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A vivid biography of Alexander von Humboldt enlightens, but lacks greater historical context

The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt

Andrea Wulf, author; Lillian Melcher, illustrator
Pantheon Books
2019
272 pp.
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Making Alexander von Humboldt’s life, his works, and his thinking accessible to the public is one of the goals of this year’s commemoration of the 250th anniversary of his birth. As a result, not only have a large number of books been published that provide new insights into Humboldt’s scholarship, there are numerous attempts to explain Humboldt to a larger audience. Among the latter, we find The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, a graphic novel that combines text written by Andrea Wulf, author of the 2015 Humboldt best-seller, The Invention of Nature, with illustrations by artist Lillian Melcher.

In The Invention of Nature, Wulf connected research undertaken over many years by numerous scholars and converted it into an engaging narrative of Humboldt’s life. The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt follows a similar model. Whereas the former book extends along his entire life, the latter covers only Humboldt’s expedition through the Spanish colonies.

This new book offers a vivid and detailed description of Humboldt’s travels, using his personal travel annotations, drawings, cartographic material, and botanical collections that he prepared as inspiration. As the title suggests, the narrative focuses on the dangerous and adventurous aspects of those travels through South America. Yet, it is more than a children’s adventure book: through illustrative explanations, it reveals the details of the scientific work undertaken during the voyage. As such, the combination of text and illustrations turns out to be a helpful didactic tool.

With the exception of some historical inaccuracies and conceptual mistakes—for example, Humboldt was not only granted permission to travel to South America, but was allowed to enter the entire Spanish empire, including the Philippines—the book is well researched, drawing from primary sources. It also accomplishes another goal of the Humboldt 250 celebration: to take Humboldt out of his historical context and connect him to the challenges we are facing today.

However, the story told in this graphic novel does not offer “a completely new perspective,” nor was Humboldt “largely forgotten” before the apparence of Wulf’s Invention of Nature, as the publisher claims. Many publications on Humboldt have appeared over the years, based on distinct interpretations of the Prussian explorer. Accordingly, many different images of Humboldt have been created.

Wulf’s Humboldt is certainly more sympathetic and easier to identify with than, for instance, the introvert data collector depicted by Daniel Kehlman in Measuring the World. However, her interpretation is based on a rather hagiographic approach, which portrays Humboldt as a source of restless inspiration for his contemporaries and a shining hero for those who came after. In doing so, she fails to take into account the incremental nature of the knowledge he acquired and the simultaneous development of equivalent concepts by others.

This ignores both the broader historical context and Humboldt’s own scientific methodology, which consistently connected his findings to the works of others. Should the aim of such a book be to establish a cultural dialogue and promote international scientific collaboration, this mythical image of Humboldt may actually be a disservice, perpetuating an imperial tradition that neglects other epistemological legacies.

When one attempts to reach out to nonscholarly audiences, it is crucial to consider one’s goal, as well as the accuracy of the message conveyed. Instead of immediately introducing Humboldt as “the most famous scientist and explorer in the world,” and repeating this message throughout the book, it would have been better to situate his contributions within a broader context, comparing his work with those of other explorers. In a year in which we also recognize the anniversary of another crucial exploration, the 500th anniversary of the departure of the first circumnavigation of the Earth, it might have been useful to discuss the context of Humboldt’s expedition and the conditions that enabled him to undertake this endeavor.

Keeping these concerns in mind, The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt is nonetheless an enjoyable and at the same time didactic book from which the general reader will surely profit.

About the author

The reviewer is a consultant for the Institute for Foreign Relations in Stuttgart, Germany.