Mathewson, Kent. 2006. Alexander von Humboldt’s image and influence in North American Geography. The Geographical Review 96 (3/July): 416-438.


The main theme of Kent Mathewson’s article, Alexander von Humboldt’s image and influence in North American Geography, is that Alexander played a vital role in laying the foundation for American Geography; he drew on global sources of geographical data and knowledge in constructing and producing his voluminous works (416). 

He further explains, the period when Humboldt made the milestone contribution in NA Geography is marked as “the age of Humboldt”, and his scientific practice and perspectives for geography as “Humboldtian Science” (417). His exploration of NA and the description of the geography paved a benchmark to the modern geography for his studies and the findings were taken as reference by many geographers even after his death. For example, Jedidiah Morse, whom historian of American geography credited to be the first figure to emerge and who also build “geographical literacy” has inclination towards Humboldt; Clarence King, who set off to establish new standards of excellence in both fieldwork and publication acknowledged Humboldt’s example in both regards to preparing the geological mapping and discovery of mineral resources and enlisting various earth specialties such as botany and ornithology; Lt. George Wheeler classified the agricultural land into timber production, or grazing, or arid lands from the ideas-driven form Humboldt’s studies; and John Wesley Powell, who traveled down the Colorado River through Grand Canyon, studied Ethnology and published Man and Nature had affinities with Humboldtian science (417-427). His works were an extraordinarily difficult and impossible act to follow. His work is categorized into three categories:

In terms of importance, a number of participants, and demonstrable results, the (mostly federal government) sponsor expeditions of exploration, reconnaissance, and survey that Humboldt’s philosophy and practice inspired clearly had the most significant impact on American geography. Second, Humboldt’s example as an independent scholar and scientific traveler inspired a number of lesser figures, especially Germans, to follow in his footsteps. Their investigations and published accounts added to the overall project of writing American geography (in the literal sense of earth description) but did not have much formative influence on endogenous American geography, save for a few exceptions such as Friedrich Ratzel’s studies and high-quality journalism (Sauer 1966, 1971). Third, Humboldt and his ambitious vision of geography served as an exemplar for emergent American geography and its practitioners through most of the nineteenth century, although many of these figures can be identified more with geology than geography—especially the lineage-linked to William Morris Davis and his progeny (420-421).

It is, therefore, Humboldt is a source of inspiration for all the geographers and Humboldt is pointed to as a critical voice from the past with emancipatory sentiments and tendencies that may have salience in our current times and conditions (433).

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