Friday, June 1, 2007

The Humboldt Current

Title: The Humboldt Current: Nineteenth-Century Exploration and the Roots of American Environmentalism (New York: Viking, 2006)

Alexander von Humboldt, painted by Friedrich Georg Weitsch, 1806

Author: Aaron Sachs, asst. professor of history at Cornell, recent grad of the Yale American Studies department. This is his dissertation/first book. He teaches courses on travel and intellectual history.

Argument: Sachs argues that in the search for workable models of environmental thought, we should go back to the time before Darwinism (and therefore social Darwinism) and look at the works of Prussian explorer Alexander von Humboldt. AVH was tremendously popular in America (on the hundredth anniversary of his birth, the New York Times ran a headline across their entire front page reading only "HUMBOLDT"), and his influence, per Sachs, permeated the thought of explorers and scientists during the nineteenth century. Sachs calls AVH "the first ecologist" (2, 12), an appellation AVH deserves because of his commitment to seeing the world as an interconnected whole; respecting the power of nature; creating a vision of human ecology in which man lives with the earth (rather than preserving it - as later enviro groups would seek to do - or exploiting it); and viewing indigenous groups as equal to those who explored their territory. Sachs seeks to show how AVH's thought influenced that of Antarctic explorer JN Reynolds; geologist and mapper of the American West Clarence King; Arctic explorer and engineer George Wallace Melville; and John Muir himself, at early points in his thought, before he slips into full-on preservationist mode for maximum political expediency.

Sachs' book is lighthearted, clear, Romantic, full of puns and jokes (he wonders if somebody named the town of Yreka, California while planning a palindromic business to be named the "Yreka Bakery" [269]), sincere, and personal - he includes anecdotes about his own wilderness travel, stories about research trips, etc. I loved this book's style, and would definitely seek to emulate it.

"View Looking Toward the Nevada and Merced Falls, from Glacier Point", by Carleton Watkins (from Josiah Dwight Whitney, The Yosemite Book; A Description of the Yosemite Valley and the Adjacent Region of the Sierra Nevada, and of the Big Trees of California.... New York, 1868). Watkins accompanied King on some expeditions, though King preferred Timothy O'Sullivan as photographer - Sachs posits that this is because O'Sullivan had a greater propensity to portray landscape as inhabited and sometimes challenging and un-Romantic.

Engages with: Sachs refers to the work of William Goetzmann, major historian of American exploration, who, he says, provided a useful framework but "does not account for the extent to which the 'current objectives' of nineteenth century American society might have been many-sided and intensely contested, rather than monolithic and pre-ordained" (18). A book which wants to dismantle constructions of explorers as exploiters will have some heavy hitters to answer to. Sachs, particularly, contends with Mary Louise Pratt, of Imperial Eyes, who sees Humboldt's science as hubristic (as Sachs describes her argument, "the distorted dream of an arrogant colossus"). Sachs writes that although it's true that AVH could be seen as a tool of colonial exploiters, and the "attempt to make things knowable" is fraught with difficulties, "it's hard to imagine anyone navigating these intellectual shoals as carefully and conscientiously as Humboldt did." AVH's concern for native peoples, the attention to specificities of the places he visited, and his vision of a web of global ecosystems, which, Sachs says, "reminds us of our ultimate dependence on foreign lands," should all counter Pratt's condemnation, Sachs argues (51-2).

Although he doesn't, so far as I can see, engage with Kolodny's Lay of the Land, I couldn't help but think about the two in tandem, given my recent reading of the latter. I am convinced that the intellectual currents described in Sachs' book allow for a much more humanistic reading of explorers who were aware of the ambiguities in what they were doing (as opposed to Kolodny's men, blindly driven by Freudian impulses, the provinces of which they knew not).

1. "The Chain of Connection":
Sets up Humboldt's influence in the States, and the themes of his thought which will be reiterated throughout the book: "his deep feeling of awe and appreciation for the great variety of landscapes and cultures that his obsessive traveling allowed him to experience..." (13) Acknowledges the caveats one must apply when analyzing the thought of nineteenth-century explorers - their indebtedness to capitalism; the awful uses to which their knowledge was put; the racism some of them exhibited - but maintains that despite all of this, exploration, when taken on in the Humboldtian spirit, had the capacity to permanently challenge the dominant societal beliefs of the explorers. This chapter also gives a short intro to each of the four Humboldtian explorers Sachs proposes to examine.

East: Humboldt and the Influence of Europe
2. Personal Narrative of a Journey: Radical Romanticism:
In this chapter Sachs lays out Humboldt's thought in this book, which "tempered the dream of an impersonal objectivity with a conscientiously subjective gaze" (43). Humboldt's global vision, as developed on trips up the Orinoco, begins to develop. Sachs describes some of AVH's personal habits - which included a propensity to form bonds only with traveling companions and environments, never women, much like Kolodny's Natty Bumppo - and lays out his mostly-egalitarian thought on native inhabitants of explored lands ("AVH's withering attack on colonialism at times reads as though it were written in the twenty-first century by a left-leaning expert on international environment and development issues" [69]).

