [End Page 289] Humboldt’s immense prestige was the relative decline of his renown following his death in 1859, perhaps abetted by the meteoric rise of Darwinian science and thought after the publication of Origin of Species. That Darwin himself lionized Humboldt did not impede the apparent eclipse of the Humboldtian scholarly mold and mode.

Since his death there have been spikes of renewed interest, mainly at the centennials of his birth (1869) and his death (1959). However, for the past decade there has been a sustained Humboldt revival sparked by the bicentennial of the American travels. Since then there have been dozens of scholarly books, articles, and conferences reappraising (with almost all praising) Humboldt. This edition of the Views of the Cordilleras is part of this “boomlet,” and with its companion volume Political Essay on the Island of Cuba (2011) and a projected Political Essay on New Spain in the same series (Alexander von Humboldt in English), raises the whole enterprise to a new level of accomplishment. The editing is insightful, especially evident in the editors’ introductory essay, the translation inspired, and the annotations simply outstanding. In an age of slipshod printing, this book’s flawless proofing seems almost a fluke. I did catch an actual error or two in the annotations, but not bad out of some 320 entries spanning 100 pages. The annotators had Humboldt “canoeing back to Quito while on the Río de Guayaquil,” a feat even beyond the reach of a Humboldtian Übermensch, given the ascent is some 14,000 feet to reach the pass to Quito! Instead, Humboldt and Bonpland viewed the eruption of Cotopaxi from the Guayas lowlands returning to Guayaquil not Quito. But the level of overall erudition displayed in the annotations truly is a feat, equally lofty and far more than compensatory. So vast is the Humboldt oeuvre – he published prodigiously over a seventy year span – that a great range of his perspectives as well as empirical findings can be pointed to and mapped. The editors show he was of his times, and at other times, well ahead of them. For example, they suggest that part of the novel design of this work – a panoply of sixty-nine plates, some in color, depicting landscape scenes, volcanoes, waterfalls, ancient ruins and monuments, calendrics and codices, folk customs and costumes, and the Dragon Tree of La Orotava (Canary Islands), was to counter Buffon’s, Raynal’s, de Pauw’s, and Hegel’s notion of the young Americas as depauperate and degenerate compared to the Old World’s plenitude and grandeur. Instead, both this volume and his voyage were in part...


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