cover image The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt

The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt

Andrea Wulf and Lillian Melcher. Pantheon, $29.95 (272p) ISBN 978-1-5247-4737-4

In this successor to Wulf’s Alexander von Humboldt biography The Invention of Nature, Wulf and illustrator Melcher gloriously depict the explorer and polymath’s grueling five-year journey through the Americas, lionizing him along the way. Beginning in 1799 and ending in 1804, Humboldt’s expedition with botanist Aimé Bonpland led him through the jungles, volcanoes, and savannahs of South America and Mexico, eventually terminating in Washington, D.C. Humboldt’s work would go on to form the basis for much of modern environmental and conservation science, as Wulf points out in frequent allusions to his impact on figures such as Charles Darwin and Simón Bolívar. Though Melcher’s crowded layouts sometimes impede legibility, her use of pen, ink, and watercolors with collaged mixed media (including samples from Humboldt’s journals and sketches) lends a playful quality to the narrative, recalling Lauren Redniss’s Radioactive. Less successful is Wulf’s tendency to highlight Humboldt’s anticolonialist writing while only briefly disclaiming, for instance, his theft of sacred, buried skeletons. Wulf also makes an unfortunate choice to combine Humboldt’s many servants into an amalgam named only Jose, to whom Humboldt condescendingly explains Aztec history. Wulf and Melcher create an alluring narrative in dramatizing Humboldt’s adventures for a generation that has forgotten him, but they fail to unpack the baggage of his tangled legacy. [em](Apr.) [/em]