3. Cosmos: Unification Ecology: Humboldt's masterwork, Cosmos, was written as a result of a lecture series he gave in Germany upon his return from his South American explorations. Humboldt had a specifically public intention in his scholarship - he thought that if people knew more about the world, "ultimately, they would rebel against the authoritarianism and Christian orthodoxy of the Prussian state and create a society in which every individual could experience the kind of 'astonishment' Emerson found in nature" (75). As you could guess from that last sentence, Humboldt's influence on the transcendentalists and Whitman is also explored in this chapter. Sachs also uses Frederic Church and his paintings, in which nature "stood primarily for itself rather than for any divine blessing or reprimand", as exemplars of Humboldt's influence in the visual arts (99).

"Heart of the Andes," by Frederic Church, 1859

South: JN Reynolds and the "More Comprehensive Promise" of the Antarctic
4. "Rough Notes of Rough Adventures": Exploration for Exploration's Sake:
The story of explorer JN Reynolds, an Ohio boy who ended up sailing to Antarctica, illustrates the influence Humboldt had over those who came of age when he was in his ascendency: "Reynolds did not arrive in South America the way his role model had, as a confident, well-trained, committed scientist, and he would never achieve Humboldt's acute understanding of environmental interconnections and social injustices...but his letters and journals do reveal a genuinely Humboldtian zeal for precise observation and expansive views, for contact with the world, for connective experiences" (118). Reynolds was self-taught, and first came to prominence on the coattails of J. Cleves Symmes, who traveled the country in the antebellum era lecturing about his theory that the earth was hollow at the poles and possessed of a habitable center. He soon broke away from this mentor and, through force of will, convinced private industry to finance a trip to the Antarctic. On this trip, he was critical of the materialistic motivations of the sealers along with him, and began to mount critiques of the way capitalism saw nature. Moreover, he soon was "led to the Humboldtian conclusion that nature demanded both hubris and humility" (138).

5. "Mocha-Dick": The Value of Mental Expansion:
In his later years, Reynolds was bitterly disappointed after the command post of an expedition which he had wrangled together was taken away from him for political reasons and given to a hackish Army officer who didn't have at all the same interest in true vision. As the expedition sailed, Reynolds wrote a book called "Mocha-Dick; or, the White Whale of the Pacific" (1839), which Melville was said to have read, as well as Poe (whose Arthur Gordon Pym was, Sachs claims, cannibalized from Reynolds' travel narratives). The book was a "deeply ambivalent examination of American power" (149). Sachs looks at Melville's more famous Moby-Dick (1851) at the end of this chapter, tracing its associations with Reynolds' and Humboldt's concepts of interdependence and social ecology.

A hollow earth, like the one Reynolds' erstwhile mentor John Cleves Symmes believed in.

West: Clarence King's Experience of the Frontier
6. Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada: The Art of Self-Exposure:
Enter Clarence King, a Yale-trained geologist whose passion is surveying the country west of the Mississippi. Like Humboldt, King cannot manage to get married or feel comfortable in "normal" society, but maintains several "romantic friendships" with traveling companions, who, in his case, included Henry Adams and John Hay (who once was Lincoln's personal secretary). King faced several central conflicts, including the question of whether he should be an artist (receptive/Humboldtian) or a scientist (analytical/processing/cold/exploitative); how much he should participate in the accumulationist mode of exploration; and where he was to fit in in the increasingly specialized world of American science. These conflicts, Sachs holds, torment King, eventually driving him to a deep depression and an asylum in the 1890s. But not before he helms several expeditions to the West, exploring in Nevada along the 40th Parallel, taking along with him photographer Timothy O'Sullivan, recently returned from the Civil War. Together, Sachs wrote, King and O'Sullivan "rebelled against the tradition of sentimentalism" that produced photographs such as those by William Henry Jackson - "this was why they produced dark images of exhausted men confronting all sorts of dark, exhausted landscapes" (219).

7. "Catastrophism and the Evolution of Environment": A Science of Humility: King, as geologist, advocates for a science of "catastrophism," which says that disastrous earth-events have shaped the course of human history. In so doing, he goes up against those who argue that geological time has proceeded at a predictable pace, with evolution carrying itself out along understandable, delineated courses, and disrupts the ideas of the social Darwinists, who believe that the supremacy of homo sapiens (particularly, homo of the white variety) indicates his superiority and capability: "King argued for an understanding of human-environment interactions that accepted Darwin's model of speciation but reinstated a Humboldtian model of respect for nature's determinative power" (249). Here Sachs discusses the state of science in a time of specialization, prestige, and reigning ideas of Social Darwinism, and how King rebelled against and abhorred much of the presiding climate.

