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Northeastern Naturalist, Volume 8, Special Issue 1 (2001):121–134

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Proceedings: Alexander von Humboldt’s Natural History Legacy and Its Relevance for Today 2001 Northeastern Naturalist Special Issue 1:121-134 “HERO OF KNOWLEDGE, BE OUR TRIBUTE THINE:” ALEXANDER VON HUMBOLDT IN VICTORIAN AMERICA LAURA DASSOW WALLS * ABSTRACT – Alexander von Humboldt has been a neglected figure in American intellectual and cultural history. His visit to the United States in 1804, his many connections with American scientists, explorers, politicians, writers, and artists, and the wide popularity of his books, all show Humboldt to be of great significance to nineteenth-century America. This essay traces the course of Humboldt’s fame in Victorian America, the reasons for his special connection with the United States and for the precipitous decline in his reputation, and closes with a consideration of Humboldt’s legacy in American art and literature. Alexander von Humboldt was to nineteenth-century America rather like Albert Einstein was to the twentieth century: the iconic scientist, whose intellect was so far beyond the ordinary as to seem mystical, superhuman, fabulous, yet curiously benign. As Hermann Klencke said, Humboldt is “a fabulously miraculous individual, over whom the report of mysterious adventures throws a supernatural halo” (1853). Yet portraits of Humboldt show a kindly, white-haired gentleman, stooping slightly, with a hint of a smile and a twinkle in his eyes. Nineteenth-century America cannot be fully understood without this most sociable of great scientists, for his influence on America was far out of proportion to the length of his brief visit here in 1804. My discussion will range across four aspects of this topic: first, I will briefly survey the course of Humboldt’s fame in Victorian America; then, I will inquire into the reasons for this special connection with the United States; third, I will ask why such high fame met with such a precipitous decline; and finally, I will say a few words about Humboldt’s legacy in American art and literature. Humboldt left America in 1804 planning to return someday, and although his plans never materialized, the links forged during his brief visit were maintained and developed for decades, through correspondence and the frequent visits of Americans to Humboldt in both Paris and Berlin. For decades, information was exchanged between Humboldt and a surprisingly large number of prominent Americans – scientists, artists, literary figures and government officials – tying him to this country through a network of contacts, suggestions, favors, and obligations. Had he returned, he would have explored the Western territories in person, but * Department of English, Lafayette College, Easton, PA 18042. wallsl@mail.lafayette.edu 122 Northeastern Naturalist Special Issue 1 when the American West was finally explored by state- and federallysponsored expeditions, the science and the methods were Humboldt’s. From him, Americans learned how to answer the most practical and essential questions about mineral deposits, agricultural lands, climate and rainfall patterns, the customs and languages of indigenous peoples—and above all, how to produce that first necessity: a good map. By the end of the 1850s, the blank map of America had indeed been filled in, thanks to a massive appropriation of national resources – amounting to a third of the federal budget –critical to the professionalization of American science. To this effort, Humboldt served as a model and a cheerleader, using his letters to praise explorers such as John Frémont, Charles Wilkes, Alexander Bache, and Matthew Maury, and in 1850 engineering an award to Frémont from the King of Prussia, the “Great Golden Medal of Progress in the Sciences” (Foner 1983).1 The first wave of exploration, followed soon afterward by European immigrants who settled the new territory, peppered the American landscape with places named after Humboldt (Table 1). Frémont named much of Nevada after Humboldt, and in 1863 the entire state almost received Humboldt’s name. Although Humboldt place-names occur 1 For further information on Humboldt’s links to American science and exploration, see Goetzmann (1986), Cannon (1978), and de Terra (1955, 1960). The argument outlined here and in the next several pages is developed at length in Walls (1990). Table 