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.)
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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 TaylorCopyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved