The Passage to Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Shaping of America

The Passage to Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Shaping of America

by Laura Dassow Walls
The Passage to Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Shaping of America

The Passage to Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Shaping of America

by Laura Dassow Walls


    Qualifies for Free Shipping
    Check Availability at Nearby Stores

Related collections and offers


Explorer, scientist, writer, and humanist, Alexander von Humboldt was the most famous intellectual of the age that began with Napoleon and ended with Darwin. With Cosmos, the book that crowned his career, Humboldt offered to the world his vision of humans and nature as integrated halves of a single whole. In it, Humboldt espoused the idea that, while the universe of nature exists apart from human purpose, its beauty and order, the very idea of the whole it composes, are human achievements: cosmos comes into being in the dance of world and mind, subject and object, science and poetry.

Humboldt’s science laid the foundations for ecology and inspired the theories of his most important scientific disciple, Charles Darwin. In the United States, his ideas shaped the work of Emerson, Thoreau, Poe, and Whitman. They helped spark the American environmental movement through followers like John Muir and George Perkins Marsh. And they even bolstered efforts to free the slaves and honor the rights of Indians.

Laura Dassow Walls here traces Humboldt’s ideas for Cosmos to his 1799 journey to the Americas, where he first experienced the diversity of nature and of the world’s peoples—and envisioned a new cosmopolitanism that would link ideas, disciplines, and nations into a global web of knowledge and cultures. In reclaiming Humboldt’s transcultural and transdisciplinary project, Walls situates America in a lively and contested field of ideas, actions, and interests, and reaches beyond to a new worldview that integrates the natural and social sciences, the arts, and the humanities.

To the end of his life, Humboldt called himself “half an American,” but ironically his legacy has largely faded in the United States. The Passage to Cosmos will reintroduce this seminal thinker to a new audience and return America to its rightful place in the story of his life, work, and enduring legacy.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226871837
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 11/15/2011
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 424
Sales rank: 876,864
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Laura Dassow Walls is the William P. and Hazel B. White Professor of English at the University of Notre Dame. She is the author most recently of Henry David Thoreau: A Life, also published by the University of Chicago Press.

Read an Excerpt

The Passage to Cosmos

Alexander von Humboldt and the Shaping of America

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2009 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-87182-0

Chapter One


How novel and original must be each new mans view of the universe—for though the world is so old—& so many books have been written—each object appears wholly undescribed to our experience—each field of thought wholly unexplored—The whole world is an America—a New World. HENRY DAVID THOREAU

Humboldt's America

John Locke tells us that "in the beginning all the world was America." In the end, thought the young Humboldt, all the world would be again—an America transformed from place to prophecy, universal freedom restored to humanity through enlightened Republican politics and the spread of science, art, and culture. He was born in the right place and at the right time to imbibe such ideas—Berlin in 1769, to a family of minor Prussian aristocracy loosely attached to the court of King Frederick the Great. Frederick's rule was in its waning years, and accounts make eighteenth-century Berlin sound unprepossessing enough, yet still, it was here that the king had for some years given refuge to Voltaire, the Enlightenment French philosopher-poet who inspired the rise of European liberal thought. While Enlightenment thinking was hardly mainstream, with the blessings of such a king, liberal ideas circulated widely among the city's intellectual elite, including the Humboldts. By the time young Alexander was a college student, he made sure to study in Hamburg, the center of Amerikunde (or American studies), where the political events of 1776 were being turned into an ideology that would become a pillar of nineteenth-century German liberalism. During his five years in prerevolutionary Latin America, he often measured the political discourse he encountered against the standard set by Washington and Jefferson, and before he returned to Europe he made a pilgrimage to the United States to meet the heroes of the American Revolution in person. Thus America was on his horizon from the start.

