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17. Aaron Sachs, History

Aaron Sachs
Sachs Book

Aaron Sachs

The Humboldt Current: Nineteenth-Century Exploration and the Roots of American Environmentalism (Viking, 2006). Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859), a Prussian scientist, explorer, and polymath who visited America for the first time in 1804, had a profound impact on nineteenth-century American intellectual life, including science and exploration, politics, transcendentalism, and literature. Intertwining von Humboldt’s philosophy on the interconnectness of nature, Sachs traces Humboldt’s legacy by profiling four America naturalist-explorers who were inspired by his example: newspaper editor J. N. Reynolds, the first U. S. Geological Survey director Clarence King, Artic expeditionist George Melville, and Sierra Club founder John Muir. Sachs views these four men as alienated romantics who used Humboldt’s notion of “unity in diversity” as a way of critiquing their increasingly industrialized society. He argues that their examples laid the groundwork for an ecological tradition more radical than that of today. Sachs also documents the naturalist impulse in writers such as Thoreau, Whitman, and Poe. Although today his enormous legacy to American thought is nearly unknown, von Humboldt achieved unparalleled fame in his own time. Sachs seeks to reverse Humboldt’s undeserved obscurity by tracing his pervasive influence on American history.

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