I grew up hearing about Humboldt and his 6,000 mile trek through Latin America and the Humboldt current and living in Humboldt latitudes. Did you know he has more places named after him than any other figure in history? Eleven towns in the U.S. and Canada, a mountain range in Antartica, and a sea on the dark side of the moon. There are 12 species named after him, from squid to penguins, orchids and willows.

Mare Humboldtaneum

My father could have been a mini Humboldt, was smart enough, had the education and the energy, but I think the Depression took the starch out of him.


In any case, Humboldt has always been on my list, along with other queer desert wanderers such as Melville, Lawrence, Thesiger, and Tobias Schneebaum, and I remember reading a lengthy review of something about him back in the ’80s or ’90s and saying, as he went to Uruguay or Paraguay with his faithful French companion Bonpland and hung out with the Indians for months and months longer than was strictly necessary, this man is queer. One of the things about growing up in the Humboldt latitudes is one’s expat gaydar is almost congenital. There are all kinds of strange people in Monrovia, Liberia, at Luke the Belgian’s hotel. I was not the only one.

Hotel Country Club

Me, foreground, at Luke the Belgian's Hotel Country Club, Monrovia, Liberia. I am taking her hand off my shoulder.

Daddy thought Luke was a blood diamond smuggler. I was so bored I set fire to the tablecloth, probably because I wasn’t drinking. The flames were extinguished with my Coca-Cola, and not the Tuborg. I was incensed.

Whatever. Being a third culture kid sharpens the eye for stranger-ness in people devoted to romance on the road. There is often a reason they don’t want to be back in Belgium, being just plain Luke the Flemish thug.

So I have been persuaded about Humboldt for years and finally have gotten to the point, where I am calm enough to pick up my reading life from where it went down the tubes and into cartons two and a half years ago with my books. Many did not survive the sea change. So I got a 50 cent bio of Humboldt from Ama. And guess what it says on page xii?

Drinking lazos in the bar of the 16th century royal land grant hacienda, La Cienega, off Ecuador’s Avenue of the Volcanoes, named by Humboldt, and near the 20,565-foot peak of Chimborazo, nineteen thousand feet of which Humboldt, unaided by oxygen tanks, got up and set an altitude record for in 1802 which lasted 30 years and inspired the ascents of the Alps and Himalayas, the author is surprised to find his guide Andres and his brother Nelson speculating about Humboldt’s sexuality. How sophisticated and well-informed are these aborigines! As if Humboldt were the first sex tourist to cruise the Avenue of the Volcanoes.

La Cienega, Cotopaxi, Ecuador. Humboldt slept here, in 1802. For anyone who grew up in the Humboldt latitudes, climbing eucalyptus trees and going home smelling like a cough drop, La Cienega's eucalyptus allee is Proustian in its affect -- the bark, the way the high-altitude, equatorial sun comes through the leaves and trunks. http://www.grandpoohbah.net/ecuador.htm

On page six, we have Humboldt’s older brother noting, around 1780, that the 10-year-old would “never be tranquil, because I cannot believe that any real attachment will ever steal his heart….A veil hung over our feelings which neither of us dared to lift.”

I was thinking the author would skip the whole problem. But no, it was addressed by a gay activist in 1908 who retailed gossip about Humboldt’s participation in Berlin’s gay underworld before his death nearly half a century earlier. A German-speaking biographer, De Terre, in 1955 quotes a more reliable source, passionate letters written by Humboldt to men. A few letters survived and the author quotes them, noting “[t]hese were not typical expressions of male friendship, even by the standards of eighteenth century Europe. Indeed, Alexander himself was disturbed by such feelings….”

On the very next page young Alexander falls in love with a theology student, and a few years later with a young Army officer. Humboldt, born and raised in Prussia, wrote the army officer, on the occasion of the officer’s marriage, with all the passion the age of romance and revolution could contain:

Two years have passed since we met, since your fate became mine….I felt better in your company and from that moment I was tied to you as by iron chains. Even if you must refuse me, treat me coldly with disdain, I should still want to be with you….Never would I cease to remain attached to you, and I can thank heaven that I was granted before my death the grand experience of knowing how much two human beings can mean to each other. With each day my love and attachment for you increase. For two years I have known no other bliss on earth but your gaiety, your company, and the slightest expression of your contentment. My love for you is not just friendship, or brotherly love — it is veneration, childlike gratefulness, and devotion to your will is my most exalted law.

No permanent attachment was his brother’s prediction, and it became true. Unimaginable to me is Prussia’s early nineteenth century queer community and how Humboldt became perhaps the greatest celebrity of the first half of the nineteenth century by substituting six years on the road, the continent of South America, and 60,000 botanical specimens for the body of Reinhard von Haeften. I’m getting sweaty just thinking about the last panoramic shot of Humboldt, Bonpland, and their Ecuadorian Sherpa, Carlos, turning back, altitude sick, hill happy, a thousand feet below the peak of Chimborazo. To return to — no Reinhard. A world of no attachments.

Chimborazo, aquatint by Humboldt and Bonpland. Chimborazo's summit is the point on the earth farthest from earth's center. http://www.library.yale.edu/beinecke/sublime1.htm

Just think about Reinhard’s shako, and the rise, in Humboldt’s time, of the Prussian army. And Humboldt’s long tenure as the world’s greatest man. Direct inspiration for Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle. Friend of a founder of modernity, Goethe. Friend of the liberator, Bolivar. And of the author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson. Transcendentalist. Humboldt is probably the millenium’s most influential queer. Or Reinhard was.

Early 19th century Prussian army uniform, modelled after Frederick the Great's simple blue soldier-king uniform. http://napoleonistyka.atspace.com/Prussian_infantry.htm

Copyright (c) Jeannette Smyth, all rights reserved.