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 was the most admired scientist of his day. But the achievements for which he was most celebrated in his lifetime always fell short of perfection. When he climbed the Chimborazo, then 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; and his magisterial work, Cosmos, was left unfinished. This was no coincidence. 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, where the focus on the individual placed a new value on feeling, and the pursuit of personal desires. As Humboldt 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.
‘Evocative and perceptive . . . plenty of wit and insight to brighten the pages’. — Literary Review
‘Scrupulous and absorbing’ — The Times Literary Supplement
‘[A] captivating new biography of Alexander von Humboldt . . . dramatically drawn.’ — The Lancet
‘[A] subtle biography . . . intriguing’. — Nature
‘Brilliant.’ — Standpoint
‘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
‘Even in that glory age of Romantic art and scientific and geographical discovery, Alexander von Humboldt stands out as a giant. This is a superb portrait worthy of its impressive subject, a picture of the great man and of his fascinating times written with concision, brio and infectious love.’ — A. N. Wilson, author of Victoria: A Life
‘Maren Meinhardt follows Alexander von Humboldt on his many personal and professional journeys, tracing the great naturalist’s footsteps with precision and love. She shows how his longing for wide and unknown things extended beyond the geographical realm to permeate his whole personality. This is biography as it should be: wondrous, romantic and deeply intelligent.’ — Ruth Scurr, author of John Aubrey: My Own Life
‘Humboldt’s was a life before its time, and this beautifully attentive and deeply sympathetic book gives us not just its lineaments but something like its “soul”, catching with charm and insight more of the complexity and curiosity of its subject than ought to be possible in such a brief space.’ — Charlie Louth, Associate Professor of German, The Queen’s College, University of Oxford
‘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