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  • Views of the Cordilleras and Monuments of the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas. A Critical Edition ed. by Alexander von Humboldt. Vera M. Kutzinski, Ottmar Ette
  • Kent Mathewson
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, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2013. xxxv + 618 pages, annotations, figures, plates, notes, indices (names, subjects, topics). $65.00 cloth. (ISBN 0-226-86506-1).

At first glance, this monumental work by Alexander von Humboldt, a collection of 69 plates with accompanying essays primarily on landscapes, physical features, ruins and monuments, calendrics and codices, and folk customs and costumes of Latin America, has little if anything to do with the American South. On the surface, that is correct. However, Humboldt (1769–1859), geography’s most illustrious figure during his lifetime (and some would argue for all time), exerted in both oblique and direct ways, impacts and influences on intellectual and scientific life of the American South throughout the nineteenth century. This history has yet to be written. But if and when it is, for example just in the area of geography, Humboldt’s influence on such Southern practitioners as William Dunbar, Eugene W. Hilgard, Matthew Fontaine Maury and Nathaniel Southgate Shaler was formative. Humboldt’s scientific travels and explorations in Andean South America and Mexico—the focus of this book, played a role in inspiring Thomas Jefferson’s decision to send two Virginians, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to explore the newly acquired lands of the Louisiana Purchase. Jefferson followed the young Prussian baron’s tropical travels with great interest, inviting Humboldt to visit Washington at the end of his monumental five-year (1799–1804) “voyage to the equinoctial regions.” Not only was this a meeting of two polymathic minds comparing notes on all manner of things, but for Jefferson a chance to mine Humboldt’s knowledge of the Spanish territories bordering the new U.S. territory. Some of what Humboldt recounted, was no doubt reprised in Views of the Cordilleras (1810–1813), but the volume presents a tableau of plates and essays extending well beyond mere data and descriptions of plants, animals, people and landscapes encountered. Companion volumes in the massive thirty-volume Voyage aux regions équinoxiales du Nouveau Continent (1804–1829), especially the Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain (1811), provided these geographical aspects in detail. The Views in many ways was an experimental work, creating a hybrid of visual and textual knowledge designed not only to instruct, but also to construct a new way of viewing the New World.

Raising again the question of how this work may relate geographically to the American South, one might place it in the context of its contemporary regional readership, viz. a Southern reader (scholar or not) in the 19th century (or into the 20th century for that matter). First, this [End Page 136] edition is the first English translation so the readership would have been limited—far less than the three Personal Narrative travelogue volumes of the Voyage that enjoyed great popular reception. But it, along with the rest of the Voyage volumes, helped plant the notion in the “American mind” that there was an American South, south of the South, namely a Hispanic/Indigenous America. Second this volume’s depictions and commentaries brought to the attention of North Americans the monumental quantities and qualities of Hispanic America’s antiquities—both the massive constructions (“ruins”) and the intricate knowledge systems (codices), far surpassing anything known to exist in North America before European contact. Humboldt’s depictions of Inca and Aztec mounds and monumental works (pyramids) helped spark an interest in local landscape antiquities—particularly the mounds found in many parts of the Eastern U.S. Humboldt’s extraordinarily erudite essays on the knowledge systems depicted in the plates (writing and calendrical systems) countered the notion that New World civilizational traits were necessarily diffused from Old World sources. Like Jefferson, Humboldt was a proponent of the “psychic unity” of humanity—the New World civilizations were sui generis, and on par...


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