Great Man

David Blackbourn

  • Nature’s Interpreter: The Life and Times of Alexander von Humboldt by Donald McCrory
    Lutterworth, 242 pp, £23.00, November 2010, ISBN 978 0 7188 9231 9

Alexander von Humboldt was once called the last man who knew everything, the last generalist before an age of specialisation definitively set in. His work ranged across geography, geology, mineralogy, botany, zoology, climatology, chemistry, astronomy, demography, ethnography and political economy. When he died in 1859, at the age of 89, he enjoyed cult status as a scientific hero and genius. There has been a boom in Humboldt scholarship over the last twenty years – new editions, monographs and conferences – but readers are most likely to have encountered him in Daniel Kehlmann’s novel Measuring the World (2007). His portrait of two famous scientists, Humboldt and the mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss, is a stylish comedy that gently mocks Humboldt’s belief in an ordered and interconnected universe. Donald McCrory’s new biography, pious in tone and lumpishly written, could hardly be more different.

Humboldt was part of a great flowering of German intellectual life in the decades either side of 1800, the period when Germaine de Staël called Germany the land of poets and thinkers. Quite a few of the writers came in pairs, whether fathers and sons, like the Forsters and Niebuhrs, or brothers, like the Schlegels and Grimms. Humboldt was also one half of a famous pair. His brother Wilhelm, two years older, was a pioneering linguist who served as Prussian minister of education and founded the University of Berlin in 1810 – since 1949 it has been known as the Humboldt University. The brothers were born into the minor Prussian nobility. Their father served in Frederick the Great’s army and became a royal chamberlain. The boys grew up just outside Berlin in the town of Tegel (Alexander called the family home the Castle of Boredom), educated by private tutors. Wilhelm was the prodigy; Alexander was the dreamy, sickly one, happiest when collecting plants and insects. He studied at the Viadrina in Frankfurt on the Oder, then followed his brother to Göttingen, the leading enlightened university in Germany. He made friends with Georg Forster, who had sailed around the world with Captain Cook and written a bestseller about it. In 1790, they visited England together, where Humboldt looked at caves, took in Kew Gardens and met Joseph Banks. After further study in Hamburg, he enrolled in the School of Mining in Freiberg, where he devoured the three-year curriculum in eight months. He entered the Prussian civil service in 1792 and rose quickly through the ranks, trusted with diplomatic duties that went far beyond those usually given to a surveyor of mines. Humboldt also lived another life, publishing his first book in 1790, on the basalt rock of the Rhine valley; other scientific works followed it. He was taken up by Goethe and Schiller, and travelled Europe in pursuit of his geological and botanical interests.

When his mother died in 1796, Humboldt came into money and resigned his position. He prepared for the journey that would make his name. He had hoped to be part of Napoleon’s Egyptian expedition, but this fell through and instead he travelled, with the support of the Spanish crown, to the Americas. Accompanied by a French botanist called Aimé Bonpland, Humboldt left La Coruña in June 1799, stopping briefly in Tenerife before sailing on to Venezuela. There they explored the Orinoco and established its connection with the Amazon river system. They navigated the Orinoco in a 40-foot boat laden with guides, scientific instruments, plant samples, cages for monkeys and birds (including seven parrots), and a dog that was eventually eaten by a jaguar. After returning to the coast, they visited Cuba, of which Humboldt wrote the first detailed physical description. Back in Colombia, they went up the Magdalena River to Bogotá, then on to Quito and Lima, before leaving for Mexico, where they stayed for a year. Another visit to Cuba followed, then a brief stay in the US, where Humboldt was fêted by President Jefferson before returning across the Atlantic to Bordeaux in 1804. In the course of his journey he scaled volcanoes and descended into mines; he witnessed a meteor shower, collected rocks and handled electric eels; he made close studies of the flora and fauna (including the human fauna); he examined everything from the properties of guano to the prospects for sugar plantations. And wherever he went he measured – heights, angles, distances, temperatures.

Humboldt wrote to fellow scientists throughout his trip and sent reports that appeared in newspapers across Europe. He returned a celebrity, ‘our conqueror of the world’, as Goethe later called him. The following year he visited Wilhelm in Rome and took the opportunity to visit Vesuvius. After a short spell in Germany, he went to Paris, where he lived for the next 20 years. Humboldt spoke and wrote French fluently, was an admirer of the French Revolution, although more cautious than his Jacobin friend Forster, and viewed Paris as civilised and cosmopolitan: everything Berlin wasn’t. He became a member of the scientific establishment in Paris and was courted by learned societies from Sweden to the United States.

Humboldt now began the task of writing up the voyage, a task that weighed on him (as he admitted to his publisher, Cotta). In 1808 he described part of the American trip in Views of Nature, his favourite among his books. But he was reluctant to leave anything out, and his writing was both convoluted and digressive. The full account ran to 34 volumes, the last of which did not appear until 1834. Humboldt exhausted his inheritance to publish it (some volumes contained very expensive plates), and financial need, together with the king’s wishes and the desire to be closer to Wilhelm, drew him back to Berlin. He had been appointed a royal chamberlain by Friedrich Wilhelm III in 1805 and, although he declined to follow his brother as minister of education, he visited the Prussian court periodically and accompanied the monarch to diplomatic congresses. In 1827, he returned permanently to the ‘sandy wastes’ of Berlin.

