On Humboldt’s influence

The Passage to Cosmos

On 20 June 2012, the Historical Geography Reading Group met at Bedford Square to discuss Laura Dassow Walls’s 2009 The Passage to Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Shaping of America (University of Chicago Press).

Walls’s book is concerned with the ways in which Humboldt—both personally and through his writing—shaped American intellectual, literary, political, environmental, scientific, and aesthetic life in the nineteenth century. Her attention is to those whom she calls “Humboldt’s American children” (p. 267), and specifically literary figures such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Edgar Allan Poe, and Henry David Thoreau. It is Walls’s argument that, among much else, Humboldt helped to shape American environmental thought and the emergence of transcendentalism.

Walls’s book engendered an interesting set of discussions about historiography and the ways in which we can trace (or make claims about) the influence and circulation of ideas. The trajectory of Walls’s text is one which, quite understandably, places Humboldt’s Kosmos (1845–1862) as an intellectual and stylistic terminus, but it was felt that rather greater emphasis could have been placed on Humboldt’s wrong turns and lucky breaks as a way of demystifying his genius and highlighting the social contingency of his work.

It was agreed that, for next academic year’s meetings, one book per term would be selected, representing three categories: “Classics” (i.e., texts we should have read, but haven’t yet); “Contemporary” (i.e., recent scholarship); and “Primary” (e.g., historical diaries and letter collections).

The Group—Amy Culter, Felix Driver, Carlos Galviz, Liz Haines, Harriet Hawkins, and Innes M. Keighren—was joined by Katherine Johnston, a visiting doctoral student from Columbia University (in London at the Institute for Historical Research with a Mellon Fellowship in the Humanities).


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