1. Humboldt Place Names, United States (selected from Oppitz 1969) Cities and Counties: Geographical Features: Humboldt, Arizona Humboldt Bay, California Humboldt County, California Humboldt Lake, Minnesota Humboldt City, California Humboldt Lake, Nevada Fort Humboldt, California Humboldt River, Nevada Humbolt [sic], Illinois Humboldt Salt Marsh, Nevada Humboldt County, Iowa Humboldt Reservoir, Pennsylvania Humboldt, Iowa Humboldt Flats, California Humboldt, Kansas Humboldt Heights, California Humboldt, Michigan Humboldt Hill, California Humboldt, Minnesota Humboldt Mountain, Arizona Humboldt Village, Minnesota Humboldt Peak, Colorado Humboldt, Nebraska Humboldt Range, Nevada Humboldt County, Nevada Humboldt Park, Buffalo, New York Humboldt City, Nevada Humboldt Park, Chicago Humboldt, Nevada Humboldt Redwoods State Park, California Humboldt, Ohio Humboldt State Forest, Nevada Humboldt, Pennsylvania Humboldt Cave, Nevada Humboldt, South Dakota Humboldt Mine, Colorado Humboldt, Tennessee Humboldt State University, Arcata, California Humboldtsburg, Texas (Humboldt Current, South America) Humboldt Township, Wisconsin Humboldt, Wisconsin 2001 L.D. Walls 123 world wide, the U.S. honored Humboldt in this way far more than any other country: taking only major geographical features, Europe claims 11; Latin America, 13; Canada and Greenland, 8; and the United States, 37 (Oppitz 1969). That this was a conscious act of veneration for the now-aging Humboldt is suggested by the letter written to Humboldt in 1858 by John B. Floyd, Secretary of War: Never can we forget the services you have rendered not only to us but to all the world. The name of Humboldt is not only a household word throughout our immense country, from the shores of the Atlantic to the waters of the Pacific, but we have honored ourselves by its use in many parts of our territory, so that posterity will find it everywhere linked with the names of Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin. Included with the letter was an album of nine maps, showing lakes, rivers, mountains and cities named after Alexander von Humboldt (de Terra 1955). That Humboldt took all this in stride is suggested by Theodore S. Fay, an American ambassador in Berlin, who reported that one day Humboldt remarked, while holding an open letter just received from America, “I wish you to know that I am a river about 350 miles long; I have not many tributeries, nor much timber, but I am full of fish” (Agassiz 1869). It was when Cosmos began appearing, in 1845, that Humboldt came into his own as a cultural figure in America. Before that time, he was certainly known within scientific, literary, and political circles, but there was little about him in the popular press. In the years following the publication of the first two volumes of Cosmos, reviews, accounts, gossip, biographies and memorials of Humboldt appeared everywhere, from the North American Review and The New Englander to the Methodist Quarterly and Godey’s Ladies Book. Of course many Americans never got deeper than the periodical literature; that said, there were, of course, many who did not settle for a second-hand acquaintance. Cosmos was issued in two competing English translations, one reprinted in America and both readily available; simultaneously, the newly revised edition of Ansichten der Natur was also issued in two competing translations. 2 A newly translated, 3-volume version of Personal Narrative came out in 1852,3 and full-length biographies began appearing: Juliette 2 Vols. 1-2 of Cosmos were translated by E.J. Sabine and published in London by Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, 1846-49. Vols. 1-4 of Cosmos were translated by E.C. Otté and published in London by Henry G. Bohn, 1849-58; they were reprinted in New York by Harper and Brothers, 1850-70. Ansichten der Natur (1849) was translated by E. J. Sabine as Aspects of Nature (Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1849; reprinted by Lea and Blanchard, Philadelphia, 1849), and by E.C. Otté as Views of Nature (Henry G. Bohn, London, 1850). 3 The translator and editor was Thomasina Ross (Henry G. Bohn, London); there was also an abridged edition by W. Macgillivray, The Travels and Researches of Alexander von Humboldt (1833, J. & J. Harper, New York, 367 pp.), which Emerson owned. 