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Personal Narrative of a Journey to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent (Penguin Classics) [Abridged] [Paperback]

Alexander Humboldt , Jason Wilson , Malcolm Nicolson
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
RRP: 14.99
Price: 12.06 & FREE Delivery in the UK. Details
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Book Description

30 Nov 1995 Penguin Classics
One of the greatest nineteenth-century scientist-explorers, Alexander von Humboldt traversed the tropical Spanish Americas between 1799 and 1804. By the time of his death in 1859, he had won international fame for his scientific discoveries, his observations of Native American peoples and his detailed descriptions of the flora and fauna of the 'new continent'. The first to draw and speculate on Aztec art, to observe reverse polarity in magnetism and to discover why America is called America, his writings profoundly influenced the course of Victorian culture, causing Darwin to reflect: 'He alone gives any notion of the feelings which are raised in the mind on first entering the Tropics'.

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Personal Narrative of a Journey to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent (Penguin Classics) + Charles Darwin's Beagle Diary + Journal of a Residence in Chile, During the Year 1822 and a Voyage from Chile to Brazil in 1823 (1824)
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Product details

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Classics; New Ed edition (30 Nov 1995)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140445536
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140445534
  • Product Dimensions: 2.5 x 12.8 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 269,227 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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First Sentence
Twelve years have elapsed since I left Europe to explore the interior of the New Continent. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Back Cover
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4.0 out of 5 stars Under-rated explorer 18 Feb 2014
Format:Kindle Edition
Von Humbolt writes clearly, matter-of-fact and shows modernity in thought. You can see how Darwin and the later Victorian explorers were influenced by his narrative. Truly great man, but under-rated and nowadays almost written out of history. The introduction was a bit pedestrian but reasonably informative.
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I admit to not reading the whole of the introductory text but what I read was useful. I then skipped to Humboldt's narrative and was pleased with how enjoyable it was to read and felt familiar with his way of discovering new places despite the centuries of time in between. Very much a travel story describing the natural environment, people and places but light on his more scientific findings. I sat with large maps of both Tenerife and Venezuela by my side which helped in understanding the scale of exploration on foot, with mules and in canoes. Would definitely recommend reading this for fireside pleasure and certainly if lucky enough to visit these places.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 3.5 out of 5 stars  8 reviews
45 of 46 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars woefully incomplete, poorly edited, superficial introduction 21 Nov 2004
By bachelormachine - Published on
Much as I'm glad to have at least some of von Humboldt's very important travel writings availible, this edition is sadly emasculated.

While it does include the initial Amazonian phase of Humboldt's South American expedition, the narrative is cut short at mid-point, von Humboldt's stay in Cuba. It's inconceivable to me that the editor would have omitted all of the author's writing on his exploration of the Andes, and in particular the volcanoes of South America.

Those excluded descriptions are not only fascinating to read today, but were also what most inspired readers in von Humboldt's own day. As a matter of fact, von Humboldt's account of the Andes so inspired the 19th-century imagination, that the era's greatest landscape painters, such as Frederic Church, actually travelled to South American specifically to witness and depict the vistas which von Humboldt had recorded in print. The integral von Humboldt, in contrast with the one presented here, wanted not simply to view and record exotic cultures and climates, but far beyond this to attempt as much as possible to experience the totality of the Cosmos in microcosmic form. The closest von Humboldt came to this impossible experience was his rapid ascent of the large volcanoes of South America, insofar as in this manner he could pass, virtually, through all the Earth's various climates in a single day--an astounding and Romantic feat completely unavailable to anyone using this edition as an introduction to von Humboldt.

But none of the above can be glimpsed even remotely by the reader equipt with only the Penguin edition. Because of the premature truncation of the text, one entirely loses sight of von Humboldt's overarching project, which was not merely a geographical descripton of the Earth's surface, but rather a geodetical construction of the World as an organic Unity. Thus abbreviated, von Humboldt appears scarcely different from his Enlightenment precursors; we lose all view of him as writer who has passed through defiles of Romanticism. Not the real von Humboldt at all.

Rather than making one rash cut down the middle, the editor would have served the reader much better by extracting key episodes from von Humboldt's entire journey. As I said above, something is generally better than nothing at all. But in this particular case, not much better.
23 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining account of 5 years in S.America 31 Oct 2002
By A. J. Watson - Published on
Alexander von Humboldt (of the Current fame) was a famous polymath during the age of enlightenment. Like many noblemen, he used his money and leisure time in esoteric pursuits, such as collecting flora & fauna and trying to find the deeper meaning of it all.
This particular volume has been well-translated from the original - there is none of that stilted 'I haf von the Cherman translated been' style - it reads conversationally (assisted by the editing-out of long passages where Humboldt takes one of his many diversions) yet it also gives us an idea of what the man was really like. There is an extensive set of notes at the back, not just references, but elaboration of the point, which I found very illuminating.
His travels to South America span 5 years, during which time he collects and measures EVERYTHING - for at this time in history, no-one knew what was going to be pertinent or useful to science or economy. There are some amazing descriptions where he was the first educated person to see places; the problems of travel in uncharted, trackless & mountainous country make terrific reading. We may scoff at the zeal of the man, but if Hiram Bingham hadn't done the same, we wouldn't have the fantastic ruins of Macchu Picchu to study.
We also learn of the relatively tight circle of 'scientists' at that time - almost everyone knew everyone else, either via letters, Society writings or personal contact - and they knew it all; there was as yet no division between geology, biology, zoology etc - it was just 'Natural Philosophy' and one studied the lot (of course some dedicated themselves to a favourite pursuit). What is amazing to us now is the most simple things were unknown; for example, a sailor at death's door deep in the bowels of the ship, 'miraculously' recovers when taken on deck, out of the fetid miasma of the orlop - well, who wouldn't?... There are many similar incidents.
Slightly heavy going at times, because of the writing style of the period, it is nevertheless chock full of interesting snippets and amazing discoveries, giving a great insight into the mind and motives of a typical adventurous philosopher of the time. *****
24 of 32 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars My Opinion Thusly 3 Mar 2000
By Noah Count - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I have to admit that just as I was starting to savour this thin slip of a book I found that it was, indeed, mere selections. The whole narrative is actually three volumes, over four hundred pages a volume. I was left with a craven empty feeling like a fiend for his needle. Humboldt's writing presages Thoreau and through him ponders the transcendent raptures of the natural world. Reading through the visit to the Caribs reminded me of my visits to the Grenadines where their presence is still redolent in the shadows under the almond trees. I felt that I had imbibed the same air as Humboldt.
8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Just a glimpse of the Journey 24 May 2006
By Pablo M. Coronel - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I bught the book, and was expecting it eagerly.