Late in life he returned to the importance of America to the development of the Cosmos: as he wrote, it was the discovery of America that planted the seeds of the Cosmos, for the land Humboldt liked to call the "new continent" opened a new sense "for the appreciation of the grand and the boundless," making possible "higher views" that would show humanity the interconnections of all phenomena. Columbus himself, wrote Humboldt, understood this, and "on his arrival in a new world and under a new heaven, he examined with care the form of continental masses, the physiognomy of vegetation, the habits of animals, and the distribution of heat and the variations in terrestrial magnetism"—sounding remarkably like Humboldt himself. In their turn, the Spanish writers who followed Columbus opened up important questions still unanswered: the unity of the human race amidst so many variations; the affinities of America's many languages; the migrations of plants, animals, and nations; the causes of trade winds and ocean currents, volcanoes and earthquakes. Never before, Humboldt wrote, had the sphere of ideas been "so wonderfully enlarged." Even in his own day three centuries later, such questions could still enlarge the sphere of ideas by embracing the dazzling diversity of humans, animals, plants, and natural phenomena in a single—today one wants to say "ecological"—vision.

Books, journals, and newspapers across the New World hailed Humboldt as "the second Columbus," the scientific discoverer of America. Partly this was the appeal of coincidence: as his first biographer wondered, who better than Humboldt to write a history of Europe's fifteenth-century discoveries? "Had he not also gone to sea from Spain as the second discoverer of America, and had he not stood on the same spot where Columbus had landed and taken possession of the new continent?" But there were ideological reasons as well: as Alfred Stillé told the graduating class of Pennsylvania College in 1859 (just before it was renamed Gettysburg College after the Civil War battle), Columbus entering Barcelona in triumph with baskets of gold and jewels and surrounded by captive Indians did not bring gifts nearly so precious as Humboldt: "The one opened to Spain the gates of a new empire, the other revealed to the world the secrets of nature and the laws of the universe." While the one caused whole nations to be reduced to servitude, the other "paved the way for the revolutions which rendered the nations of South America once more independent." If Columbus stood for the discovery of riches leading to servitude, Humboldt stood for the discovery of knowledge leading to liberation: even as he had been inspired by the Revolution of 1776, so the next American revolutions were inspired, it was widely agreed, by Humboldt.

Celebrating Humboldt as a "second Columbus" carried darker undertones which the celebrants worked hard to subdue, for as Stillé recalls, the transcendent achievement of Columbus was tainted by the enslavement and genocide of America's indigenous peoples. Though Stillé followed Washington Irving's popular biography (and indeed Humboldt himself) in defending the innocence of the Genovese navigator from the crimes unleashed by his discovery, all Anglo-America rose up to condemn the Spanish conquistadors who came afterward. Indeed, the vehemence of the "Black Legend" that had grown up around Hernando Cortés and Francisco Pizarro—conquerors and destroyers of the Aztec and Inca civilizations respectively—was fanned by the guilt of those who spread it. The more bestial was the violence of the Spaniards and the more cruel their monomaniacal demands for gold, the more easily Anglo-Americans could portray themselves by contrast as agents of humanity and reason. Yet it was not an argument that stood up to close scrutiny. Whereas the Spanish government had made at least some attempt to limit and mitigate the enslavement of both Indians and Africans, the British had introduced slavery to their colonies and the Americans were perpetuating it even as they fought their war of "liberation." And whereas the Spanish had incorporated Indian populations into their colonial administration (and the French had befriended and allied with them), the English had swept them off the map and the U.S. Americans were exiling the remnants to bleak western desert lands. Colonial imperialism had much to answer for, no matter which European nation bore the weaponry.

Humboldt as the "second Columbus" seemed, in an age vexed by imperial anxiety, to redeem all this. He was the "enlightened" discoverer, the anticonquistador, hailing from a weak and fractured nation with no imperial ambitions and celebrated as the center of European learning. He traveled not with armies and weapons but unarmed and alone but for a companion or two, a guide or two, and mules laden with scientific instruments. He took not gold and silver but notes and samples—pebbles and bones, a few flowers and leaves, sketches and astronomical measurements. Of this new and innocent Columbus, all Europe could be proud. As Mary Louise Pratt observes, the naturalist as traveler could both invoke the heroism of the Conquest and provide safe distance from its depredations.