124 Northeastern Naturalist Special Issue 1 Bauer’s translation of Klencke’s Lives of the Brothers Humboldt was published in New York in 1853, followed by Richard Henry Stoddard’s The Life, Times, and Books of Alexander von Humboldt, also in New York, in 1859, and eventually, the English translation of the definitive 2-volume Life of Alexander von Humboldt (Bruhns 1873). Thus in the years just before the Civil War, a flurry of books by and about Humboldt hit the American market. The fuss was all too much for one exasperated reviewer, who complained in 1850 that while Humboldt’s writing is intelligent and instructive, it is never profound; he is “one of those irreproachable mediocrities” which “you hear everybody praise.” The sympathy of the general public is thus inflamed: Hence we see Humboldt addressed familiarly by speculators in canals or railroads; and ship-owners presume to honor him by marking their water-wagons of trade with his name. This might be a compliment to an Astor or even a Baring; but who would think of thus complimenting the name of a Bacon, a Gallileo [sic], or Napoleon? (Anonymous 1850) More typical is the reviewer who praised the Introduction of Cosmos for giving “an impression of the age itself, in its best features,” in a “rare union” of German idealism with true science (Anonymous 1846). In a review widely reprinted in America, the British scientist John Herschel praised Humboldt in grand terms: Science has produced no man of more rich and varied attainments, more versatile in genius, more indefatigable in application to all kinds of learning, more energetic in action, or more ardent in inquiry; and we may add, more entirely devoted to her cause in every period of a long life. (Herschel 1848) The Boston poet and essayist Henry T. Tuckerman found in Humboldt the model of the true “Naturalist” who unites minute observation with grand central truth, always connecting the facts of science with human welfare and culture, thus “drawing into the sweetest union poetry and philosophy” – in short, “the Napoleon of science” (Tuckerman 1850). Bayard Taylor pronounced Humboldt “the world’s greatest living man” (Taylor 1857); Frederic Henry Hedge, of Transcendentalist fame, compared Humboldt with Aristotle, and the Honorable Theodore S. Fay ranked him with Aristotle, and Plato, as well (Agassiz 1869). Robert Ingersoll, lecturer and professional atheist, dubbed Humboldt the Shakespeare of science (Ingersoll 1878). Literary figures were touched by the Humboldt phenomenon, too. Washington Irving was one of Humboldt’s earliest American visitors (Schwarz 1997). Edgar Allan Poe dedicated his last book, Eureka, to Humboldt in 1848. Walt Whitman wrote Leaves of Grass with a copy of Cosmos on his desk. Ralph Waldo Emerson began reading and referring to Humboldt as early as 1821, and throughout his life Emerson invoked 2001 L.D. Walls 125 Humboldt as the heroic scientist, “a universal man,” in whose shoes travelled “a university, a whole French Academy” (Agassiz 1869). Henry David Thoreau encountered Humboldt at a crucial turning point in his career, and thereafter adopted Humboldt’s methods and philosophy to his own work as a naturalist, invoking Humboldt as one of his highest personal heroes (Walls 1995). Indeed, as Humboldt’s vision united natural science with the arts, humanities, and social sciences, so did his memory literally bring together scientists, theologians, scholars, politicians, and poets. One of the most remarkable celebrations of the centennial of Humboldt’s birth was held in Boston. Here Emerson joined his friend, the natural scientist Louis Agassiz, at an impressive gathering of New England’s intelligentsia. At a reception following Agassiz’s two-hour address – on which Agassiz worked so hard that he collapsed afterward, never fully recovering – speaker after speaker rose to honor Humboldt’s memory: Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Frederic Henry Hedge, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charles T. Jackson, and the Mayor of Boston, among others. Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, poet and Harvard professor, contributed a poem; Higginson read a second poem, written for the occasion by Julia Ward Howe, social activist and author of “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” The evening closed with a letter from the poet John Whittier, applauding Humboldt’s “approval and sympathy” for the anti-slavery cause during its darkest days. Over eighty subscribers contributed a total of nearly $7,000 – approximately $140,000 today – toward a permanent memorial, the Humboldt Scholarship, intended to aid students of Natural History in Agassiz’s Museum of Comparative Zoology at Cambridge (Agassiz 1869). A closer look at the two poems contributed to the occasion helps define the role Humboldt played in the culture of nineteenth-century America. In Julia Ward Howe’s poem, Humboldt is nature’s immortal “priest,” the “saint” of study who loosened the gates of the “treasury of science” and “Gave to the multitude her gift divine.” Humboldt thus stands as a mediator between “high Truth” and the needs of common humanity, too dedicated to the “earnest errands of the age” to be delayed by “idle pomp nor futile joy:” He cannot pause when kings and courtiers praise him: Too short the daylight is, too wide the page. Humboldt’s paradise is thus “a citadel of service,” and one of his great services to humanity was the opening of the American West: Shine out, O West! illumined by his traces, Ere the cramped world took notice of thy state; He gave the record of thy virgin graces, And in prophetic vision saw thy fate. 126 Northeastern Naturalist Special Issue 1 Ironically, then, this poem associates Humboldt with the exploration of a land he never actually saw – yet the identification of Humboldt with the United States is felt to be irresistible. Oliver Wendell Holmes’ poem expands on Tuckerman’s epithet for Humboldt as “the Napoleon of Science” by celebrating the “double birth” in 1769 of Napoleon, “heir of empires yet to be,” and Humboldt, whose empire would be larger still: His was no taper lit in cloistered cage, Its glimmer borrowed from the grove or porch; He read the record of the planet’s page By Etna’s glare and Cotopaxi’s torch. In Holmes’ poem, the true hero is not Napoleon, blood-red despot, “Master ... of the sons of earth,” but Humboldt, their “Servant” who “unrolled the gospel of the storied globe, / And led young Science to her empty throne.” At poem’s end, Holmes turns to the voice of humanity itself, a voice which cries out for the “‘despot’s laurels’” to be torn out “‘by the root’” while the“‘long-forbidden tree of knowledge’” be bent within the reach of all; finally, the brotherhood of humanity proclaims that Napoleon’s fame should be utterly eclipsed by Humboldt’s: “Bring the white blossoms of the waning year, Heap with full hands the peaceful conqueror’s shrine Whose bloodless triumphs cost no sufferer’s tear! Hero of knowledge, be our tribute thine!” As the poems suggest, although Humboldt was honored world-wide, Americans perceived a special affinity connecting Humboldt with the fate of their nation. American writings about Humboldt frequently referred to him as “our friend,” or “always the friend of Young America.” As Stoddard wrote, “to be an American was almost a passport to his presence” (Stoddard 1859). Of all the foreign countries represented in Berlin, it was the Americans alone who formed a part of Humboldt’s funeral procession. What accounts for this special sense of connection? First, Americans were proud to claim Humboldt as “the second Columbus,” “the scientific discoverer of America” whose reputation was made on our continent – thus, in a characteristic move, claiming all of “America,” North, South, and Central, for the United States. As Agassiz reminded his Centennial audience, it was, after all, Humboldt who had originally traced the very name “America” to its source in a German mapmaker. Furthermore, Humboldt was a direct link to America’s founding fathers: “He lived through the period of the American Revolution; he was a contemporary with Washington and Adams, and a friend of Jefferson” (Lieber 1869). Humboldt liked to call himself “a man of 1789,” and one American visitor, Bayard Taylor, recalled 2001 L.D. Walls 127 him saying, “I belong to the age of Jefferson and Gallatin, and I heard of Washington’s death while travelling in South America” (Taylor 1857). Humboldt thus offered a living monument to America’s own revolutionary past. Second, Humboldt’s reputation rode the crest of what Theodore Parker called the “German craze,” that period of fascination with all things German that characterized a number of New England intellectuals in the early to mid-nineteenth century (Grefe 1988). Third, Americans felt a comfortable fit between Humboldt’s vision of a universal harmony, of nature as a free and interconnected whole, and their own mainstream version of natural theology (whereby God governed by natural law) and of democratic nationalism. That is to say, Americans in