Capello on Echenberg, 'Humboldt's Mexico: In the Footsteps of the Illustrious German Scientific Traveller'

Myron Echenberg
Ernesto Capello

Myron Echenberg. Humboldt's Mexico: In the Footsteps of the Illustrious German Scientific Traveller. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2017. 288 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7735-4940-1.

Reviewed by Ernesto Capello (Macalester College) Published on H-TGS (June, 2018) Commissioned by Benjamin Bryce (University of Northern British Columbia)

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Humboldt's Mexico

Myron Echenberg’s Humboldt’s Mexico can best be described as several books at once. It is part biography of the renowned Prussian scientist and traveler, Alexander von Humboldt, part travelogue describing Echenberg’s own path following in Humboldt’s footsteps, and part rumination on contemporary Mexico and local esoterica. It is filled with exquisite portraits of the central Mexican landscape alongside equally exquisite if overly extended citations from Humboldt’s writings. It contains reflections on the current state of Humboldt scholarship, recollections of small-town Mexican folk heroes, and descriptions of the contemporary economy and culture along Humboldt’s route.

As such, there is much that is original and worth recommending in the approach that Echenberg has taken to tracing one of the most covered figures of nineteenth-century European science. At times, however, the book struggles to overcome its arcane structure and as a result suffers from argumentative and narrative inconsistencies that could have benefited from an additional round of editing.

Echenberg’s book is divided into four sections. The extensive introductory section of fifty-odd pages includes a preface, prologue, and introduction. The body of the text is then divided into three sections, each devoted to a stage of Humboldt’s Mexican journey. This begins with a one-hundred-page section describing his trek from Acapulco to Mexico City (March-April 1803), continuing with two fifty-page sections detailing his studies of mining and volcanology in the Mexican heartland (May-October 1803), and finishing with his return from Mexico City to Veracruz (January-March 1804) before heading homeward.

The book’s introductory section establishes Echenberg’s celebration of the cult of personality that typically surrounds accounts of Humboldt’s endeavors. In the preface presenting a brief overview of Humboldt’s journey to the Americas, Echenberg dutifully notes that “[Humboldt’s] name is venerated in his native Germany and in Latin America, but virtually forgotten in the English-speaking world, save for the naming of natural phenomena after him” (p. xvii). The introduction continues this celebration, opening by noting that “it is impossible to resist superlatives in accounting for Humboldt’s accomplishments” (p. xxi). Echenberg dismisses the extensive criticisms of Humboldt that have emerged in contemporary scholarship, most notably that of Mary Louise Pratt, claiming that they “lack merit” (p. xxix). The prologue, for its part, presents a straightforward account of Humboldt’s voyages in the Americas amid other expeditionary science of the late eighteenth century. It is perhaps most notable for a short section where Echenberg considers Humboldt’s rumored homosexuality. While Echenberg declines to directly weigh in on this particular debate, he uses it to highlight how Humboldt’s celebrity has made him a potential hero to multiple constituencies. The theme of Humboldt’s celebrity returns periodically throughout the book, though without the systematic attention it perhaps deserves.

At this point, the book undergoes a marked structural transformation. Rather than presenting general narratives or analysis, it shifts in part 1—“Arrival in Mexico”—to a hybrid format that continues for the rest of the book. This format consists of short chapters presenting an overview of Humboldt’s account of a particular town or a particular endeavor alternating with somewhat longer chapters detailing Echenberg’s own experiences or summarizing local history, lore, folktales, or art of the towns along Humboldt’s route. This abrupt structural shift is not signaled in the main text—indeed, it is only in the last sentence on the back cover that we receive an indication that the book is “part travelogue.” Thus the reader is left to discover the format on his or her own, which at times can cause frustration and confusion.

For instance, the first chapter of part 1 concerns Humboldt’s time in Acapulco. Echenberg quotes liberally from Humboldt’s account, highlighting the trade with the East Indies via the Manila Galleon. The chapter also notes the city’s transformation into a modern-day tourist destination, indicating good spots to snorkel, view the San Diego fort, take boat tours through a lagoon dotted with mangroves, and take in murals by Diego Rivera. The following chapter, without any transition or signposts, telescopes in on Diego Rivera and his murals, both in Acapulco and elsewhere. Except for observing that both Humboldt and Rivera greatly respected pre-Columbian artistic endeavors, there is little indication as to why the reader is considering “Diego Rivera’s imagery.” Indeed, Rivera’s murals did not make reference to Humboldt.

While this structure is somewhat arcane—and could certainly have been clarified with a single paragraph providing an overview and explication of its purposes—there are multiple moments when Echenberg is able to enliven what would otherwise simply read as a straightforward narrative of Humboldt’s journey to Mexico. For example, chapter 6 presents the fascinating story of William Spratling, an American architect and jewelry designer who resided in the small mining town of Taxco. Spratling first visited the town in 1926 and settled there in 1929. He developed a jewelry business, was on friendly terms with the muralists Rivera and David Siqueiros, acted as a liaison between Mexican and American artists and tourists, and helped to develop a thriving series of silver artist workshops. Chapter 12, concerning Cornish immigration to Pachuca in the 1820s and the subsequent development of an English pub culture in the Mexican highlands, also provides an intriguing counterpoint to Humboldt’s discussion of silver mining while also noting that the Cornish immigration occurred in the wake of the destruction of much of Mexico’s mining industry during the independence wars. Some of these digressions, however, fail to offer much in the way of colorful imagery, such as chapter 16’s discussion of the principal volcanoes in Mexico—which reads like an inset from an airline travel magazine—or chapter 22’s consideration of smallpox and yellow fever in Veracruz.

Finally, it bears remarking that Echenberg’s book contains little analytic engagement with the scholarship on Humboldt or on travel literature more broadly. Indeed, his inclusion of other scholars largely concerns his desire to uphold Humboldt as a “great man” whose life and letters are held to have had great importance in Mexico and beyond. This is most extensive in the concluding pages. These focus exclusively on defending Humboldt against various critiques, from his alleged Eurocentrism to his generalist research tendencies. Echenberg vigorously refutes each of these, paying particular attention to Mary Louise Pratt’s Imperial Eyes (1992), arguing that Humboldt’s celebration of indigenous culture—and especially pre-Columbian cultures—counters Pratt’s allegations that Humboldt contributed to European cultural annexationism. While Echenberg is correct to highlight Humboldt’s appreciation for indigenous cultures and of the dangers of colonialism, it is unclear how this counters Pratt’s broader arguments regarding the cultural justification of imperialism that can be found in Humboldt’s writings alongside those of other eighteenth- and nineteenth-century travel writers.


Citation: Ernesto Capello. Review of Echenberg, Myron, Humboldt's Mexico: In the Footsteps of the Illustrious German Scientific Traveller. H-TGS, H-Net Reviews. June, 2018. URL:

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