Alexander von Humboldt’s Images of Landscape and the ‘Chaos of the Poets’
During his journeys in the Americas from 1799 to 1804 Alexander von Humboldt carried with him the narrative conventions of European travel literature. The travel journals in particular, recordings of immediate impressions, often show Humboldt applying narrative structures to the scenes he encountered. Humboldt’s journal entries on volcanoes are clearly influenced by literary modes of description. But a reading of Humboldt’s journals also shows where the limits of narrative conventions are confronted. The volcano descriptions provide a case study on Humboldt’s struggles to invent a travel narrative to match the demands of a new world. The natural world, the volcanic landscape, was new to the extent that it was relatively unknown to Europeans. If not to be rendered identical to European descriptions by imposed narrative conventions, Humboldt would need to experiment with other types of narrative.
For the eighteenth-century traveler to Italy, the ascent of Vesuvius near Naples or Mt. Etna in Sicily was a conventionalized event. The travel episode included preliminary preparations and expectations, then the account of the immediate impressions emphasizing the dangers of the climb, the powers of nature, and the chaos of the volcanic caldron. Often the story of the excursion is concluded with a retrospective evaluation. Goethe’s account in Italienische Reise exemplifies how adventure and factual observations are mixed with aesthetic perspectives and literary allusions. This set piece of travel narrative even became a focus of satire and humorous fantasy as shown by an episode in Gottfried August Bürger’s Münchhausen adventures. What are the common elements of these examples of travel accounts and their literary conventions?
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