Friday, July 20, 2007

Sailing Sachs's Current

I sat down to read Aaron Sachs’ recent book The Humboldt Current as a pleasure trip. Meaning I left the pencil behind to just read straight through its pretty dense 358 pages. In short, what I found was an outstanding book that presents some great research and poses far-reaching implications.

The thesis, if it could be boiled down to one sentence is this: “Ecology would have been unthinkable outside the context of nineteenth century exploration” (Sachs 346). Here Sachs doesn’t use ecology to mean the scientific principles of interdependence—that would exist with or without humans and their exploration—but instead the human-mapped science cum political movement (as proto-environmentalism) dealing with interdependence. In short, exploration—for exploration’s sake—based in natural history produced a meaningful science of ecology that in turn spurred the political action of conservationism. Using Humboldt’s grand theory of interdependence (Haeckel didn’t coin the term ecology until after Humboldt’s death) outlined in his five-volume life’s work, Cosmos, as the center, Sachs explores the growth of an environmental consciousness in Humboldt’s American disciples that was set apart from the resource-use frenzy of the day.

(Why Humboldt, by the way? Because almost everyone in the country, including Jefferson whom Humboldt met when he was 35 on his only trip to the States where the naturalist was received like a rock star, adored this guy. Even 10 years after his death in 1869, in towns across the country, there were parties and speeches celebrating Humboldt’s 100th birthday.

Sachs constellates five main figures in the book: Humboldt, and the Americans J.N. Reynolds, Clarence King, George Wallace Melville, and John Muir. Using the main compass points to point to their geographical areas of interest, the book breaks easily into four parts that are themselves something like concise biographies (Melville and Muir are paired in “North”). Each, despite their bad raps as promulgators of Manifest Destiny and the gospel of wealth, shared a Humboldtian love of natural history that put knowledge of interdependence over commercial possibilities. Reynolds’s quest for the South Seas Expedition, for example, was about looking for the open seas at the South Pole simply because it would be nice to know how ocean currents worked, despite his having to cop to a commercial sealing and whaling expedition to get him there in the end. King, first head of the USGS, spent his early years hiking the American West to measure altitudes and gain some kind of spiritual insight, despite living the later years of his life a cattle man and land speculator. Melville (up past the Bering Strait) and Muir (into Alaska in his complicated and often forgotten piece “The Cruise of the Corwin”) sailed and traipsed around Alaska despite being pegged as a power-mad, piss-poor sailor (Melville) and promoter of wilderness tourism for man’s sake alone (Muir). If interdependence is the message, then for Sachs the mode of exploration is borne out by travel narratives. All were best-selling authors and made a good buck on the lyceum circuit (save Muir who came too late and grew an orchard). Sachs’s close-reading of these travel narratives make up the heart of the analysis. A careful reader, his point is well taken and that nuance he provides at the level of the word is excellent. It’s through this analysis that he paints a picture of the whole of the 19th century as a good deal more environmental than we normally give it credit for—meaning more than Thoreau and G.P. Marsh.

The book itself, like all good histories, is also a great compendium of factoids and anecdotes about historical figures and episodes. For example, King caught some grief for climbing the wrong mountain. Henry Adams apparently really did know everyone and is all over the second half of this book. Sachs also outlines the political intrigues that rocked the funding of a number of voyages, pointing out the beginnings of the commercially funded trip. He supplies some social history, following the public’s furvor over buying out runs of Humboldt’s works and the ways in which invoking Humboldt could turn a vote in Congress. Sachs does some close reading of Emerson (he says he’s not a Humboldtian), Thoreau (almost the ideal Humboldtian, he gets an epigraph for every single chapter), Poe (a Humboldt plagiarist), and the other Melville (himself stealing from Reynolds). Welcomingly, Sachs, in the Mocha/Moby Dick sections supplies all the generic whale-as-symbol readings, but also that whales also do strange things sometimes in the real world. Who knew?!?! He also digs into American visual culture, hitting up a number of painters, as well as the emerging photography of the time. As far as interdisciplinarity goes, this guy does it all. Scholars in American Studies take note.

While I would say that there is no part of the book that fails, there are some small portions that don’t quite seem to fit neatly into the scheme. In these cases it seems that Sachs is bound by the academy’s code of dealing with race, class, and gender and is working toward the hat trick. Class and race issues do, admittedly, fit fairly squarely into the work here on a one-by-one basis. Reynolds, for example, was a farmer’s son trying to make it in the world; the study of natural history, as Sachs points out, was a way to transcend the Ohio farm of his youth in 1820. King married an African-American maid in secret for fear of being disowned by friends and family, the pressure ruining, to a degree, his health and happiness. Additionally, each person profiled in the book has a messy, complicated relationship to the native peoples they encounter. You can see in Sachs’s profiles how each one vacillates on the savage-civilized question and where to put some kind of ethical superiority. In the end, it’s all still open to interpretation, though those fully committed to the Humboldtian project embraced a kind of “unity in diversity,” at least on the page.