certain regions felt this fit: Humboldt’s support came overwhelmingly from the North and the West. His unconditional opposition to slavery made him a staunch ally of the anti-slavery radicals, especially during the superheated 1850s. In 1856, the abolitionist candidate for the presidency was none other than Humboldt’s own John Frémont, and Humboldt’s name was drawn into the election propoganda. Although Frémont lost to Buchanan, the election helped to draw the sectional lines, uniting the North and West against the South. [Meanwhile, back in Prussia, Humboldt pushed the King to pass a law in 1857 declaring that any slave became free upon stepping on Prussian soil, another moral victory for Humboldt’s New England friends (Foner 1983).] As the association with Frémont suggests, Humboldt had actively supported the expansion of the free states to the Pacific coast, and expansionists seeking support for the doctrine of Manifest Destiny were quick to point out that all the world’s great empires had arisen in succession along Humboldt’s isothermal zodiac – and America was next in line. Thus Humboldt gave the United States both the blueprint for expansion, and the rationale, as well as the inspiration to carry on the revolutionary ideals of the Old World into the New. It is necessary to ask, then, why the fervent enthusiasm for Humboldt went into such a rapid and total eclipse. When I began to research Humboldt in the late 1980s, virtually none of my colleagues had ever heard of him, and I grew accustomed to finding him footnoted as nothing more than a German traveler and mining engineer – and, on occasion, seeing him confused with his brother Wilhelm. How could Alexander’s fame have evaporated so quickly? For one thing, the Civil War effectively cut American culture in two, leaving Humboldt on the side of the distant past, before the country’s consolidation into a global industrial power and an emerging nation-state. In addition, the death of Humboldt in the same year as the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species (1869) marks a conservative turn in scientific and social thought. After Darwin’s theories had been popularly translated into 128 Northeastern Naturalist Special Issue 1 proof that an alien and deterministic nature was locked in a bitter contest for survival, Humboldt’s optimistic vision of natural diversity creating order and harmony seemed both old-fashioned and naive. As Humboldt slipped into obscurity, awareness of his foundational role in the science of ecology and in the American environmental movement faded as well. He was also, in a sense, a victim of his own success: his presence everywhere meant that he was nowhere in particular, leaving behind no Figure 1. Title page from Physical Geography by Arnold Guyot (1873; Scribner, Armstrong, and Company, New York). Succeeding editions continued to reprint this portrait of Humboldt on the first page. 2001 L.D. Walls 129 field or school to bear his name – a truth recognized by Louis Agassiz in his 1869 memorial address: See this map of the United States; – all its important traits are based upon [Humboldt’s] investigations; . . . . But for him our geographies would be mere enumerations of localities and statistics. . . . Every schoolboy is familiar with his methods now, but he does not know that Humboldt is his teacher. The fertilizing power of a great mind is truly wonderful; but as we travel farther from the source, it is hidden from us by the very abundance and productiveness it has caused. (Agassiz 1869) That said, it is still possible to trace Humboldt’s legacy in American culture, literature, and art. One line leads through his students, friends, and followers. These include Agassiz himself, Harvard’s stellar natural scientist and a protegé of Humboldt’s, who had left Switzerland for America in 1848 at Humboldt’s urging and thanks to the funding Humboldt had arranged; and Agassiz’s friend, the Swiss geographer Arnold Guyot, who emigrated to America after the Revolution of 1848 to become professor at Princeton for many decades and founder of the teaching of geography in American classrooms (Fig. 1). There was also George Perkins Marsh, whose 1864 book Man and Nature, or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action marked a watershed in American environmental thought, and who saw himself as a direct follower of Humboldt and Guyot. Another American who was directly inspired by Humboldt was the great landscape painter, Frederic