Humboldt was also renowned as the most famous man after Napoleon. The two were exact contemporaries, born the same year, a coincidence that linked them at every birthday memorial. In this pairing, Humboldt continued to represent the antitype to the empire of force and bloodshed. In a poem celebrating "the Napoleon of Science" (written for the Boston Humboldt centennial in 1869), Oliver Wendell Holmes invoked Humboldt's "bloodless triumphs" that "cost no sufferer's tear! / Hero of knowledge, be our tribute thine!" Two anecdotes were widely circulated to confirm this ideology of peaceful conquest. In one, Humboldt, laden with awards and adulation after his return from America, was presented at Napoleon's court. "You collect plants?" asked the emperor. "Yes," answered Humboldt. "So does my wife," sneered Napoleon. In another brush with royalty, the young brothers Humboldt were honored in their Berlin home with a visit by Frederick the Great. Of Wilhelm, the elder, the king is said to have asked, "Do you not wish to become a soldier?" "No, Sire," answered the boy, "I wish to have my career in literature." Turning to Alexander, the king reminded the eight-year-old of his great namesake, the "earth-conqueror." "Do you wish to be a conqueror too?" "Yes, Sire," answered Alexander, "but with my head."

How was it that, three long centuries after Columbus, America still needed to be conquered by knowledge? Even after so many generations, the New World continents were still largely unknown and unassimilated into Western learning, still seen as a problem and a mystery. As J. H. Elliott pointed out in his classic study, America's very existence "constituted a challenge to a whole body of traditional assumptions, beliefs, and attitudes." The newness of the American lands, their flora and fauna and peoples, was so overwhelming that "the mental shutters came down" and Europeans retreated to "the half-light of their traditional mental world." It did not help that the Spanish colonial government refused to publish the reports and observations that came flooding back across the Atlantic, but buried them in archives, forgotten by their own administrators, while forbidding travelers of other nations from entering Spanish territory. The exception was the first scientific expedition in South America, sponsored by France and led by La Condamine from 1735 to 1744, but he and his men traveled with officials who controlled its every movement. Humboldt was faced with a wall of ignorance in Europe and North America alike of the most basic realities of Spanish America, its peoples, and cities no less than its geology and geography, flora and fauna. Much of his writing is directed against the eighteenth-century French naturalist Buffon, who (from an armchair in Paris) proclaimed authoritatively that New World life was degenerate, its climate hostile, its creatures, including its human creatures, diminished in size and potency. One of Humboldt's goals in South America was to confirm the existence of the Casiquiare Canal connecting the Orinoco river system with the continental system of the Amazon, a claim made by La Condamine on the basis of South American reports and disputed ever since. On the very eve of Humboldt's departure, the existence of the Casiquiare was finally and decisively repudiated—on paper—by learned European geographers, even as missionaries and Indians were navigating its waters, as they had been, Humboldt pointed out, for generations.

When Europeans did look at the New World, they tended to see it as the mirror image of themselves, normalizing its alien beings to fit familiar patterns. Anne Bradstreet, the Puritan poet, wrote movingly of hearing nightingales (a British bird) sing in New England; Columbus, facing the Orinoco, located it on the eastern coast of Asia and decoded its meaning in Biblical terms. As Humboldt wrote, the cool evening air, the clarity of the stars, and "the balmy fragrance of flowers, wafted to him by the land breeze—all led him to suppose ... that he was approaching the garden of Eden, the sacred abode of our first parents." The inability to see the New World on its own terms, the need to translate it into the familiar categories of European custom and religion, had serious consequences beyond the irony of Venezuelans barging groceries and mail along an officially nonexistent canal. Indigenous hierarchies were translated into European-style monarchies, so that early Virginians in Jamestown hailed Powhatan as an "emperor," even arranging a royal state marriage to ally English and Algonquin nations through the wedding of his daughter, "Princess" Pocahontas, to the adventurer John Rolfe (a union from which, in a genealogical fable like that of the Mayflower, untold millions of Americans are descended.) The Christian narrative cast Indians as minions of Satan, or else God's lost people (perhaps the descendants of a wandering tribe of Israel), justifying on the one hand genocide, on the other the missionary zeal of Christopher "Christ-bearer" Columbus and the Spanish mission system that so successfully "tamed" and clothed South American Indians, teaching them their catechism while denying them their culture. Secular narratives cast the Indians as "barbarians" (using the Greek word for uncouth outsiders, whose language sounded like "bar-bar"), or "savages" more animal than human, to be eliminated by genocide when assimilation failed. Humboldt thus broke with long tradition when he advised that Indian artifacts, however uncouth to European taste, must not be judged by the standards of classical Greece, and that Indian architecture (what little was left) ought to be valued and preserved, not treated as convenient quarries of precut stone ready for assembly into European buildings. Finally, leveling New World forests to recreate Iberian plains and English meadows had had the unintended side-effects of desiccating the climate and eroding the soil needed to grow crops. Was it not possible, Humboldt argued, to imagine America as America, not a diminished Europe? Did it not have its own identity, and should not its peoples be allowed to seek their own destiny?

