Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Humboldt, Alexander von (1769–1859)
Author:
Matteson, John T.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Alexander von Humboldt was an internationally renowned Prussian naturalist whose work enjoyed broad popularity in the United States. Of considerable influence on Walt Whitman was Humboldt's highly ambitious work Kosmos, published in five volumes between 1845 and 1850. In Kosmos Humboldt sought "to depict in a single work the entire material universe, all that we know of the phenomena of heaven and earth" (Botting 257). In contrast to Darwinian theory, Humboldt described nature not in terms of chaos or conflict but as a harmoniously ordered system, as "one great whole animated by the breath of life" (Humboldt 1:24). Humboldt conceived nature not as morally neutral but as a reflection of the human spirit. He stressed simultaneously the endless variety of life and the ultimate unity of nature. Humboldt's naturalistic vision inscribed humankind at the center of creation, using science to affirm rather than question the place of humanity in the universe. Whitman, who referred to Humboldt in his notes in 1849, found the scientist's view highly appealing. Indeed, Whitman borrowed Humboldt's book title for his famous self-description in "Song of Myself": "Walt Whitman, a kosmos, of Manhattan the son" (section 24). Whitman also uses Humboldt's term as the title of his poem "Kosmos," in which he describes a person at one with the universe, "[w]ho includes diversity and is Nature, / Who is the amplitude of the earth, and the coarseness and sexuality of the earth."

Bibliography

Botting, Douglas. Humboldt and the Cosmos. New York: Harper and Row, 1973.

Humboldt, Alexander von. Cosmos: A Sketch of a Physical Description of the Universe. 1845. 4 vols. New York: Harper, 1858.

Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography. New York: Knopf, 1995.


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