A Longing for Wide and Unknown Things
The Life of Alexander von Humboldt
A beautifully written biography of a giant of the nineteenth century, explorer of Latin America and founder of biogeography.
Alexander von Humboldt, whose marble features greet visitors to Berlin’s Humboldt University, was the most admired scientist of his day. But the achievements for which he was most celebrated in his own lifetime were never quite perfect. When he climbed the Chimborazo, at the time believed to be the highest mountain in the world, he did not quite reach the top; he established the existence of the Casiquiare canal, between the great water systems of the Orinoco and the Amazon, but this had been well known to local people. Cosmos, the immense work meant to give a synthetic account of the natural world, was left unfinished. This was not accidental. Humboldt’s pursuit of an all-encompassing, immersive approach to science was a way of finding limits: of nature and of the scientist’s own self.
A Longing for Wide and Unknown Things portrays a scientific life lived in the era of German Romanticism — a time of radical change, in which new ways of living seemed possible. Humboldt’s travels in South America were motivated both by scientific curiosity and by other desires that are less easily identified. As he himself admitted, he ‘would have sailed to the remotest South Seas, even if it hadn’t fulfilled any scientific purpose whatever’.
Maren Meinhardt works at the Times Literary Supplement, where she is the editor for German Literature and Natural History. She studied Psychology and Literature at the London School of Economics and the University of Sussex. In the summer of 2014, she and her two daughters retraced Humboldt’s footsteps in Ecuador. Her spare time is spent trying to locate wild and unexplored nature within easy travelling distance of London.
‘A Longing for Wide and Unknown Things is as entrancing as it is scholarly. Alexander von Humboldt leaps off the page, not just because he gave his name to more places and species than any other human being, but because he embodied the Romantic passion for nature which has captivated posterity. Maren Meinhardt’s book is a delicious way to get to know this irresistible figure.’ — Ferdinand Mount, author of The Tears of the Rajas: Mutiny, Money and Marriage in India, 1805-1905
‘The great scientific traveller Alexander von Humboldt comes to life in this knowledgeable and illuminating biography. Maren Meinhardt reveals, with wisdom and precision, how von Humboldt’s remarkable life and far-sighted writing, rooted in German romanticism, set the stage for a more expansive and connected view of the natural world.’ — John Ryle, Legrand Ramsey Professor of Anthropology, Bard College, New York