Change and Transformation: Voyaging with Poe and Alexander von Humboldt
Douglas Anderson. Pictures of Ascent in the Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe; Laura Dassow Walls. The Passage to Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Shaping of America


Douglas Anderson . Pictures of Ascent in the Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe . New York : Palgrave Macmillan , 2009 . xii , 201 pp . $85.00 cloth .

Laura Dassow Walls . The Passage to Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Shaping of America . Chicago : Univ. of Chicago Press , 2009 . xv , 404 pp . $35.00 cloth, $20.00 paper .

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“Alexander von Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland in the valley of Tapia on the foot of the vulcano Chimborazo.” Painting by Friedrich Georg Weitsch (1810). PD-Art.

In April 1850, the United States Magazine and Democratic Review opened a short notice of the first two volumes of Alexander von Humboldt's Cosmos by noting that, “while the name of Humboldt [was] familiar to every one, few, perhaps, [were] aware of the peculiar nature of his scientific career.” The monthly reminded readers that Humboldt, who was then over eighty, had made a great “survey of the American continent” from 1799 to 1804 and since then had worked assiduously in every branch of science, publishing a great wealth of material. Asserting that the first volume of Cosmos“comprise[d] all” that was then “known of the physical universe,” the Democratic Review commented that no work in recent memory had appeared that was “more acceptable … to those who appreciate[d] the enjoyment of scientific research”[26 (April 1850): 382]. Over the next several years, Humboldt's five-volume Cosmos became a transatlantic bestseller. Both directly and through extensive discussions of the work, Humboldt became well enough known in the United States that in section 24 of “Song of Myself,” published in 1855, Walt Whitman, the epic poet of democracy, could introduce himself as “Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos”[Leaves of Grass, and Other Writings (New York: Norton, 2002), 680]. The spelling of “kosmos” serves as a reference to the German title of Humboldt's masterwork. And so too does Whitman's 1860 poem “Kosmos,” in which the poet uses Humboldt's concept to define a new human ideal. The “kosmos” is that individual who,

out of the theory of the earth and of his or her body understands by subtle analogies all other theories,

The theory of a city, a poem, and of the large politics of these States;

Who believes not only in our globe with its sun and moon, but in other globes with their suns and moons


Humboldt, a visionary discoverer of new worlds, Whitman suggests, opened the possibility of a more complete realization of human potential than hitherto was possible.

Born in Berlin in 1769, Humboldt, who was educated at Frankfurt and Göttingen, became the most distinguished scientist of the first half of the nineteenth century. Out of the epic expedition he took to the Americas with Aimé Bonpland, and then a long and productive life devoted to exploring the entire range of human knowledge, Humboldt formulated new ways of understanding the natural world and exploring humankind's relationship to the ecosystem, a concept that he was the first to define. Humboldt's prophetic vision of the interconnectedness of all life remains even more relevant in today's era of environmental degradation and global warming than when he decried the destruction of forests in South America over 200 years ago. An important advisor on scientific expeditions to Thomas Jefferson, whom he visited in the White House, Humboldt, as Laura Dassow Walls demonstrates in her excellent The Passage to Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Shaping of America, became a powerful presence in American literature and American life more broadly. Walls skillfully takes the reader on a fascinating voyage or “passage” back to the origins of Humboldt's world in the Germany of his youth, to his journey through the Americas, and forward to his long career as a scientist, culminating in Cosmos, a work he didn't live quite long enough to complete. A life-long supporter and proponent of American democracy, a man who considered himself “half-American,” Humboldt was also sharply critical of the nation's betrayal of that promise through slavery and other practices. As did Aaron Sachs in The Humboldt Current: Nineteenth-Century Exploration and the Roots of American Environmentalism[New York: Viking, 2006], Walls makes a persuasive case for Humboldt's continuing importance in a time of global peril. And she also demonstrates, better than any previous scholar, just why he must be considered in any study of the development of America over the first half of the nineteenth century and beyond.

As both Walls in Passage and Douglas Anderson in Pictures of Ascent in the Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe make clear, Humboldt figures importantly in the work of Poe, who dedicated Eureka to him “with very profound respect.” Poe considered Eureka his crowning achievement, much as Humboldt valued Cosmos as the work that not only synthesized what was known about the universe but also gave definitive shape to his thoughts on how to study it. Anderson points out that “long before Poe dedicated Eureka to Alexander von Humboldt in 1848, his fiction began to respond to … the cosmological thinking of his day” [77]. Quite obviously, the scope and purpose of Walls's wide-ranging book, which considers Humboldt's life, scientific achievements, and relationship to the Americas, and that of Anderson's much shorter work, which focuses on Poe's fiction, are different. Yet the two volumes, like their subjects, complement each other in significant ways. Both Poe and Humboldt invite readers to participate with them on voyages to the end of the earth and even to the furthest reaches of the cosmos, taking the reader back to the most distant past and forward in time and space.

