Idols, Friends and Mentors: Alexander von Humboldt’s Influence on Writing and Science

I actually wrote this post several weeks ago, before the corona virus crisis hit on a world scale… but given it’s about the importance of scientists and human beings connecting with and inspiring each other, be it in person or from afar, it actually feels somehow appropriate. So in case anyone’s looking for a positive break from reading about pandemics, here it is:


I don’t normally read a lot of non-fiction, but I recently picked up The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf. Aside from informing me about a brilliant scientist and author called Alexander von Humboldt – who I knew very little about – it got me thinking again about a topic I’ve found myself mulling over often in the past year: namely, how much writers are influenced by the work of other writers who’ve come before them, or even those who are writing at the same time.

In the past, I’ve tended to to look at famous historical figures in isolation, focusing on the unique feats they achieved and how different it was to everything that had come before. Last year, however, when researching for a blog series about popular fantasy books in different decades, I was repeatedly fascinated by how many writers had been inspired by, or even been good friends with, other writers on my lists.

I suppose this shouldn’t be surprising, given writers today also have childhood idols and inspiring friends, but the distance of abstract dates and historical facts sometimes made me forget that. Connecting these dots brought my view of history into broader focus, and I started to see a tapestry of authors all influencing one another, each adding their own new unique contribution and paving the way for others.

This has been enhanced by the fact I’ve visited a few museums in the past years that focus on famous people who lived in a similar location (modern-day Germany) and time period (the Napoleonic Wars and the Age of Enlightenment) such as the Brothers Grimm Museum in Kassel, the Mendelssohn Bartholdy House Museum in Leipzig, and an exhibition about 19th Century visions of the future at the Bröhan Museum in Berlin. At each of these, more dots connected as I learned how these historical artists, scientists and writers had often known and corresponded with each other.

Reading The Invention of Nature brought all this to a crescendo because Humboldt lived in the same place and time period, but also because of the staggering number of people he influenced: poets, scientists, writers (including science fiction writers), politicians, even revolutionaries.

Each time I encountered one of these connections I got a thrill of recognition and empathy: I was looking back through the lens of time to glimpse warm friendships, nervous youths meeting their idols, and people being moved by the words of others.

So rather than blathering on any longer, I thought I’d share a few quotes from Wulf’s book that show some of the people Humboldt influenced, and how those people in turn influenced others, on the chance other people might find these as fascinating as I do:

Alexander von Humboldt

First I should probably explain who Humboldt himself was: a scientist, explorer, mountaineer, nature writer and science writer who invented isobars and was the first to propose the idea of climate zones. He published the popular book series Cosmos along with many other volumes on science, nature and politics, and was at one point the most famous scientists of his time.

He also expressed very progressive ideas for a European in the early 1800s – he pointed out that human activity could damage the environment and change the climate; was vehemently anti-slavery, anti-colonialism and pro-democracy; and held positive views of indigenous people, even referring to the European colonists as the real “savages”. If you want to know more about him you can read my review on Goodreads… or better yet, read the book!

Jules Verne

Verne was greatly inspired by Humboldt. One of his novels, The Mighty Orinoco, was an homage to Humboldt, and he even mentions him by name in several of his works:

“In the second half of the nineteenth century, science-fiction writer Jules Verne mined Humboldt’s descriptions of South America for his Voyages Extraordinaires series, often quoting verbatim for his dialogues.”

“It was no surprise that Verne’s Captain Nemo in his famous Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea was described as owning the complete works of Humboldt.”

– Andrea Wulf, The Invention of Nature, 133-134

Fanny Mendelssohn Bartholdy

Fanny Mendelssohn Bartholdy was a musician and composer like her brother, and she attended one of Humboldt’s popular public science lectures in 1827:

“By not charging an entry fee, Humboldt had democratized science: his packed audiences ranged from the royal family to coachmen, from students to servants, from scholars to bricklayers – and half of those attending were women.”

“Berlin had never seen anything like it […] An hour before Humboldt took the podium, the auditorium was already crowded. The ‘jostle is frightful’, said Fanny Mendelssohn Bartholdy, the sister of the composer Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy. But it was all worth it. Women, who were not permitted to study at universities or even attend meetings of the scientific societies, were finally allowed to ‘listen to a clever word’. ‘The gentlemen might scoff as much as they like,’ she told a friend, but the experience was marvellous.”

