Rating: 2 out of 5
Ms Wulf’s look into von Humboldt struck me first as an innovative piece that sheds light on someone very few people have heard of. Yet, the more I read the less there was to be pleased by. I am one of the biggest fans of tangents, but they need to be connected to the main story unlike the limp branches that one finds in this book. Further, the author’s wish to introduce so many different characters shows how devoid of innovation their style is.
Firstly, I cannot deny that von Humboldt should be more well known. This book is a decent first step in that direction, but some omissions that the author left in were puzzling; the two biggest of these were where and when did the explorer learn Spanish, and how much did the expeditions cost that they impoverished him? These are both subjects that are extremely important, but which are only hinted at.
Secondly, I think the chapters on von Humboldt’s associates, such as Bonpland, were quite deserved. It brought a smile to my face to see the author describe the letters those two exchanged in their octogenarian years. Yet, the tangents on Darwin, Marsh, Muir, Haeckel, and Thoreau sounded forced, but also didn’t really feature in the story of von Humboldt. The author would have done better by having two volumes, one on von Humboldt and another on his effect on contemporaries, as this felt like they were short on content and tried to pack it with other people.
More important, however, was that all of these people were introduced by the same dull formula! First the reader gets a glimpse of the character at their heyday, and then we’re brought to their youth to see the boy grow into a 19th century influencer. Having this bland template repeated numerous times across only a few chapters ruined both my will and wish to continue reading this. Those two volumes, and a proper focus on von Humboldt’s influence in the scientific community, would have made for a much better reading.
Overall, I am tempted to recommend this! I’ve rated it low, but the fault I found with the style will not translate to many other people. Von Humboldt’s early exploration in the Spanish America is covered in detail; the later journey in Russia less so, but this will be an enlightening tome for most readers (as it was for me).