At once a work of science and of art, Eureka raises a question that goes to the heart of Humboldt's project: defining the shifting boundaries between the two. In his short preface, Poe explains that he offers “this Book of Truths, not in its character of Truth-Teller, but for the Beauty that abounds in its Truth; constituting it true.” Again, he writes, “What I here propound is true.” He also insists, “it is as a Poem only that I wish this work to be judged after I am dead”[Poe: Poetry, Tales, and Selected Essays, ed. Patrick F. Quinn and G. R. Thompson (New York: Library of America, 1996), 1260]. Is Eureka a work of art or science? How does the imaginative writer or scientific investigator make use of techniques associated with the other field? These questions were being asked widely in antebellum America, which the historian of American science George H. Daniels has referred to as “the emergent period,” 1820–1860. Daniels observes: “By the middle of the century, the earlier pattern of gentlemanly scientific activity was rapidly becoming obsolete. The amateur was in the process of being replaced by the trained ‘specialist’—the professional who had a single-minded dedication to the interests of science. The emergence of a community of such professionals was the most significant development in nineteenth-century American science”[Isis 58 (1967): 150–66; quoted in American Literature and Science, ed. Robert J. Scholnick (Lexington: Univ. of Kentucky, 1992), 10–11]. By no stretch of the imagination could Poe be called a “scientist,” a term coined on 24 June 1833 at the meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science by the British polymath William Whewell to identify those who devoted themselves exclusively to the pursuit of scientific understanding, which increasingly demanded mathematics. And yet, as I have shown in “Eureka, the Lyceum, and Cosmic Science,” in Eureka Poe develops insights into the origins and destiny of the universe that anticipate later discoveries [Poe Writing/ Writing Poe, ed. Richard Kopley and Jana Argersinger (New York: AMS Press, forthcoming, 2012)]. Nevertheless, as a result of these changes in the structure of scientific investigation, at the end of the period it would no longer be possible, even for polymaths like Humboldt and Whewell, to make fundamental contributions to the dozen or more fields, from anthropology to physics and semiotics, in which Humboldt excelled.

In developing their respective theories of the cosmos, both Poe and Humboldt insist on the role of the imagination. At the conclusion of his introduction to Cosmos, Humboldt writes, “It would be a denial of the dignity of human nature and the relative importance of the faculties with which we are endowed, were we to condemn at one time austere reason engaged in investigating causes and their mutual connections, and at another that exercise of the imagination which prompts and excites discoveries by its creative powers”[Cosmos: A Sketch of a Physical Description of the Universe, trans. E. C. Otté (London: Bohn, 1849), 78]. Drawing explicitly from a range of philosophers, including Goethe, Kant, Hegel, and Schelling, this vibrant essay speaks of the essential role of the imagination in science. To read it is to be reminded of why Humboldt remained essential not only for Poe but also for Emerson, Whitman, Thoreau, and many others who were centrally concerned with these different but complementary ways of understanding in a time of disciplinary upheaval. Further, Humboldt pursued his work free of the limitations of the dominant tradition in Anglo-American science, that of natural theology, in which scientific investigations were expected to yield insights into the continuing presence of the Divine in the created universe. By way of contrast, Humboldt insisted on viewing nature “rationally,” as he wrote in introducing Cosmos. It is only “thus, and thus alone, that is it permitted to man, while mindful of the high destiny of his race, to comprehend nature, to lift the veil that shrouds her phenomena, and, as it were, submit the results to the test of reason and intellect”[24–25].

In their attempts to comprehend and explore the cosmos, from the furthest reaches of space to the smallest atoms, both Humboldt and Poe enter the narrative in their own voice, not so much to call attention to themselves but to guide the reader. One purpose of Cosmos, Humboldt explains in the introduction, which he subtitles “Reflections on the different Degrees of Enjoyment presented to us by the Aspect of Nature and the Scientific Exposition of the Laws of the Universe,” is “to combat those errors which derive their source from a vicious empiricism and from imperfect inductions”[18]. Imaginative vision and the possession of large ideas that we associate with the artist are also central to the scientist: “The higher enjoyments yielded by the study of nature depend upon the correctness and the depth of our views, and upon the extent of the subjects that may be comprehended in a single glance”[38]. In Eureka, too, Poe insistently combats narrow empiricism.

