Alexander von Humboldt was internationally known as a world traveler, having collected data and analyzed samples from five of the world’s seven continents. He spoke several languages fluently, and split most of his adult life between the cosmopolitan centers of Berlin and Paris. The great deal of time Humboldt spent in Latin America, along with his staunch belief in human equality, led to his reverence in those countries. Indeed, Humboldt was a world citizen in the truest sense of the word. But what of the United States? What claim can this nation make to the heritage and legacy of the world-exploring baron? A brief stop in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. at the end of Humboldt’s expedition to the equatorial regions of the Americas seems to suffice. This short stay, along with the Humboldt-Jefferson correspondence, constitutes the great American link in Humboldt studies, a link whose nature and importance has, over the years, received an exaggerated amount of attention from authors writing for an American audience. The following analysis, using the tools of transcultural memory studies, investigates why this relatively insignificant event in a long and storied life assumes an inflated role in current accounts of the life and work of Alexander von Humboldt.
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