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The Humboldt Current: Nineteenth-Century Exploration and the Roots of American Environmentalism Hardcover – August 3, 2006

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Viking Adult (August 3, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0670037753
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670037759
  • Product Dimensions: 9 x 6.3 x 1.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,375,080 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

American history of the 19th century is dominated by the Civil War, the expansion to the Pacific and the push to industrialization, but it is worth recalling the prominent interest in natural history in the U.S., a movement of which the tremendously popular Prussian scientist Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) was more or less the first practitioner. Arguably the Einstein of his day in terms of fame, accomplishment and influence, the explorer and author of the magisterial work Cosmos had a huge impact on American environmentalism. This ambitious subject is admirably tackled in this complexly argued book by Sachs, an environmental journalist and history professor at Cornell. Sachs cannily divides the book into the four points of the compass, addressing East (Europe's influence), South (excursions to Antarctica), West (exploring the frontier) and North (failed attempts to conquer the North Pole). The author chooses four explorer-naturalists—J.N. Reynolds, Clarence King, George Wallace Melville and John Muir—to represent the various tributaries of Humboldt's considerable influence. In this timely read, he even documents the naturalist impulse in writers such as Thoreau, Whitman and, surprisingly, Poe. (Aug.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

Although famous in his lifetime, Prussian naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) is hardly known today. Sachs traces Humboldt's legacy by profiling four American explorers who were inspired by Humboldt's example. Intertwining von Humboldt's philosophy on the interconnectedness of nature, Sachs introduces J. N. Reynolds, a colorful newspaper editor who campaigned for Antarctic exploration in the 1830s; Clarence King, first director of the U.S. Geological Survey, who was torn between scientific exactitude and aesthetic exhilaration in nature; and George Melville, a survivor of a disastrous Arctic expedition of the 1880s. Sachs reserves his most serious criticism for John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, arguing that Muir's preference for preserves, in effect, confining nature to a museum, were not truly Humboldtian. Sachs will appeal to ecologically minded readers interested in the response of these nineteenth-century Americans to an environment increasingly beleaguered by industrialization. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

18 of 18 people found the following review helpful By George Cotkin on February 14, 2007
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
After glancing at the previous review, I decided that I must weigh in on this book. I read The Humboldt Current right after it was published. I found it effective on various levels. First, it allows us to understand Humboldt and his desire for a unified view of the natural world. Second, it takes us on a journey into early geographers and explorers in America, many of whom followed Humboldt's ideals. Third, in the conclusion, Sachs raises a host of important issues for present-day environmentalism. Readers should also know that Sachs writes in a sprightly, engaging fashion. If on occasion, his prose runs away from him, it also brightens most of the pages along the way.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Luis P. Fernandez on March 1, 2008
Format: Hardcover
In an era of specialized science, when most practitioners of the field attempt to understand the mechanisms underlying natural phenomena down to the last detail, it may be difficult to have a grasp of the big picture and embrace a holistic approach to nature and the universe as Alexander von Humboldt did in his time. Indeed one major premise of Aaron Sachs' book is that with increasing specialization that the progression of science entailed went the likes of Humboldt, his contemporaries, and the scientists, explorers, and adventurers who he inspired. Yet there still are scientists who can not only manage to provide a holistic framework to their specialties, but also look beyond their area of focus and appreciate other areas of interest to almost the same level of dedication. Thus we have Jane Goodall, Oliver Sacks, Jared Diamond, and the late Stephen Jay Gould and Carl Sagan, to name a few. The spirit of Humboldt lives in the mind of the Renaissance man and woman who are willing to share and communicate their interests to a larger audience, most of whom may not have the time, background, and resources to have similar pursuits.

Because Sachs writes well, the book is hardly the dense material you would expect from work about 19th century exploration and the roots of the American environmentalism. From Humboldt to J.N. Reynolds, from Clarence King to John Muir and George Wallace Melville, we find that their mystical and spiritual experiences from their work and exploration alternated with the mundane struggles of getting the funding and validation of their endeavors and the respect from their peers--and merely getting on with their personal lives. The conditions under which their lives ended were far from ideal, but they never questioned or regretted their passions.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Thomas A. Potter on September 9, 2010
Format: Paperback
With the recent upsurge of interest of Alexander von Humboldt, Aaron Sachs provides an important review of the lasting influence of the man and his ecological influence. It is amazing that for years this great scientist/explorer was lost to the increasingly specialized pursuit of knowledge about our world. Sachs not only reviews in the first chapters an overview of Humboldt's travels and accomplishments but he goes on to demonstrate the lasting influence of his work on many of the 19th and 20th century figures as they pursued their various regions of the "unexplored" globe. Many personalities and pursuits are resurrected in this wonderful history of scientific exploration and interpretation. In addition, the work and influence of several visual artists is included which helped provide a graphic understanding of the new vision of the world being experienced.

Throughout the work I sensed the influence on Sachs by yet another explorer, one who was challenged by the "continents within." Henry Thoreau's works were often referenced as they provided insight into the interpretation of Humboldt's influence.

I appreciate Sachs' personal style. Unlike so many serious studies, he allows his own persona to come through. His insights into Humboldt's influence on the explorers carries over to Sachs himself. We witness a respect and deep admiration for Humboldt and his influence that Sachs is not afraid to reveal. Thus, this book is in many respects a very personal work.

There is more--an exhaustive (read 70 pages) of helpful notes which slowed me down for I read all of them; a wonderful chronology of Humboldt's life and beyond to the present; 25 pages of bibliography which drove me to more purchases.

Anyone interested in Humboldt, 19th century exploration, ecology and environmental studies, and Henry D. Thoreau will find this work deeply inspirational and challenging. Would I recommend it? I already have--many times!
Tom Potter
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Richard F. Bates on October 6, 2013
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I was disappointed because the reviews gave me the impression that it was about Humboldt's explorations and discoveries in some detail. It was not. Sach's wrote mainly about the activities of American disciples of Humboldt in supporting his main theory of the interrelatedness of all features of the Earth and the Cosmos.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Ken Pulvino on August 18, 2013
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This wonderfully composed and extremely well researched book, The Humboldt Current, brings to the reader a panorama of human history through the lives of great nineteenth century adventurers. Perhaps even more importantly, it weaves together the intent of their exploration across the unchartered areas of the globe as part of an individual immersion in nature as a being critical to effectively grasping the ecological connectedness of all things on this planet and beyond. The effect of this approach led to each of these environmental study icons being humbled and in awe of what they witnessed.

After following in the footsteps of the incredibly important ( although currently overlooked ) role of Alexander von Humboldt in modern environmental and scientific realms, the book vividly provides a chronology of Humboldtian icons. This compendium is great reading and defines the path that has so greatly impacted the American culture's view of both nature and science.

The author rightly highlights the digression from personal exposure to natural elements as a basis for investigation as compared to today's dominant scientific model of enclosed laboratory specialization. This trend defines the unfortunate epitaph of true Humboldtian pursuit of knowledge. It is vital that the immersion in nature approach - as profiled in the exploits of men like Clarence King, Charles Darwin and John Muir, - be redeployed. ( This is the central theme of our geotourism mission with tours - "Darwin's Chiloé" - and projects - The John Muir Highway and Geotourism Center ( Yosemite National Park region ).

This book resurrects the importance to individuals of direct context within nature.
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