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  • Views of the Cordilleras and Monuments of the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas: A Critical Edition by Alexander Von Humboldt
  • Ralph Bauer

Indians Of Mexico, Mexico Antiquities, Peru Antiquities, Andes Region Antiquities, Mexico Description And Travel, Peru Description And Travel, Indians Of South America Andes Region Antiquities, Alexander Von Humboldt, Ralph Bauer, Vera M. Kutzinski, Ottmar Ette

Humboldt, Alexander Von. Views of the Cordilleras and Monuments of the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas: A Critical Edition. Ed. Vera M. Kutzinski and Ottmar Ette. Trans. J. Ryan Poynter. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2012. xl + 618 pp.

The Prussian polymath geographer and naturalist Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) has long been something of a household name to students of Latin American literature and history. By contrast, his legacy among Anglo-American readers has suffered somewhat from the nationalist parochialism that has long characterized the North American understanding of “America” both as a geographical and as a historical concept. This parochialism is easily traced to the rise of an aggressive US expansionism in the mid-nineteenth century, which militated against Humboldt’s cosmopolitan vision and hemispheric understanding of America’s history. The fact that none of his works were originally written in English presumably did not help. His works were gradually marginalized in the United States, even though in his own day they were still widely admired by such prominent Anglo-Americans as Thomas Jefferson, himself a cosmopolitan who had welcomed Humboldt as his guest during the latter’s visit to Washington in 1804. If Humboldt is currently seeing something of a revival in historical and literary scholarship in the United States, it is largely thanks to the transatlantic and inter-Americanist collaboration of Vera Kutzinski, a professor of English and Comparative Literature at Vanderbilt, and Ottmar Ette, a professor of Romance Languages [End Page 505] at the University of Potsdam (Germany), as well as the research team assembled at the University of Potsdam. This collaboration has already resulted in a number of important recent publications, including the collection Alexander von Humboldt and the Americas (2013), which features essays by literary and cultural historians of science as well as several primary documents; a new edition of Humboldt’s Political Essay on the Island of Cuba (2011); and the first complete English edition and translation of the Vues des cordillères et monuments des peuples indigènes de l’Amérique, one of the works based on Humboldt’s extensive five-year travels through the Americas from 1799 to 1804 in the company of the French botanist Aimé Bonpland (1773–1858). The text was originally published in French in seven folio installments between 1810 and 1813 as part of his monumental Voyage aux regions équinoxiales du nouveau continent, which appeared between 1805 and 1838 in a total of thirty volumes, and which stands today as the origin of modern tropical zoology, botany, geography, and geology. Vues was a sort of a travel catalog structured into sixty-nine “views,” each of which consisted of an engraving based on the travelers’ sketches of New World natural landscapes, cityscapes, indigenous monuments and cultural artifacts, and Humboldt’s detailed observations and encyclopedic commentaries. For example, in his “view” of the Cotopaxi, the engraving based on Humboldt’s sketch of the famous South American volcano stands at the center of his detailed scientific descriptions, his measurements comparing its gigantic proportions to the greatest volcanoes of the Old World, a history of the awesome spectacles presented by its eruptions, and the cultural significance attributed to it in indigenous Andean cultures. Not all of the “views” originate with Humboldt’s experiences during his American travels, however. Thus, a plate depicting a Mexica codex located at the Vatican Library forms the center of his meditations on the nature of various systems of “writing” (hieroglyphic, alphabetical, etc.), on what they can tell us about the spread of cultures and languages across the globe, and about what he saw as the universal evolution of human cultures.

The present volume reproduces all sixty-nine plates that adorned the original edition and the original page references in the margins; the English translation by J. Ryan Poynter is very readable and clear, striking...


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