by Sue B. Walker


After five years, Humboldt returns to Paris. It is late June, 1804, and he is almost 35 years old.  Greeted with a hero’s welcome, he arrives with some 60,000 plant specimens of which 2,000 are new to European botanists.

Okay, so Humboldt, makes me feel most inferior!  I don’t dare say how many plant specimens, I can name – much less draw them. (How about drawing some MPG plant specimens for us, Derek Norman?)

But as for pomp and circumstance, Napoleon had declared himself Emperor of France—the most powerful man in France!  An interesting note about Humboldt and Simon Bolivar, both of whom were in Paris when Napoleon crowned himself emperor is that Bolivar said he was shocked to see how a man who had been his hero had become a despot and “hypocritical tyrant.”

Wulf says the reason Humboldt wished to return to Paris as his new home was due to the fact that it was “so deeply steeped in science.”  There were the numerous cafes. The poet, Robert Southey, said that in Paris, it seemed as if houses were only built to sleep in.

In Paris, Humboldt met up with the 25-yr-old chemist, Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac who was thrilling the scientific world with balloon ascents that he used to study terrestrial magnetism at great heights.  He and Humboldt began giving lectures together and became not only good friends but travelling companions.  And – Wulf writes: “They even shared a small bedroom and study in the attic of the École Polytechnique” a few years later.

This chapter of Wulf reads like a Who’s Who of Europe:  naturalists Georges Cuvier and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, Pierre-Simon Laplace, the astronomer – all the savants of Paris. And this reminds me that our Renaissance man, Eugene Walter, once organized MASS – the Mobile Assembly of Sages and Savants – because the assembly spelled out the word MASS.  Memory fades but to the best of my knowledge the Mobile Sages were Eugene Walter, of course, (who was instrumental in the launch Negative Capability, Jay Higginbotham, who wrote Fast Train Russia, among other books and was head of the Mobile Archives,  the musician, Fred Baldwin, Sue Hawkins, the actress, and Nicholas McGowan.


Ah, this word Schadenfreude, which means delight in another’s misfortune.  Humboldt said he felt a streak of schadenfreude in himself, and Wulf writes that our Alex was quick in his judgment of others.  He invented nicknames for people – and called the King of Sicily, the “pasta king” while a conservative Prussian minister was “a glacier” because he was “icy.”


And we would remember that Austria and France were at war.

So for a PROMPT.  Let’s write an American Sentence.

Allen Ginsberg didn’t like the Haiku because it wasn’t American – so he invented the AMERICAN SENTENCE – a line of 17 syllables. He added the 5 / 7 /5 syllables of the Haiku and came up with his American Sentence:

Humboldt was a handsome man, but I don’t think he would have trucked with me.  (Sue Walker)