The part that doesn’t jibe, however, is the time spent with each man addressing the deep and complicated homosocial possibilities that the explorers encountered on their journeys. Sachs makes clear that exploration brings men together in exceptionally close ways, especially in contrast to the urban Victorian world. However, never at any time does he call any man homosexual, nor does he find compelling any evidence that they had admitted it to others or themselves (at least in their writing and letters). He does admit the complexity of applying a presentist lens to 19th century characters and their language—how difficult it is to parse not uncommon declarations of love between men as merely 1850s locutions or deep sentiment, how hard it is to know precisely what people mean when they express themselves to one another at all? These portions are interesting in and of themselves, but I’m not sure they add anything to the larger argument of the book (there’s no “eco-homo” argument, to pun on Nietzsche). Of course, I can’t fault him for trying a trifecta—writing on environmental topics with literal place taking a central role isn’t terribly fashionable. He might as well give his stodgier readers something to nibble on.

But the point that piqued my interest beyond the high quality scholarship was that Sachs wrote in a much more vibrant way than many other writers, in history or elsewhere. I think this is due in large part to the high caliber of his academic training and also his practice from years as an environmental journalist before starting graduate school (i.e. getting corrupted). What makes Sachs stand out is that he is willing to drop into the first-person and talk about his trips to visit archives and the places where these people traveled themselves. He’s not willing to sit around in the ivory tower—he’s got to hit the ground, and that makes his work stand out.

Not that this method’s been without trouble for him. In a short anecdotal essay on the History News Network, he remembers his initiation into the world of academic writing: getting canned by an unnamed two-time Pulitzer-winning historian for using the first person (four times in 139 pages) in his senior thesis at Harvard.

"With all due respect to my interlocutors, I have been asking for 15 years why it is that academic historians insist either on erasing their personas or on turning to the ridiculously royal-sounding "we" or the awkward, self-deluding formality of "the author," but not once have I gotten a compelling answer. Needless to say, then, ever since I received that first Reader's Report, I have been trying to use the first-person singular in my historical writing as often as possible. This practice has generated its share of rejection, scorn, and misunderstanding, but it has also allowed me to maintain a sense of self in the all-too-impersonal world of academia..."

Thank God he ignored the criticism. His Current isn’t rife with digressions into the first-person, certainly not to the point of distraction; when he does it, the personal only adds to the writing. It, too, adds to his own investment in this work is personal. Unlike many forgettable first books, there is no, as one colleague put it, “sound and fury, signifying tenure.” Sachs likes what he does, but also has a careful eye for analysis that makes this a good academic work. That makes the “Acknowledgments” a tasty treat at the end of the book—9 full pages of him divesting the names and tales of everyone who helped out along the way. Because there is an actual person behind this book, it’s no wonder that it wasn’t published by the University of Wherever, but by mainstreamers Viking/Penguin.

All in all it’s a great book that begs to be read slowly, for pleasure. If you can take anything from the work, it’s that when thinking about ecology in the U.S. it would be wise to think about Humboldt—the Einstein of his day in terms of celebrity, Sachs says. Though we forget Humboldt (Sachs says it’s a result of the rise of specialization and lab work instead of teamwork and fieldtrips at the turn from the 19th to 20th century) it might be in our best interests to go look him up again as the environmental problems we’re facing become more complicated. Or, in a more Humboldtian fashion, interdependent.


MBQ said...

Dude, I did not need another book to read. So thanks for that. Jerk.

Having not read the book I can't speak to the specifics of Sachs' text, but his style certainly seems to be the very definition of a breath of fresh air.

You know this, Tom, because you've heard me complain about it (and hearing that Brian knows you have thus not heard it once, but a 100 times), but I'm increasingly turning my eye away from academic presses for precisely some of the reasons you mention here. Books published by the mainstream press can contain plenty of copious research, yet aren't forced to conform to the desire for uniformity that shackle many academic texts.

That "sense of self" that Sachs refers to is vital to the process of anyone's work, yet academics often want to deny it in the work itself.

And honestly, it doesn't look to me that Sachs is reiventing writing here - he just wants some space to be a real presence inside his own work.

It's not a total either/or, of course. There are plenty of great academic texts and plenty of horrid mainstream texts. When I turn and look at my shelf there's a nice balance between the two.

trout said...

Thanks for the review, Tom. Somehow it's only $7 on Amazon, so I'm picking up a copy along with some of next semester's reading.

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