Erudite yet highly accessible biography of the Prussian explorer and naturalist who altered the 19th century’s intellectual climate and became the godfather of the American environmental movement.
Although Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) was famous and influential throughout the world, he had a special love for the United States and made a particularly strong impact on American thought. He spent some memorable weeks with Jefferson shortly after the dispatch of the Lewis and Clark expedition; he discovered the Pacific ecosystem that bears his name. Sachs (American Studies/Cornell Univ.) depicts Humboldt as a unique talent able to integrate meteorology, climatology, glaciology, botany, zoology and anthropology in order to understand natural resources and their use, all the while applying a thoroughly democratic political critique to the entire enterprise. His appreciation of the unity of diversity and the balance of the natural world, his commitment to understanding and acceptance of his inability to achieve complete understanding, set an almost impossibly high standard approached only in varying degrees by a succession of American disciples. Sachs traces the Humboldtian intellectual current running through the lives and achievements of J.N. Reynolds, instigator of the U.S. Exploring Expedition that discovered Antarctica; Clarence King, first director of the U.S. Geological Survey; Arctic explorer George Wallace Melville; and environmentalist John Muir, founder and patron saint of the Sierra Club. Although Sachs spends too much time rebuking his subjects for any departure from modern-day politically correct pieties, it’s clear he has a thorough understanding of their lives and their place in the story he’s chosen to tell. The book’s greatest achievement lies in its deeply impressive scope, its integration not just of science and exploration, but also of the art, literature and politics of the 19th century. In this, the author achieves a unity and harmony of vision not unlike that of Humboldt himself.
An important reference for anyone interested in this forgotten scientist and his still-vibrant ideas.