Alexander von Humboldt

Selected Writings
  • Selected Writings

  • Humboldt (1769–1859) was an intrepid explorer and the most famous scientist of his age. His life was packed with adventure and discovery, whether climbing volcanoes in the Andes, swimming with crocodiles, racing through anthrax-infected Siberia, or publishing groundbreaking bestsellers. Ahead of his time, he recognized nature as an interdependent whole and he saw before anyone else that humankind was on a path to destroy it. He was one of the first European to study the Inca, Aztec and Mayan cultures and his epic five-year expedition to Latin America (1799–1804) prompted him to denounce slavery as 'the greatest evil ever to have afflicted humanity'. To Humboldt, the melody of his prose was as important as its content, and this selection from his most famous works - the Personal Narrative of his travels to Latin America, Cosmos, Views of Nature, Views of the Cordilleras and Monuments of the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas, The Geography of Plants and his anti-slavery essay in Political Essay of the Island of Cuba - allows us the pleasure of reading his own accounts of his daring explorations and new concept of nature. Humboldt’s writings profoundly influenced naturalists and poets including Darwin, Thoreau, Muir, Goethe, Wordsworth, and Whitman. The Selected Writings is not only a tribute to Humboldt’s important role in environmental history and science, but also to his ability to fashion powerfully poetic narratives out of scientific observations.

In his lifetime Alexander von Humboldt was a major international celebrity - only Napoleon, it was said, was more well-known. He was born into the Prussian nobility in 1769 and destined for a career in the civil service. In his twenties he combined his position in the Ministry of Mines with his own investigative studies in science, geology and botany. He travelled around Europe, meeting many other adventurers of his age - including Bligh, Banks and Bougainville – and spent many stimulating months with Goethe in Weimar and Jena. He inherited a fortune on the death of his mother and immediately began planning a major expedition. Napoleon's activities thwarted him at every turn, but he succeeded, rather surprisingly, to gain the permission of Carlos IV to visit the Spanish colonies in South America, and set off with the French botanist Aimé Bonpland and many boxes full of scientific instruments, dodging British warships en route. These five extraordinary years of exploration and research gave Humboldt material for a lifetime's writing. But the expenses of publication exhausted his funds and after more than twenty years living in Paris he was obliged to return to Prussia as a chamberlain at the court of Friedrich Wilhelm III. It was hardly to his taste. He did manage one more major expedition across Russia, when he was sixty years old. Tirelessly energetic, he never stopped working and writing. He was mourned worldwide when he died at the age of nearly ninety in 1859.