- Collecting Alexander von Humboldt
“One name only is pronounced today—as we may well say—in all parts of the globe. It is the name of a German, who was at home throughout the world, and whom the whole world recognized as its own.” So the German-American journalist Karl Heinzen began his essay “The True Character of Alexander von Humboldt,” reprinted in its entirety in these volumes for the first time since its original publication in 1869, on the centenary of Humboldt’s birth. As the editors boldly assert, “Alexander von Humboldt’s expedition through the Spanish colonies in the New World (1799–1804) is the most significant phenomenon of cultural contact between Germany and the Americas” (Transatlantic Echoes, 1). These two volumes document, respectively, Humboldt’s reception in the world’s literary imagination and in its critical reflection.
Humboldt did truly fuel the global imagination. His images adorned chocolate bars; his name is engraved on the facades of museums and libraries, his statue graces innumerable city parks; over a thousand political and landscape features (rivers, mountains, an ocean current, towns, and counties), and several on other planets, bear his moniker. His itinerary set the topographical agenda for the representation of the American tropics, and his narratives provided key topoi for the world’s literary and critical meditations on history and progress. It is no accident that Jules Verne gave “the complete works of Alexander von Humboldt” a prominent place in Captain Nemo’s submarine library, as the excerpt from Vingt mille lieues sous les mers provided in Transatlantic Echoes confirms.
The one hundred texts collected in the first volume trace this “echo” in the literary imagination around the globe. They document Humboldt’s resonance across many languages and genres: French, Spanish, Portuguese, German, English, Italian, Russian, Danish, Swedish. References to Humboldt in travelogues from Darwin to Schomburgk to Redmond O’Hanlon are retrieved and collected here, but so are poetry, novellas, essays, memoirs, letters, plays, films, and even landscape painting, documentary photography, and comics. Humboldt’s role in this respect is part of a long history. Travel reports and narratives had been the fuel of imaginative literature, including the first novels, since the sixteenth century, and the interplay between travel and fiction burgeoned in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. To stay within Anglophone literature, think Moore’s Utopia, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Melville’s Moby-Dick, and the Arctic passages of Shelley’s Frankenstein. Travel literature inspired political and cultural criticism, and in the nineteenth century it was supplemented by the new technologies of panorama and steam-powered palm houses, which in turn informed theater decoration and stage sets. The editors could have done more to provide this context—Humboldt comes off as rather too unique, instead of being part of a long history of the imaginative mining of travel literature. [End Page 76]
The second volume excerpts fifty documents that use Humboldt as fodder or occasion for literary, political, or cultural criticism: colonialism and imperialism, the relation of knowledge to power, the relationship of Germany to the world. They include book reviews, letters, speeches and addresses, and scholarly studies by authors as diverse as Sarmiento (Argentina, 1845), da Cunha (Brazil, 1902), and Reyes (Mexico, 1913); de Stael (1817) and Chateaubriand (1820); Schiller (1797) and Erik Honeker (1981); and Thoreau (1862) and Mary Louise Pratt (1992). Humboldt has been an extremely fruitful vehicle for meditating on the relationship between the Old and New Worlds and the trajectory of human history, and a fertile site for reflecting on cosmopolitanism and its imperialist shadow. Among the texts included here are Pratt’s agenda-setting essay on Humboldt from Imperial Eyes (1992), but also several lesser-known earlier Germano- and Hispanophone critiques like the “Estudio Preliminar” to Juan A. Ortega y Medina’s edition of Humboldt’s Ensayo politico sobre el...