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While everyone has heard of the 'Humboldt Current', few know anything of the man after whom it was named. Yet Alexander von Humboldt was a towering figure of his time – scientist, explorer, and polymath, imbued with Enlightenment ideas – and he left a profound impact on the intellectual life of 19th century America. Aaron Sachs' colourful intellectual history rescues Humboldt from obscurity, and reveals the impact of a single European on both American thought and the environmental movement.
Aaron Sachs traces Humboldt's legacy by focusing not only on the man himself but on the lives of other remarkable individuals who took their lead from him – explorers of the American mid-West, alienated Romantics, seminal American writers and artists, who together laid the groundwork for the great ecological tradition in 19th century America.
Prologue: Humboldt in America: 1804-2004
The Chain of Connection
Excursion-Exile: Napoleon's France
Part One - East
Humboldt and the Influence of Europe
Personal Narrative of a Journey: Radical Romanticism
Cosmos: Unification Ecology
Excursion-Eureka: The Death of Edgar Allan Poe
Part Two- South
J. N. Reynolds and the "More Comprehensive Promise" of the Antarctic
"Rough Notes of Rough Adventures": Exploration for Exploration's Sake
"Mocha-Dick": The Value of Mental Expansion
Part Three - West
Clarence King's Experience of the Frontier
Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada: The Art of Self-Exposure
"Catastrophism and the Evolution of Environment": A Science of Humility
Excursion-Yreka: Just North of Mount Shasta
Part Four - North
George Wallace Melville and John Muir in Extremis
In the Lena Delta: Arctic Tragedy and American Imperialism
The Cruise of the Corwin: Nature, Natives, Nation
Excursion-Home: The Harriman Expedition
The Grounding of American Environmentalism
Epilogue: Humboldt on Chimborazo
"Through the lives of Americans who followed or echoed Humboldt, this fascinating, insightful book gives us a brilliant new account of U.S. geography and ecology, exploration and eccentricity."
– Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, Prince of Asturias Professor at Tufts University, and Professorial Fellow of Queen Mary, University of London
" [...] a dazzling debut performance by a young scholar-writer of extraordinary gifts. The book itself is a gift – carefully researched, and beautifully expressed, and deeply humane, understanding. The current of Humboldt's influence was vast indeed; it embraced many cultural luminaries of the 19th century, and still reaches out toward all of us today. This is one of those rare works in which historical learning makes a lasting difference on our way of seeing both past and present worlds."
– John Demos, Samuel Knight Professor of History, Yale University
"In this groundbreaking book, Aaron Sachs plucks from relative obscurity the 19th-century Prussian scientist Alexander von Humboldt and demonstrates his profound, lasting influence on many aspects of American culture, including literature, art, science, and environmentalism."
– David S. Reynolds, Distinguished Professor of English and American Studies at the City University of New York
"Alexander von Humboldt – the last "universal man," according to historian Hugh Trevor-Roper – was one of my heroes, as were the explorer-scientists of the American West, and as were their contemporaries, poets and writers such as Whitman and Thoreau, precursors of cosmic consciousness and American environmentalism. But it never occurred to me to bring them all together in one all-encompassing, yet detailed, narrative. That is left to Aaron Sachs in a work of striking originality, meticulous scholarship, and deep humanist sympathy."
– Yi-Fu Tuan, Emeritus Professor of Geography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison