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Reviewed by:
  • The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt by Andrea Wulf
  • Stephen Bell
Andrea Wulf (author) and Lillian Melcher (illustrator)
The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt.
New York: Pantheon Books, 2019. Illustrations, chiefly color, author’s note, online links and sources, selection of Humboldt’s published diaries and letters, picture credits, and acknowledgements. $29.95 hardcover (ISBN 97815244747374); electronic (ISBN 97815244747381).

This work treating humboldtian scientific exploration, or adventuring, stems from a rich research collaboration between Andrea Wulf, the author of a renowned biography of Alexander von Humboldt, and Lillian Melcher, a graduate of the Parsons School of Design, who undertook the graphic work. The format is that of a comic book and the work is classified as graphic nonfiction, a challenging category in classification. While other authorities are treated, mainly important scientific ones, the book is structured above all around the journey made by Humboldt with his French collaborator and assistant Aimé Bonpland to the Americas between 1799 and 1804. But since the dialogs between these two figures are imagined ones, there are heavy elements of storytelling here. These cannot escape issues of historiography. Wulf quickly brings up Humboldt’s extraordinary and laudable capacity for making connections between phenomena and that theme provides a main core for the treatment in the book. While the leading focus is the journey through parts of the Americas, there is scope for including earlier and later experiences. Important concepts are included in this way, such as deforestation and its consequences, or the powers of humans as ecological agents. This approach should be helpful for the stimulation of curiosity in teaching. Scientific influences are ultimately more complex, of course, than can be rendered in a book of this kind.

Given the immense range of themes to treat, including ascents of both a major river, the Orinoco, and the Chimborazo volcano, considered at the time to be the highest peak on the globe, the artwork is impressive. Using the backdrop of some of the manuscripts and collected materials, including specimen plants, proves effective and should stimulate new readers toward Humboldt. Inclusion of pagination would not have helped the aesthetic impact of this book, but its absence makes it difficult to trace the use of the extensive sources behind the research work much of the time. The plates are designed in very [End Page 201] different ways. Some concentrate on the aesthetics of nature, are free of commentary, and encourage contemplation. Others are dense in text and invite close study, with the fold-out plate concerning Chimborazo perhaps the one of single greatest importance, in part for its guidance toward the enduring concept of vertical zonation. Humboldt is treated there as a predictor that global warming will affect the distribution of tropical plants.

Plates particularly valued by this reviewer included one depicting South American crops and cultivation, conveying the idea that commercial crops sometimes depleted soils. The same plate also includes consideration of the vernacular names for plants, that definite adventure of the interface of knowledge systems between western science and vernacular lore. Thus, a tomato that would be named scientifically from Berlin in honor of Humboldt was commemorated by the local population as a cause of constipation, gaining a more earthy name. I also greatly enjoyed the image based on Humboldt’s profile of the physical profile from Acapulco to Mexico City, one that adroitly addresses the challenges of the sheer scale of the movement of the collections gathered by Humboldt and Bonpland, by linking Humboldt’s deep scientific work with the charm and lightness of Melcher’s new visual material. Complicated themes are treated with goodwill and humor throughout the book.

What does not work so well in a shared journey is that the focus is always thrown toward Humboldt, who is presented as an invincible figure, while Bonpland is mainly a worrier and a naysayer. Early in the book, Bonpland is treated as a disappointment to Humboldt, mainly on account of his later perceived slowness to publish when back in Europe. This device skips the context and ultimately much of the achievement of Bonpland’s botanical work. The working relationship between Humboldt and Bonpland is a complex matter and one not easily...