The Magnetic Polymath

Selected Writings

by Alexander von Humboldt, edited and with an introduction by Andrea Wulf
Everyman’s Library, 792 pp., $32.00
Alexander von Humboldt, 1806 ; painting by Friedrich Georg Weitsch
Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin
Friedrich Georg Weitsch: Alexander von Humboldt, 1806

Alexander von Humboldt was born in 1769, the same year as Napoleon, to whom he was formally introduced in October 1804, after his return from five years of intrepid exploration in the Spanish Americas, and whose elaborate coronation as emperor he observed in Paris two months later. Fearing that he still looked a bit rough (“It won’t do to look as though one had gone to the dogs”), Humboldt purchased a fine embroidered cloak for the public celebrations.

Appearance mattered. In 1804 Humboldt’s departure for Europe at the end of his adventure through what was then called the Kingdom of New Spain had been postponed so that he could sail from Cuba to the United States, where President Jefferson wanted to shake the hand of the most celebrated scientist of his time. Jefferson, who had recently purchased from Napoleon a vast swath of land from Montana to New Orleans that nearly doubled the size of the United States, also wanted Humboldt’s advice. No educated man knew more than he did about the previously unexplored regions lying beyond the country’s new border in the southwest.

Jefferson, who kept up a correspondence with his visitor for the next twenty years, described Humboldt as “one of the greatest ornaments of the age.” Charles Darwin signed up for his life-changing voyage on the HMS Beagle in 1831 as a direct consequence of reading Humboldt’s seven-volume (and never completed) Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent. Goethe, who delighted in Humboldt’s company and conversation while sharing many of his wide-ranging interests, had young Ottilie in his novel Elective Affinities exclaim, “How I wish that one day I could hear Humboldt talk!”

Death did not diminish Humboldt’s reputation. On September 14, 1869, ten years after his state funeral in Berlin, the centennial of his birth was celebrated across the globe. Andrea Wulf, whose admirable The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World* emphasized his tremendous influence on nature-writing and the science of climate change, lists just a few of these events in her introduction to her edition of his Selected Writings, a compilation from his immense body of work that is slanted toward Humboldt’s studies of the natural world:

There were parties in Buenos Aires and Mexico City, as well as in Melbourne and Adelaide. In Moscow Humboldt was hailed as the “Shakespeare of sciences” and in Alexandria in Egypt fireworks illuminated the sky. In Berlin 80,000 people trudged through torrential rain to celebrate the most famous resident of their city…. In New York 25,000 people marched along Manhattan’s cobbled streets which were lined with flags and colourful bunting…. Humboldt’s fame, the Daily News in London reported, was “in some sort bound up with the universe itself.”

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