"Virginia City Mine," Timothy O'Sullivan, ca. 1869

North: George Wallace Melville and John Muir in Extremis
8. In the Lena Delta
: Arctic Tragedy and American Imperialism:
George Wallace Melville, Navy man who was an engineer on a fatal expedition to the Arctic in 1879 (on the ship Jeannette), makes an appearance as Humboldtian because of his respect for the native tribes he encountered in Siberia, and his continuing desire to mount expeditions for the pure sake of human knowledge, rather than aggregation of capital. (Note: section here on Melville's ideas about "Esquimaux" food, p 285). Ultimately, Melville's overwhelming attitude toward the North is one of humility: "The implication...which drifts just below the surface of his entire narrative...[is] that even the brightest, best-equipped white Americans could never understand the Arctic landscape well enough to master it" (296).

9. The Cruise of the Corwin: Nature, Natives, Nation: John Muir, the most well-known of Sachs' subjects, makes an appearance here in a chapter which seeks to reveal the Humboldtian roots of his early thought, before his efforts were diverted into a (as Sachs would say) semi-cynical effort to preserve some few wild places. The titular book, written in 1881, showed Melvillian humility, respect for native life-ways, and interest in the ways in which man could adapt to the Northern ecosystem (rather than leave it completely alone, but for visitation).

The canonization of John Muir in the national parks.

10. The Grounding of American Environmentalism:
Muir makes a nice segue, as Sachs contemplates how the Saint Muir construction has ossified into an unproductive emphasis on "wild" space, to the expense of urban ecologies and everyday spaces ("Muir's legacy can be powerfully constraining, not to mention undemocratic" [343]). Sachs points out several twentieth-century figures who, he would claim, have continued a Humboldtian tradition: Franz Boas, Carl Sauer, Lewis Mumford, Murray Bookchin. He then sums up by calling for a renewed commitment to social ecology with a global viewpoint, and musing Romantically on the values of travel, exploration, and connection.

"The Icebergs," by Frederic Church, 1861 - Church wanted to show Humboldt this painting, but he was too late - AVH had already passed away by the time he finished.

Reviews: The book was blurbed by Mike Davis ("magnificent"), David Reynolds ("groundbreaking"), John Demos (one of Sachs' professors), and Yi-Fu Tuan ("a work of striking originality, meticulous scholarship, and deep humanist sympathy"). But I couldn't find any reviews on JStor. I must be doing something wrong. What happened? On H-Net's German list, H. Glenn Penny wrote that Sachs' "passion for exposition often overwhelms his analysis", and takes issue at the idea that Humboldt has been forgotten, pointing out that in Europe he certainly is not (um, that's the point - this book is about America...) And in the New York Times, Candice Millard reviewed the book, saying that there were too many characters and this distracted from AVH himself - an assessment with which I wholly disagree.

Good stories: Quote from Hugh St. Victor, from the twelfth century: "The man who finds his country sweet is only a raw beginner; the man for whom each country is as his own is already strong; but only the man for whom the whole world is as a foreign country is perfect" (16). Humboldt used to apply electrodes to his body to demonstrate the effects of electricity (huge pustules resulted) - shades of Bogdanov! (55) Louis Agassiz used to exhort his students at Harvard, while they were learning dissection, to "Look at your fish!" (191) Clarence King once described Henry Adams as a "mere cerebral ganglion" (246). The term "Indian summer" came from the fact that during early colonization in New England, the re-warming of the climate at the end of fall often meant that Indians would carry out their last attacks before the winter - lends a whole new meaning to "Indian summer is like a woman" (310).

Things I should know more about, historically:
Whiggery. Positivism.

New words: "schist" ("a crystalline rock whose component minerals are arranged in a more or less parallel manner"); "theodolite" ("a portable surveying instrument, originally for measuring horizontal angles, and consisting essentially of a planisphere or horizontal graduated circular plate, with an alidad or index bearing sights"); "hygrometry" ("that branch of physics which relates to the measurement of the humidity of the air"); "sere" (dry or withered); "telluric" ("of or belonging to the earth, terrestrial; pertaining to the earth as a planet; also, of or arising from the earth or soil"); "indurated" (made hard); "scorbutic" (a substance which is meant to counteract scurvy, like lime juice); "asthenia" ("lack of strength, diminution of vital power, weakness, debility").

Alexander von Humboldt, photographed by an unknown German artist, 1857

Books to follow up on: Primary: Helen Hunt Jackson, A Century of Dishonor (1881); books by Carey McWilliams; Edgar Allen Poe, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838); Mark Twain, Roughing It (1872).

Secondary: Jonathan Auerbach, Male Call: Becoming Jack London (1996); James Clifford, Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century (1980); David Lowenthal, The Past is a Foreign Country (1988); Edward Lurie, Louis Agassiz: A Life in Science (1960); Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America (2001); David Miller, Dark Eden: The Swamp in Nineteenth-Century American Culture (1990);
Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (1992); Thomas Schoonover, Uncle Sam's War of 1898 and the Origins of Globalization (2003); Rebecca Solnit, Savage Dreams: A Journey into the Landscape Wars of the American West (2000); RM Young, Darwin's Metaphor (1985).

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