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Alexander von Humboldt: A Metabiography
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 3 July 2006
This is an exceptional and pioneering book, showing where historical scholarship is (or should be) headed. Rupke has succeeded in condensing an enormous amount of material into a short and readable account and as such his "Humboldt Metabiography" is rather British. In another way, the book is not British at all, in the sense that it undercuts the empiricist belief in the "definitive biography" and in fact destabilizes biography as a genre by convincingly showing that all biographical portraits of Humboldt are attributable to collectives of authors, each of which was part of the memory culture of a particular period of German political history. To have produced this cultural chiasma is an intellectual accomplishment that can only delight and impress the reader. Striking to me are the very different "Humboldts" of the Third Reich and of the GDR. The end of the book is also strong, where Rupke historicizes his own approach. This is what Germans call "souverän" and reminds of the "Souveränität" of a Max Weber who always did this, too. The book is an intellectual tour de force that calls for similar metabiographical studies of Darwin and other "greats" of the history of science.
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on 6 July 2006
This is not another conventional biography of Alexander von Humboldt but a "life of lives", a metabiography. In a fascinating way it demonstrates how Humboldt's life was configured and reconfigured according to the prepossessions of successive generations of German biographers. As Harvard's Steven Shapin has commented in his review in Nature (18 May 2006, p. 286) the book draws attention to the fact that shifting biographical traditions make one person have many lives. The book was a pleasure to read.
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on 3 July 2006
This is an important work of historiography. It demonstrates that we make and remake past lives to suit our present purposes. Rupke's metabiography helps us appreciate the instability of any scientific life, not just Humboldt's, but also Darwin's and many others'. The story is effectively organized and flows naturally from epoch to epoch. With this book on the market, Humboldt studies will not be the same again.
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0 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 28 May 2006
While the author and his co-workers have apparently gone through a large amount of material, the result is less than impressive. His approach to a study of Humboldt biographies is neither new nor (as a glance at the attempts of statistical diagrams will show) intellectually rigorous. Unfortunately, the reader remains disappointed to the end.
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