There was one more great journey, an eight-month expedition to the Urals and Siberia in 1829, approved and funded by the tsarist government, keen to acquire evidence about mineral deposits. This was nothing new for Humboldt, whose South American journey had provided the Spanish crown with information on mines and other resources. The earlier journey had led him to tone down his public comments about slavery; the Russian expedition required him to avoid public condemnations of serfdom. In other ways the journeys were dissimilar. The 30-year-old travelled rough with Bonpland; the 60-year-old went across the steppe in a horse-drawn carriage accompanied by two German scientists, a Russian mining expert, a cook, a valet and a changing retinue of Russian minders. The relative comfort came at a price. Humboldt chafed under the restrictions and felt it a small victory when he stretched the itinerary beyond the one originally agreed.

This was a foretaste of life at court. Humboldt was not indifferent to rank, and in 1840 he was made a councillor of state by the new king, Friedrich Wilhelm IV. He had the patter, the easy flattery, of the courtier, but he scorned the conservatives around the throne, disliked the movement of the court back and forth between Berlin and Potsdam, and resented the demands on his time. He kept an inner distance from this social world, finding an outlet in tart observations in letters to friends like Varnhagen von Ense. Humboldt spent the last decades of his life playing the part of the great man. He promoted young scientists and kept up a huge international correspondence – as many as 2000 letters a year, even at the end.

Above all, he wrote. An account of the Russian trip finally came out in 1843. By then Humboldt was already at work on his most ambitious project, Kosmos, which had its origins in public lectures given in the late 1820s. This was to be a natural history of everything in the universe, an up-to-date compendium of scientific knowledge dedicated to showing the unity of nature and aimed at an educated, non-specialist readership. He drew on and generously acknowledged the work of many collaborators; secretaries helped with the preparation. Still, the book oppressed him. Passages had to be repeatedly updated as Humboldt learned of new findings, and writing about one thing led so easily to writing about another, with the result that the text perfectly illustrates what the Germans call ausufern – a flow of writing that bursts its banks. The first volume of Kosmos came out in 1845; the fifth and final part did not appear until 1862, three years after Humboldt’s death. He wanted his great work to be popular, which is why he hid the footnotes away, and the book did become a bestseller. But, as Andreas Daum has shown, there is plenty of evidence that Kosmos was more bought than read (another sign of its modernity), and that it baffled and disappointed many readers. As one of Humboldt’s closest scientific friends told him, it was like ‘a portrait without a frame’.

Humboldt’s scientific range was extraordinary and his influence correspondingly broad. He was a pioneer in the fields of plant geography and terrestrial magnetism; he identified the ocean current that bears his name and he was the first to draw isothermal lines on the map. Scholars now refer to ‘Humboldtian science’, i.e. the use of modern instruments to make careful measurements of interconnected phenomena. Small wonder he had so many admirers at home and abroad. Darwin took Humboldt’s South American writings with him on the Beagle and claimed to know passages by heart. Humboldt and Darwin had in common that their major works stemmed from journeys across the Atlantic, just as they both remained gentleman scholars who never taught at a university. Yet there were differences. The coincidence of Humboldt’s death in the year On the Origin of Species appeared underlines the fact that his work had begun to seem outdated to some contemporaries. His insistence that everything was connected to everything else irritated specialists. He was criticised as an obsessive fact-monger, a hyper-empiricist drowning in detail. Kehlmann’s novel gives this case a good outing, but the charge can be traced as far back as Schiller’s comment that Humboldt was a ‘limited man of reason’ with a mania for measuring things.

None of these strictures can be accepted without qualification, least of all the portrait of a desiccated rationalist, but it seems wrong to overlook the contemporary criticism. Today the supposedly outmoded is fashionable again. Humboldt is cross-disciplinary. His emphasis on the complex links within the natural world (‘everything is interrelationship’) strikes a holistic, eco-friendly note, something emphasised in Aaron Sachs’s book The Humboldt Current (2006). Humboldt has become a talisman in another way too. Ottmar Ette argues in Alexander von Humboldt und die Globalisierung (2009) that his position at the centre of a truly global republic of letters makes him an exemplary figure standing at the beginning of a modern, networked world of scholars.

McCrory provides a basic but unreliable narrative. He likes his subject, but does no kind of justice to the complex character he is dealing with. Humboldt was generous, selfless and loyal; he was also vain, opportunistic and touchy. It won’t do to describe him as a ‘totally inspirational human being’. McCrory refers to Humboldt’s inner doubts and uncertainties, but never takes the measure of a man who offered so many different faces to the world that he was described as resembling ‘a personality welded together out of many different scholars’. He has little to say about Humboldt’s intellectual formation. Could he not have told us about an early tutor, Joachim Heinrich Campe, who was heavily indebted to Rousseau, or noted the special place Göttingen occupied among late 18th-century German universities – the fact, for example, that travel was taught there as a scholarly subject? There is scant mention of patronage. McCrory writes about Humboldt’s correspondence and relations with other scientists but with no glimmer of understanding of the current thinking about scholarly networks. In his passages on Humboldt’s cut-and-paste approach to writing Kosmos, he shows little curiosity about the structure or tone of the work. The account of Humboldtian science is fundamentally misleading in attributing to Humboldt a religious search for the ‘life force’. The book also contains a quite remarkable number of errors. And as for the prose: what can you say about someone who writes that the ‘trips undertaken by Humboldt were both seldom and dangerous’?

Hans-Magnus Enzensberger, about whom I wrote in these pages last year,[*] had a hand in the new editions of Humboldt I mentioned at the beginning. He has also written eloquently on Humboldt’s continuing importance, a message echoed by the recent work of scholars on both sides of the Atlantic and by Daniel Kehlmann’s novel. Donald McCrory’s offering adds nothing to their efforts.

[*] LRB, 25 March 2010.