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Meet the Editors – Rex Clark and Oliver Lubrich

Rex Clark and Oliver Lubrich are the editors of Cosmos and Colonialism and Transatlantic Echoestwo volumes that collect writings by and about Alexander von Humboldt – the first collection of its kind.  Below, the editors discuss their enthusiasm for von Humboldt’s life and work, and its continued relevance in the 21st century.

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What drew you to the study of Alexander von Humboldt?

Humboldt was a fascinating character—explorer of South American tropics, extreme mountain climber in the Andes, darling of the salon society in Paris and Berlin, and a celebrity intellectual known around the world in his time. His vision of society and knowledge discovery was truly intercultural and multidisciplinary and throughout his long life he sparked controversy and attracted attention.

In our original discussions about the project we were struck by how scholarship and conference presentations seemed very isolated and split between English, Spanish, and German language topics and traditions of Humboldt research. We planned to bridge this with a volume of representative essays from around the world. In researching the background contexts we discovered a rich history of literary and critical responses to Humboldt. So then the project morphed and grew to become a cultural history of those responses. We were drawn to how Humboldt appeared in poetry and fiction from his day to the present and we collected the literary responses which became the 100 texts in Transatlantic Echoes. The philosophical discussions and critical works inspired by Humboldt became the 50 essays of Cosmos and Colonialism.

So our two volumes are not really focused on Humboldt per se, but rather on the works of authors who created their own stories and myths, their own theories and propaganda. A mash up of Humboldt’s life and works, if you will, imagined by other writers, crossing two centuries and mixing up genres and nationalities. Other media are there as well, films, plays, comics. And since many of these were originally published in other languages, we had those texts translated so we can present everything in English to our readers. For us it was a big adventure of discovery—to find texts, research authors and their context, and then make the selections. And then we had to get the translations done and deal with all the issues of editing and copyright permissions, that was the part of the journey where we could identify with some of the hardships of Humboldt’s travels.

To what extent do you think the book will contribute to debates amongst academics within the field?

The sheer variety of the approaches to Alexander von Humboldt and the number of controversies that he has been drawn into over the years is very striking. Those used to thinking of Humboldt as just a scientist or who have only seen Humboldt in their own national context will find plenty of surprises here. Our work highlights first of all the literary responses to Humboldt, how his works became a workshop of literary techniques for many authors. Then his cultural position within the main language areas are often radically different. By this we mean the English-language science scholars know a very different Humboldt from the South American writers who see him as a political and social commentator who is also very much alive in their modern imaginative literatures. German readers have long pushed Humboldt back and forth across their own borders between the elite and the common, communists and Nazis, East and West German cultures, traditional views and post colonial approaches. The global literary conversation about Humboldt and the radical cultural issues involved should now be much more visible.

 

Do you think there are aspects of this work that will be controversial to other scholars working in the field?

Our two collections, Alexander von Humboldt in World Literature and Alexander von Humboldt in Cultural Criticism, are polyphonous. They cover literary and critical responses to Alexander von Humboldt from various cultures and eras as well as from different political positions. They include texts written from colonialist, conservative as well as socialist perspectives. And they even document totalitarian appropriations, one example from National-Socialist Germany and one from East German leader Erich Honecker.

 

Why do you think studying Alexander von Humboldt’s life and work is important today? 

Intercultural exchange and interdisciplinary thinking, the most striking characteristics of Alexander von Humboldt’s works, are more relevant than ever. Humboldt is probably the German writer whose work is most international and most multidisciplinary in scope. It provides us with the unique opportunity of studying German culture in a global context, of reconstructing trans-Atlantic exchanges in the 19th and 20th century, and of following creative criss-crossings between various disciplines.

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Rex Clark is a Lecturer in the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. He studied at the Freie Universität Berlin and the University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign, researching the history of travel guides and travel discourse in the eighteenth century and focusing on Friedrich Nicolai, Georg Forster, and Alexander von Humboldt. He has published articles on digital media, postcolonial travel theory, and the reception of Alexander von Humboldt.

Oliver Lubrich is Professor of German and Comparative Literature at Universität Bern in Switzerland. He is the author of Shakespeare’s Self-Deconstruction (2001) and Post-Colonial Poetics (2004, 2009) and the editor of Travels in the Reich, 1933-1945 (2010). He has edited or co-edited Alexander von Humboldt’s Central Asia (2009), Kosmos (2004), and the first German version of Vues des Cordillères(2004), the Chimborazo Diary (2006) as well as the ethnographic and political essays (2009, 2010).