Edwin Church. In Cosmos, Humboldt had established that in the pairing of artist and scientist, it was the role of the artist to awaken the moral and intellectual faculties through the aesthetic sense – to stand in for nature, as it were, and “incite” us to heightened appreciation of the real thing, thereby initiating a cycle: the emotion of pleasure leads to the desire for knowledge, which in turn enhances enjoyment. Thus, the artist and the scientist encourage and complete each other in a rising spiral by which mind and nature are intertwined. As Thoreau put it, “A true account of the actual is the rarest poetry.” Therefore the artist must also be enough of a botanist to identify and understand plant forms, enough of a geologist to comprehend and communicate the forces which build and erode great land masses – and skilled enough to communicate knowledge and pleasure to all, in service to a higher, democratic cause. Humboldt discussed three kinds of art in particular as “incitements” to nature study: literary, or poetic descriptions of nature; gardening, or the culture of exotic plants; and landscape painting. For Humboldt, landscape painting was no “merely imitative art” but “a result at once of a deep and comprehensive reception of the visible spectacle of external nature, and of this inward process of the mind” (Cosmos II: 86). Of 130 Northeastern Naturalist Special Issue 1 course, every zone of earth has its “peculiar beauties,” but greater diversity meant greater sensual stimulation, so the mountains of the equatorial tropics would offer the richest field to the landscape artist. “Why may we not be justified,” Humboldt asked, “in hoping that landscape painting may hereafter bloom with new and yet unknown beauty, when highly-gifted artists shall oftener pass the narrow bounds of the Mediterranean, and shall seize, with the first freshness of a pure youthful mind, the living image of the manifold beauty and grandeur of nature in the humid mountain valleys of the tropical world?” (II: 83-84). Humboldt’s call was answered not by a British or European artist, but by a young American, Frederic Church, who on the heels of his apprenticeship to Thomas Cole bought, read, and re-read Cosmos (Gould 1989). In 1853, and again in 1857, Church retraced Humboldt’s steps to the high tropics of South America, even occupying the same house in Quito, Ecuador that Humboldt had lived in nearly sixty years before. Church became the most renowned artist in 19th-century America by setting himself to be the Humboldtian painter of heroic landscapes. The ultimate example of Humboldtian aesthetics is seen in Church’s most famous painting, “Heart of the Andes” (Fig. 2). This immense canvas was first exhibited in New York in 1859, and thereafter became a travelling sensation; after its triumphant New York showing, Church sent it to Europe to have it shown to Humboldt himself, then 90 years of age. [Humboldt, alas, died before the painting left for Berlin (Gould 1989).] Several features mark this painting as Humboldtian. First is the epic scale: of the canvas itself (it is 10 feet wide), of the scene depicted, and of the high seriousness of its presentation; this painting is meant to move us through awe and wonder, awakening us to the beauty and significance of Nature’s overwhelming spectacle. Second is the famous accuracy of the botanical details, and the geological understanding of the mountain’s structure. Third is the suppression of details for the sake of the whole; though criticized by some for lack of unity, the composition still reads as a coherent picture, not as an aggregate of details. Fourth and finally is the manner in which information is arranged in multiple levels. As a whole, the painting is itself finite, though it implies infinity in the complexity of the vegetation and the misty distances. It is literally, that is to say, a composition: composed of and by means of the details; composed by the mind and eye of the artist, in interaction with the physical nature of South America. Church thus demonstrates one of Humboldt’s crucial points: while the Cosmos is infinite, and we can never know it all nor reduce it to a single principle, we can group interconnected elements of it into compositions of our own making. Thus, it is that Humboldt titled his own most popular, and favorite, book Ansichten der Natur—variously translated as “Views” or “Aspects” of 2001 L.D. Walls 131 Figure 2. “Heart of the Andes” by Frederic