Humboldt's ideas of the relationship between climate, environmental conditions, and incidence of disease have proven to be foundational as we think about patterns of the spread of disease globally. But according to Nicholaas A. Rupke, one area he failed to address was the consequences for public health of the life of the impoverished in the crowded cities, a field in which his contemporary, the physician Rudolph Virchow, another great progressive scientist, did such important work [“Humboldtian Medicine,”Medical History 40 (1996): 293–310]. In his path-breaking Report of the Sanitary Commission of Massachusetts (1850), Lemuel Shattuck, the pioneering Boston crusader for public health, ironically writes that “London, with its imperfect supply of water,—its narrow, crowded streets,—its foul cesspools,—its hopeless pauperism—its crowded grave-yards,—and its other monstrous sanitary evils, is as healthy a city as Boston, and in some respects more so”[quoted in Sickness and Health in America, ed. Judith Walzer Leavitt and Ronald L. Numbers (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin), 3]. Coming shortly after Poe's death in October 1849, the observation also applies to the other American cities that defined the arc of the writer's career: Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York. Contrary to the widespread trumpeting of American progress, urban America became steadily more dangerous and unhealthy, with the death rate rising from 28.1 per thousand to 30.2 from 1815 to 1839 [3]. Residents of overcrowded urban America, with its contaminated water, deplorable sanitation, and ever-present threat of devastating outbreaks of disease, must have experienced the vertiginous sensation of being carried in a boat over which they had no control—in danger at any moment of being dragged into what Anderson calls an “urban vortex.” Anderson convincingly explores some of the complex ways in which disease-ridden urban America, which “ultimately consumed Poe's talents and life,” figures complexly in his fiction [1].

Poe's career as a writer of fiction, Anderson observes, is bounded by the two great cholera epidemics that struck the United States in the first part of the nineteenth century, in 1832 and then in 1849. Poe did not live to learn of the 1854 discovery of the great British physician John Snow that cholera was a water-borne disease, a discovery that led to a public health revolution, so that when cholera struck New York in 1866, the outbreak was contained. Cholera seized its victims suddenly, killing between fifty and sixty percent within a day. Anderson argues that “cholera's dramatic impact on the ‘lineaments’ of its victims lies behind this sickening conflation of psychological and physiological symptoms” in Poe's fiction [19]. With another devastating nineteenth-century scourge, tuberculosis, which claimed Poe's wife, Virginia, death came slowly, bringing other forms of suffering. Anderson considers the complex ways that in its several manifestations disease came both to “infect” Poe's language and to stimulate his imagination. As America came to see itself as “increasingly beset with cultural as well as physiological plagues and fevers,” this theme gained in resonance. The power of such stories as “Berenice” and “Morella” is due to Poe's ability to “blend the transmissible powers of language and of disease in a formidable and mysterious partnership”[35].

But just as Poe's imagination came to be haunted by disease, so too, Anderson demonstrates, was he absorbed by accounts of the astounding scientific discoveries that circulated throughout the country. Over the course of Poe's career, a series of books, important to both Humboldt and Poe, dramatically transformed understanding of the physical world. Charles Lyell's 1830–33 Principles of Geology (not mentioned by Anderson) established the great age of the planet as well as the principle of uniformitarianism, which held that the same laws in effect today were also in operation in the past. More than any volume, John Pringle Nichol's Views of the Architecture of the Heavens (1837) popularized the idea, developed by Kant and Laplace, of “the nebular hypothesis,” which spoke of a universe in constant process of formation through the agglomeration of atoms in space. Also crucial to Poe, Anderson shows, was Robert Chambers's anonymous The Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844), although Poe denied having read it. Introducing the concept of evolution or transmutation of species, Vestiges served Poe as a “provocative synthesis of contemporary scientific thought”[77]. It synthesized ideas from a wide variety of fields to present an imaginative vision of growth and transformation throughout the cosmos. Here too Humboldt, who published the first volume of Kosmos in German in 1845, claimed that “the fruitful doctrine of evolution shows us how, in organic development, all that is formed is sketched out beforehand, and how the tissues of vegetable and animal matter uniformly arise from the multiplication and transformation of cells”[73].