In pursuing this argument, Humboldt as "second Columbus" discovered for Europe an America to be seen on its own terms, not as an artifact of Europe's making or an appendage to its power. As he traveled from mission to mission, he sorrowed at the vacant and beaten look of the missionized Indians, and pointed to their unchristianized fellows not as heathen or "savages," a word he repeatedly rejects, but as "independent" peoples with their own distinctive character, dignity, language, and contribution to the great human story. The Creoles he visited and worked with—the American-born peoples of European descent—were, as he reported, restless and angry under colonial rule, and would soon claim their own independence, their own self-governed political, republican future. If African slaves and the "copper-coloured" races were prevented from full realization of their human rights, they too would rise up and throw off their oppressors, as Tupac Amaru had tried to do in Peru and the slaves had succeeded in doing in Haiti. Everywhere Humboldt went he took the temperature of the social as well as the natural climate, and he found it near the boiling point. The laws of nature, just as Jefferson had said in the Declaration of Independence, would soon assert themselves and right the injustices and imbalances in the political realm. And as for American physical nature, Humboldt found it incalculably grander and more sublime than anything Europe had to offer. Here, man had not everywhere dominated and subdued the wild, nor could he, for the destructive forces of volcanoes and earthquakes and the creative power of tropical heat and light would always make American nature an equal, if not a dominant, partner with human enterprise. As later generations would say of the United States, all America was "Nature's Nation."

Thus Humboldt did far more than unlock the closed gates of the Spanish empire; he showed Americans how to imagine themselves as something more than offshoots of European ambition. This is why Humboldt became a culture hero to both Latin and North Americans, from the masses to the intelligentsia. He literally put America on the global map, positioning its history, nations, and resources in relation to the rest of the world, and drawing the detailed and extensive maps by which Americans could find, and know, themselves. He even traced the origin of the very word "America," hitherto a puzzle, to its source in a German mapmaker in 1507, giving it a genealogy not in Columbus's tainted legacy but in the relatively innocent explorations of Amerigo Vespucci. It was widely said (though the story may be apocryphal) that when a young Creole named Simón Bolívar met the triumphant Humboldt at a Paris salon in 1804, Bolívar remarked on "the glittering destiny of a South America freed from the yoke of oppression." Yes, agreed Humboldt—if only someone could be found capable of leading its war for liberation. The rest is, as they say, history: in 1810 Bolívar led the Venezuelan revolution, starting a movement that he carried over the next fifteen years to Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia (named in his honor), and that spread to Mexico in 1821.


Excerpted from The Passage to Cosmos by LAURA DASSOW WALLS Copyright © 2009 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Preface: Romancing the Ruby-Crowned Kinglet
Prologue: Humboldt’s Bridge

Chapter 1: Confluences
Humboldt’s America
Humboldt’s Europe
A New Earth and a New Heaven

Chapter 2: Passage to America, 1799–1804
Portals and Passages
The Casiquiare Crossing
High Peaks and Hanging Valleys

Chapter 3: Manifest Destinies
Humboldt’s Visit to the United States, 1804
The Humboldt Network
The Many Faces of Humboldtian Science
By Land and by Sea
Interchapter: Finally Shall Come the Poet

Chapter 4: “All are alike designed for freedom”: Humboldt on Race and Slavery
(De)Constructing Race
(Re)Constructing Race
Humboldt and American Slavery

Chapter 5: The Community of Cosmos
Franz Boas, Cosmographer
Introducing Humboldt’s Cosmos
Behold the Earth

Chapter 6: The Face of Planet America
The Apocalypse of Mind: Emerson and Poe
The Face of Nature: Thoreau, Church, and Whitman
Dwelling: Susan Cooper, Muir, Marsh

Epilogue: Recalling Cosmos

From the B&N Reads Blog

Customer Reviews