E -- Natural Sciences, Technology

Alexander von Humboldt: Netzwerke des Wissens [Alexander von Humboldt: Networks of Knowledge]. Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin. 6. Juni-15. August 1999; Kunst und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, Bonn. 15. September 1999-9. Januar 2000. Ed. Frank Holl for the Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland GmbH. Bonn: Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, 1999. 237 p. ill. 28 cm. DM 35.00. (Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle..., Friedrich-Ebert-Allee 4, D-53113 Bonn, fax [49 228] 234154) [00-1/4-433]

Alexander von Humboldts Schriften: Bibliographie der selbständig erschienenen Werke [Writings of Alexander von Humboldt: Bibliography of Individually Published Titles]. Horst Fiedler and Ulrike Leitner. Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 2000. xxi, 499 p. ill. 25 cm. (Beiträge zur Alexander-von-Humboldt-Forschung, 20). ISBN 3-05-002792-4: DM 228.00 [00-1/4-434]

Measured by the number of editions and their bibliographical description, Alexander von Humboldt is the most neglected German classical writer. This may be due to the fact that for decades Humboldt split his time between Berlin and Paris, and belonged to both German and French intellectual circles. Many of his works were either not available to his German contemporaries, or available only in translation. This all contributes to the fact that even today the full impact and scope of his meticulous investigations and pioneering research remain unfamiliar. Alexander von Humboldt: Netzwerke des Wissens is the opulently crafted catalog of the Humboldt Exhibit prepared in the context of the Humboldt Year 1999. It provides a stellar glimpse of the breadth of his interests and investigations, and his biography as well.

For Humboldt researchers today the situation is rather grim. They are forced to work with rare first editions, since many of his works are not available in modern editions, and newer editions of individual works often reveal themselves to be based on questionable source material. To this day researchers must do without a reliable analytical bibliography of his immense production. A bibliography with comprehensiveness as its goal is subject to particular difficulties in the case of Humboldt. He subjected his major works to a plethora of pre-printings and excerpts, which, as revisions, take on the merit of the original works themselves.

To all these intricacies are added the monumental analytical difficulties of the "Reisewerk" (corpus of travel accounts) itself. Only after scrutiny of the publication history do the specific difficulties emerge. They include the issuance of volumes in fascicles of varying lengths, a mix of titles with variances in the year of publication, all partly due to the numerous publishers involved with the process, and a complicated mixture of works that depend upon or derive from the main work. Humboldt himself is also to blame, as he underestimated the time it would take to complete such a mammoth work, and allowed multiple printing houses to work on the project at the same time. He also spent much effort attempting to work with a variety of translators on various parts of the whole.

In light of all these difficulties, the Bibliographie der selbständig erschienenen Werke can barely claim to be authoritative. The question is only, which ambiguities and assumptions are acceptable, which are tolerable, and which are questionable? To the latter belongs the principle, delineated in the introduction, that is used to determine whether a title is even included. This working principle, determined by the compilers, immediately leaves out works with fewer than 49 pages. Even more questionable is the exclusion from consideration of privately printed excerpts from newspapers, academic papers, etc. The exclusion of these works brings the editors' whole concept of "individually published" ["selbständig erschienen"] into question. In no case does this exclusion concern mere trivialities. The Ideen zu einer Physiognomik der Gewächse is the most prominent victim. Again in the face of the complicated publishing history, the editors abandon a chronological arrangement in favor of "main groups," with a decadal numbering system. This numbering system is frequently unwieldy.

However, if one spends time with the work, these criticisms fade into the background in the face of the exhaustive and comprehensive commentaries, the useful tables of content and chronology, the detailed entries, and the driven and determined sense of investigation on the part of the compilers. The investigative efforts are astonishing and all-encompassing. Readers of this work find nothing left to ask for, thanks to the completeness and scope of the entries. Each entry includes the creation and publication history and a detailed collation and physical description of the edition. Inaccuracies concerning the production of plates mar the effort only slightly. It is interesting to note the collection of Humboldtiana housed in Marbach is not mentioned in this work. One can only hope that a bibliography of the excluded minor monographs will follow, and that the publishers will see fit to produce a similar bibliography for the variant works ["unselbständig erschienene Schriften"]. [bf/sbd]

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