Once it arrived I realized I had make a mistake by not realizing it was just an exceprto from the real deal.

Only a small part of the trip is described and nothing in the parts I was interested is even mentioned.

I hope the other parts will come at any time soon.
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Ignorance and arrogance in equal amounts, then as now, trademarks of the Hispanic world 30 July 2010
By Quilmiense - Published on
Humboldt's travelogue through Spanish America and the Canary Islands from 1799 to 1804 sounds fresh and vivid. It's the closest thing to time-traveling. The author takes us to a time when practically all America south of the US border was one varied but politically unified entity. The 300 hundred years passed since colonization had barely made any difference in the way peoples and races lived on the continent. No progress either economically or socially. So the most interesting thing of this book, in my opinion, lies on this ability to make a still picture of 300 hundred years of life in South America.

Afraid that the book would be too technical, too botanical, I had had put it aside for too long, regrettably. This is humanity at work, civilization-making (or rather staling), this is a picture of humanity surrounded by humbling nature. Man strives to improve his condition against that of his neighbor, fights to better his social condition against those who are not his kind, his race, his relatives. But man is humbled over and over again by nature.

It is thought-provoking, if not downright funny, to see supposedly civilized Spaniards trying to civilize their Indian "pupils". Retrospectively both failed, as always happens when the one-eyed lead the blind. Fat chance of finding any literate Spaniards among the "civilized" conquerors and colonists. The Catholic church endeavored to keep the monopoly of literacy for so long, in Spain as well as in America.

Humboldt's clarity of mind and sensibleness are made apparent, to mention one example, when he takes on the praise lavished on the Guanches of the Canary Islands, who became a fashionable topic among Spaniards, only "when Spain was at the zenith of her glory". More so: "When nations are mentally exhausted and see the seeds of depravity in their refinements, the idea that in some distant region infant societies enjoy pure and perpetual happiness pleases them." Utopias and phariseism were things Humboldt didn't fall for as socialists-turned-environmentalists today do: "enormous forest fires are also caused by the carelessness of the Indians who forget to put out their camp fires."

Being myself a Spaniard by birth I have to deplore how little, if at all, has the Spanish idiosyncrasy changed since immemorial times, and am amazed how well this author detects faults in our national soul: "a shoemaker of Castilian descent ... received us with gravity and self-sufficiency characteristic in those countries where the people feel they possess some special talent." One might think the author a little arrogant himself, but this is not so. Humboldt is equanimity personified. The shoemaker "pulled a few small opaque pearls from out of his leather pouch and forced us to accept them, making us note down ... that white and noble Castilian race had given us something that, across the ocean, was thought of as very precious."

More on Spanish traits: "The missionary in San Fernando was an Aragonese Capuchin ... sitting in his redwood armchair most of the day without doing anything, he complained of what he called the laziness and ignorance of his countrymen ... however seemed quite satisfied with his situation." It is also very symptomatic of Spaniards from all regions to see their "lively curiosity manifested ... in the middle of American jungles for the wars and political storms in the Old World." Reminds me of the the bigoted upper and middle classes in Spain today who shout out anti-capitalist slogans, never seeing the pillar in their own eye. They also are satisfied with their own situation.

Spanish old prejudice against manual labor (when done by themselves, that is), as was described in 16th century Spanish literature, picaresque mostly (e.g. Lazarillo de Tormes), lives on and well: "Many of the whites of European stock, especially the poorest ... leave their townhouses ... dare to work with their own hands, which, given the rigid prejudices in this country, would be a disgrace in the city."

Humboldt does recognize the divide between the English-speaking world and the Hispanic world, as reflected in their American versions, and as early as the 1800's: "Beyond the Atlantic ocean, only the United States of America offers asylum to those in need. A government that is strong because it is free, and confident because it is just, has nothing to fear in granting refuge to exiles."

A book to relish because it blends beautifully Hispanic cupidity and arrogance with nature's zero tolerance for stupidity and tough reality. The Spanish-speaking world continues to reap what it sows.

God save the USA, if only as a last resort. Oh, and please, no fools allowed.
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