“Alexander von Humboldt and the Reinvention of America” by Mary Louise Pratt reprinted in Visual Culture: The Reader edited by Jessica Evans and Stuart Hall, (Sage Publications, London, 2006).

In “Alexander von Humboldt and the Reinvention of America” linguistics professor Mary Louise Pratt describes how verbose explorer and compulsive documentarian Alexander von Humboldt came through his writings to define the European and American perception of South America from the beginning of the 1800s until, to some extent, the present day.

Pratt begins by describing the itinerary of Humboldt and his colleague Aimé Bonpland. Over a period of five years beginning in 1799, the two men and a contingent of assistants and porters, having landed in Venezuela, navigated the waterways of the Orinoco and Amazon, scaled Andean peaks, and crossed Peru, Argentina, Mexico, and Ecuador. Pratt notes that the men were not precisely explorers in the context of charting unknown geographies as “Humboldt and Bonpland never once stepped beyond the boundaries of the Spanish colonial infrastructure.”

Humboldt’s innovation was rather to reinvent the idea of South America as refracted through a Germanic strain of Romanticism. Humboldt affiliates himself and his dramatic writing with a rather anti-scientific linking of South America, as a singular entity despite its varied microenvironments, with the concept of nature as an irrational and enormous force, “a spectacle capable of overwhelming human knowledge and understanding.” Pratt reports that Humboldt also had something of a unique mode of writing, one which eschewed conventional travel “journalism” and narrative voices and structures in favor or essays filled with emotional descriptions of various tableaux and impassioned, occult-flavored analyses of virtually every aspect of the five-year journey


New World, Asian, and African Primates

New World, Asian, and African Primates

A page from a 1792 edition of An Encyclopedia of Animals shows apes from Africa, Southeast Asia, and South America. Personal images.

Pratt imagines Humboldt’s creation of a sensation of what would come to be identified as “otherness.” He achieves this effect first be describing the South American continent as an isolating, barren expanse and then populating it with an exhaustive catalogue of weather systems, botanical wonders (such as curare), ecologies of the extreme – high mountains and windblown pampas – and exotics in the persons of Spanish colonials and missionaries and indigenous peoples. Humboldt was apparently a man of no small ego, and, Pratt asserts, though he purported to be channeling Nature with a capital “N” as the main character and presumptive narrator of his more than 30 volumes on the South American escapade, these capacious journals are actually Humboldt, and by extension the Nineteenth Century European holding forth.

This personality was a familiar one, Pratt says, even given Humboldt’s extraordinary blowhardness; Europeans had experience with this sort of projection from the earlier experience of colonizing North America.
Pratt notes that the enduring impressions of Humboldt’s oeuvre – most especially Views of Nature, a volume revised twice in the author’s life to the exclusion of his own autobiography – can be attributed in great part not just to a societal interest in South America and the ease of acceptance of Humboldt’s worldview, but to the man’s singular gift of relentless self-promotion. While Bonpland returned to (and remained in) South America following the initial five-year exploration, Humboldt devoted his energy to becoming and remaining a continental public intellectual. Pratt describes how other notable Romantic scholars of the day – particularly Frederich Schiller, whom Humboldt fawningly quotes in Views of Nature – did not return Humboldt’s admiration. Yet Pratt concludes by suggesting Humboldt achieved his philosophical Romantic ambition of pointing out the emerging relationships and differences between Europe and not just the Americas but also the rest of the world.