Andrea Wulf, The Invention of Nature, 193-194

Charles Darwin

It was Humboldt’s book, Personal Narrative (an account of his expedition to South America) that inspired Darwin to travel and become a naturalist. He knew parts of the book by heart and even brought it along with him on his own expedition. When he published Voyage of the Beagle in 1839,  he sent a copy to Humboldt in Berlin:

“Not knowing where to direct his correspondence, Darwin asked a friend ‘for I know no more than if I had to write to the King of Prussia & the Emperor of all the Russias’. Nervous about sending the book to his idol, Darwin employed flattery and wrote in his covering letter that it had been Humboldt’s accounts of South America that had made him want to travel.

“Darwin needn’t have worried. When Humboldt received his copy, he replied with a long letter, praising it as an ‘excellent and admirable book’. […] ‘You have an excellent future ahead of you,’ he wrote. Here was the most famous scientist of the age, graciously telling the thirty-year-old Darwin that he held the torch of science.”

“Humboldt’s letter was not one of shallow compliments – line after line he commented on Darwin’s observations, quoting page numbers, listing examples and discussing arguments. Humboldt had read every page of Darwin’s account. Even better, he also wrote a letter to the Geographical Society in London – which was published in the society’s journal for all to read – stating that Darwin’s book was ‘one of the most remarkable works that, in the course of a long life, I have had the pleasure to see published’. Darwin was ecstatic. ‘Few things in my life have gratified me more,’ he said, ‘even a young author cannot gorge such a mouthful of flattery.’ ”

– Andrea Wulf, The Invention of Nature, 229-230

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Humboldt and the famous writer and poet, Goethe, were good friends and remained so until Goethe’s death. There was a period where they met very regularly and had intense discussions about science and art:

“Goethe wrote Faust in bursts of activity that often coincided with Humboldt’s visits. Faust, like Humboldt, was driven by a restless striving for knowledge, by a ‘feverish unrest’, as he declares in the play’s first scene. At the time when he was working on Faust, Goethe said about Humboldt: ‘I’ve never known anyone who combined such a deliberately channelled activity with such a plurality of the mind’ – words that might have described Faust.”

“When Faust declares his ambition in the first scene, ‘That I may detect the inmost force / Which binds the world, and guides its course’, it could have been Humboldt speaking. That something of Humboldt was in Goethe’s Faust – or something of Faust in Humboldt – was obvious to many; so much so that people commented on the resemblance when the play was published in 1808.”

– Andrea Wulf, The Invention of Nature, 37

Goethe was also someone who had an influence on many other people and regularly met and corresponded with a large network of friends and acquaintances. This included Jakob & Wilhelm Grimm (who famously collected fairy tales), and the composer Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy. Bartholdy, who even ended up setting several of Goethe’s poems to music, recounts his first meeting with Goethe in an excited letter to his father, which echoes Darwin’s excitement about his idol Humboldt above:

“Goethe is here, the old man is here! We just went down the stairs in Goethe’s house. He was in the garden, and he came around a corner; isn’t it curious, dear father, it was the same with you. He is very friendly, but all likenesses of him I do not find similar.”

– Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (translation of quote from this site)

Mary Shelley & Lord Byron

Humboldt’s book Personal Narrative was also referred to by Shelley and Byron:

“Over the next years Humboldt’s descriptions of Latin America and his new vision of nature seeped into British literature and poetry. In Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, which was published in 1818 – only four years after the first volume of Personal Narrative – Frankenstein’s monster declared a desire to escape to ‘the vast wilds of South America’. Shortly afterwards Lord Byron immortalized Humboldt in Don Juan, ridiculing his cyanometer, the instrument with which Humboldt had measure the blueness of the sky.”

– Andrea Wulf, The Invention of Nature, 168

Edgar Allan Poe

“Another American writer who loved Humboldt’s work was Edgar Allan Poe, whose last major work – the 130-page prose poem Eureka, published in 1848 – was dedicated to Humboldt and was a direct response to Cosmos.”