Just as Anderson explores the implications for Poe's fiction of his confrontation with disease, so too does he explicate the ways in which Poe discovers a language to articulate the meanings of this new universe. Concluding his discussion of the “imaginative topography of ‘The Light-House,’” for instance, he writes that the story, “like so many of the fictive environments that Poe creates over his extraordinarily brief career, is a literal and figurative picture of ascent: a scale model of the mind's irresistible determination to reach outward toward the walls of the universe”[184]. One mark of the strength of Anderson's book is that he attends both to the harsh reality of disease and the sublimity of the new science as they come to constitute elements of Poe's imaginative universe.

Keeping footnotes to a minimum and eschewing scholarly debates, Anderson insists that Pictures of Ascent is not a conventional academic book. Such a clearing away of the conventions of academic discourse is essential if one is to explore the “house of Poe's fiction,” with its “blend of infinite possibility and enticing complexity—of the boundless and the tightly bound—that arouses and thwarts the human hunger for precision”[3]. Anderson's goal is not to “attempt to resituate Poe's work in literary or cultural history” but rather to write a book that “serve[s] as a vehicle for the reader's renewed immersion in Poe's language”[x]. Still, Pictures of Ascent effectively situates Poe's fiction in that complex, unstable period from 1832 to 1849, with its epidemics, looming threat of disunion, dark stain of slavery, and other catastrophes—along with its astounding and transformative scientific discoveries, a time of shifting boundaries in science and art.

I began by quoting the Democratic Review's observation in 1850 that, “while the name of Humboldt is familiar to every one, few, perhaps, are aware of the peculiar nature of his scientific career.” In her epilogue to The Passage to Cosmos, Walls asks a similar question: why, given Humboldt's extraordinary achievements, is he not better known today? Perhaps it has been a lack of advocacy, since writers “are taken up or abandoned through particular decisions made by publishers, reviewers, advertisers, critics, and readers”: “Many of the giants of American literature … had to be recovered by a handful of critics, sometimes only one, who energetically and successfully lifted them from obscurity by making the case for them as major writers”[318]. With the publication of Sachs's The Humboldt Current and now Walls's probing, comprehensive, and brilliant book, it is possible for readers to make that “passage” to Humboldt, like earlier generations of Americans. Walls uncovers his presence in the work of many of most important antebellum American writers: Whitman, the environmental Thoreau, the Emerson who gladly found himself living in what he called “the age of Humboldt,” the Melville of the voyage to remote places that is Moby-Dick, and the Poe not only of Eureka but also of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. One key to making that passage, Walls argues, is to situate Humboldt properly in the context of the worlds that shaped him and that he in turn helped to shape. In picturing the young Humboldt frequenting the salons of such German-Jewish intellectuals as Marcus Herz and Moses Mendelssohn, charting the rivers of South America, ascending such Andean peaks as Chimborazo, becoming a welcome guest in Jefferson's White House, or thriving in the advanced scientific culture of Paris, Walls deftly explores the complex interaction between Humboldt and the physical and intellectual ecosystems that made his unparalleled achievements possible. She is a passionate and convincing exponent for Humboldt as scientist-citizen, a man who in exploring the New World became a defender of the forests that were being destroyed and of the indigenous people who were being displaced. Walls's central argument for rethinking Humboldt, then, is twofold: first, an understanding of his vital “presence” in America in the first half of the nineteenth century is essential for understanding American literature, science, education, and the antislavery crusade, among other fields; and second, in a time of global peril, a time of fragmentation, a time of “vicious empiricism” and the displacement of peoples and cultures, we need Humboldt more than ever.

Though a professor of English, Walls too is not writing a “conventional” academic book (if such a thing still exists). But it is a tribute both to her breadth as a scholar and to Humboldt's continuing importance that she persuasively and non-polemically engages a number of the new discourses that have come to define the discipline of “English”: such fields as American studies, borderland studies, environmental studies and ecocriticism, transnationalism, and studies of race and imperialism. She does this without neglecting such established approaches as history of ideas and literary analysis. Walls is particularly good, for instance, in explaining what Humboldt learned from Kant. The result is a book that effortlessly weaves together older and newer critical and scholarly approaches to present Humboldt as a multi-faced genius who demands our attention. As the Democratic Review commented, it is not enough to be familiar with the “name” of Humboldt. One must comprehend “the peculiar nature of his scientific career.”