Edwin Church (1859); owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY. 132 Northeastern Naturalist Special Issue 1 nature. There is, he recognized, always a certain arbitrariness to this view-shaping process: every whole we compose out of the richness of nature is itself cut out of a greater whole, and composed of smaller ones. So one can move in and out of Church’s landscape, composing new landscapes on various levels: now a view of a waterfall; now a closeup of the tangled vegetation, illustrating the visual appearance of the local plant community. Critics at the time celebrated this painting as actually four, five, or even six paintings in one; and at its public showings, viewers were provided with binoculars or viewing frames in which they might compose from it their own pictures. Humboldtian aesthetics effectively produced nature as a cultural value, but for Humboldt this was not an end but a means. Cultural artifacts were to act as incitements for the study and appreciation of actual nature; through the resulting spiral of pleasure and knowledge, human destiny would be advanced toward peace, individual freedom, moral progress, communication and the exchange of goods and ideas. Such ideas were a powerful inspiration for one of America’s most beloved literary artists, Henry David Thoreau. Originally trained at Harvard as a classical scholar, Thoreau was drawn to the transcendental ideas of Ralph Waldo Emerson, his friend and neighbor in Concord, Massachusetts, from whom he may well have first heard of Humboldt. Although one of Thoreau’s earliest essays, “A Walk to Wachusetts” (1842), already invoked Humboldt as the heroic naturalist-explorer, it was not until after Thoreau’s own excursion to Walden Pond that Thoreau began to construct himself in a similar mold. The turning point came around 1850, when Thoreau’s effort to reinvent himself as a naturalist coincided with an intensive reading of all the books then available by, or about, Humboldt, and soon afterward by such Humboldtians as Darwin, Agassiz, and Guyot. From that point forward, Thoreau modeled himself after the Humboldtian naturalist, exploring nature in the field, collecting specimens and measurements, and connecting a staggering wealth of empirical data into patterns that led to poetic and philosophical conclusions. Thoreau completed Walden (1854) during his first surge of enthusiasm for Humboldtian science, and his later natural history essays are reminiscent of Ansichten der Natur, with their emphasis on the perceiving mind’s composition of discrete but interrelated “views” out of nature’s infinite possibility. Moreover, Thoreau’s late science writings show him developing and applying his empirical form of transcendentalism to many of the same problems which then engaged the Harvard botanist Asa Gray, as well as Gray’s British correspondent Charles Darwin; Thoreau’s embrace of Humboldtian science thus put him in the vanguard of those who welcomed Darwin’s evolutionary ideas in all their ecological dimensions (Berger 1996). 2001 L.D. Walls 133 The coincidence of a number of events – Humboldt’s death and the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species, both in 1859; the onset of the Civil War in 1861, and Thoreau’s own premature death in 1862 – all collectively mark a historical turn in America away from the hopes and energies characteristic of the antebellum years. In those years, Humboldt had been a sympathetic and watchful scientific godfather to a new republic still bright with promise. To study America’s Victorian past while ignoring Humboldt seems comparable to studying our own century under the assumption that Albert Einstein was an obscure German patent clerk. Moreover, recovering Humboldt’s vision gives us an historical precedent for many of our own hopes and ideals: that a harmony might emerge from the free interaction of democratic peoples; that in appropriating nature for our own ends, humanity will lead not to destruction but to a new and higher creative union; that the mind is not separate from nature, exerting control over it, but emerges from contact with nature in a social ecology by which each is constantly composing and recomposing the other. In Humboldt’s legacy, all of our actions and thoughts – including your reading of this, my own understanding of Humboldt – are a part of the living community of the Cosmos. LITERATURE CITED AGASSIZ, L. 1869. 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