– Andrea Wulf, The Invention of Nature, 248

William Wordsworth & Robert Southey

“At the same time the British Romantic poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth and Robert Southey also began to read Humboldt’s books. Southey was so impressed that he even visited Humboldt in Paris in 1817. Humboldt united his vast knowledge with ‘a painter’s eye and a poets feeling’, Southey declared. He was ‘among travellers what Wordsworth is among poets’. Hearing this praise, Wordsworth asked to borrow Southey’s copy of Humboldt’s Personal Narrative shortly after it was published. At the time Wordsworth was composing a series of sonnets on the River Duddon in Cumbria and some of the work he produced after reading Humboldt can be viewed in this context. Wordsworth used Humboldt’s travel account, for example, as source materials for the sonnets.”

– Andrea Wulf, The Invention of Nature, 169

Walt Whitman

“Equally inspired, Walt Whitman wrote his celebrated poetry collection, Leaves of Grass, with a copy of Cosmos on his desk. Whitman even composed a poem called ‘Kosmos’ and proclaimed himself ‘a kosmos’ in his famous poem ‘Song of Myself’.”

– Andrea Wulf, The Invention of Nature, 248

Ernst Haeckel

Haeckel, the scientist who invented the term ‘ecology’ and influenced the Art Nouveau movement, had been a big fan of Humboldt since childhood. When Haeckel read Origin of the Species he also became Darwin’s most ardent supporter in Germany, and though he never got to meet Humboldt, he did get to meet Darwin:

“Haeckel had never met Humboldt, but now he had the opportunity to meet his other hero. On Sunday, 21 October, at 11.30 a.m. Darwin’s coachman picked up Haeckel at Bromley, the local train station, and drove him to an ivy-clad country house where the fifty-seven-year-old Darwin was waiting at the front door. Haeckel was so nervous that he forgot the little English he knew. He and Darwin shook hands for a long time, with Darwin saying repeatedly how glad he was to see him. Haeckel was, as Darwin’s daughter Henrietta recounted, stunned into ‘dead silence’. As he strolled through the garden along the Sandwalk where Darwin did so much of his thinking, Haeckel slowly recovered and began to talk. He spoke English with a strong German accent, stumbling a little but in a clear enough manner for the two scientists to enjoy a long conversation about evolution and foreign travels.”

– Andrea Wulf, The Invention of Nature, 308


Those are just a few of the many people Humboldt either inspired, met, or helped in their careers. Others included Henry Thoreau, George Perkins Marsh, John Muir, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Joseph Banks, Aldous Huxley, Justus von Liebig, Albert Gallatin, Ezra Pound, Erich Fried, Thomas Jefferson and Simón Bolívar.

As for why he had an influence on so many, it was of course his inspiring ideas and writing style, but also no doubt partly because of his philosophy of supporting and collaborating with other scientists and artists:

“As the mathematician Friedrich Gauß said, the zeal with which Humboldt helped and encouraged others was ‘one of the most wonderful jewels in Humboldt’s crown’.”

– Andrea Wulf, The Invention of Nature, 270

He believed that the pursuit of knowledge transcended borders and countries. He wrote and received thousands of letters (one reviewer even dubbed him the ‘sovereign’ of the Republic of Letters), and was happy to share his data and knowledge, as well as to ask others for their own expertise in areas where he lacked it.

So after reading about how inspiring he was, I was inspired to write this post. I think Humboldt is a great reminder of the importance of idols and friends – of communities of talented people working together and inspiring each other – in the advancement of science, the arts… and humanity in general.

Do you have any favourite examples of historical friendships or fan-and-idol relationships? Or any thoughts on Humboldt? Feel free to mention them in the comments.

8 thoughts on “Idols, Friends and Mentors: Alexander von Humboldt’s Influence on Writing and Science

  1. A fascinating piece about a fascinating life. Amazing that he entwines so many people in connections of thinking and influence all before the age of the internet. It is the connections that make us human and that sustain us (now more than ever!)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I absolutely loved this book and this review! Me noggin is full of holes and facts fall back out so it was wonderful to get such a comprehensive look at the people Humboldt influenced. I was impressed all over again. I did think it was sad that he had become so forgotten but was very happy to learn all about him.
    x The Captain

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh cool you’ve read it too!! 😀 I also knew the facts would soon fall out of my head so I obsessively wrote down quotes… far more than I should have, so I’m glad some have proved useful.

      And yeah it is really sad he’s been so forgotten, given how important he was and how famous he used to be… but I’m glad Andrea Wulf has been reminding people!


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