Bridging the Americas: Humboldtian Legacies

By Buttimer, Anne | The Geographical Review, July 2006 | Go to article overview

Bridging the Americas: Humboldtian Legacies


Buttimer, Anne, The Geographical Review


In March 2003 I was at Louisiana State University (LSU) to deliver the inaugural Evelyn L. Pruitt Lecture on "Landscape, Life and the Heart of Geography: Pioneering Ideas of Alexander von Humboldt." Afterward, Kent Mathewson and I discussed plans for a special sessions on Humboldt to be held at the Association of American Geographers (AAG) meeting in Philadelphia in 2004. The date, the place, and the host context seemed indeed appropriate, for 2004 would mark the bicentennial of Humboldt's landing in Philadelphia, the same city in which the AAG was founded 100 years later. The sessions were lively and well attended, and one of the outcomes was the proposal for a special issue of the Geographical Review devoted to "Humboldt in the Americas." Thanks to the journal's editors and the persistent efforts of Kent Mathewson and Andrew Sluyter, this special issue has now come to be.

"I have come not to see your great rivers and mountains," Humboldt replied to queries, "but to become acquainted with your great men" (quoted in Friis n.d., 43). Even on the day of his arrival in Philadelphia, 24 May 1804, he wrote letters (in French) to Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, wishing to discuss Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia ([1787] 1955) and to tell Madison about his travels in South America (Friis n.d.). On 28 May Jefferson replied enthusiastically, and during Humboldt's subsequent visit to Washington he had ample opportunity to not only meet great men and charm some great women but also to offer highly valuable statistical, cartographic, and textual information on New Spain to Albert Gallatin, then secretary of the treasury. As Mathewson's (2006) article reveals, Humboldt's ideas influenced Jefferson's image of the trans-Mississippi West and his direction of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. The articles in this special issue afford valuable insights into this transatlantic portion of Humboldt's intellectual journey.

Several of the issues raised at the AAG sessions are addressed more comprehensively in the pages that follow. Did Humboldt show characteristically European perspectives in his interpretations of New World phenomena? Did Darwinism eventually eclipse Humboldtian science? What were the impacts of his political and economic ideas on transatlantic commerce and geopolitics? Why the relative neglect of Humboldt's legacy in the United States? New issues are also raised and fresh insights offered. Much has been written, for example, on the anthropological and aesthetic aspects of Humboldt's work in South America. Now Karl Zimmerer's study reveals how much importance Humboldt ascribed to mining and geology, communications and mapping, and the use and distribution of quinine-producing chinchona trees in his Andean research. Sluyter demonstrates the centrality of landscape in Humboldt's representations of places, documented with reference to the Gulf Lowlands and the Basin of Mexico. Suzanne Zeller opens up new horizons on the significance of Canadian research in the pioneering work on geomagnetism and "iso-lines"--among the hallmarks of Humboldtian science (Cannon 1978). This issue of the Geographical Review should therefore allow for deeper reflection on the final question: What relevance do Humboldtian ideas have for practices of geography today?

Enlightenment and Romantic elements have certainly been noted in Humboldt's work. But were these simply European representations of New World phenomena? No writer could claim immunity from influences of the taken-for-granted values and worldviews of his or her formative years. Yet one can surely find in Humboldt's writings a genuine concern to transcend Eurocentric views on the New World. "I have dwelt more at length on such as could throw light on the analogies existing between the inhabitants of the two hemispheres," he wrote in Researches concerning the Institutions & Monuments of the Ancient Inhabitants of America, "and we shall be surprised to find, towards the end of the fifteenth century, in a world we call new, those ancient institutions, those religious notions, and that style of building, which seem in Asia to indicate the very dawn of civilization" (Humboldt [1810] 1814, 2: 2).

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