Humboldt scholar's book awards unprecedented
Obscure today, Alexander von Humboldt was once so well known that transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson declared the mid-19th century “The Age of Humboldt.”
The German naturalist and scholar is earning renewed attention as a result of a book by a University of South Carolina professor who has won an unprecedented trio of top prizes in literature and history.
Dr. Laura Dassow Walls will receive the Modern Language Association’s James Russell Lowell Prize for her book, “The Passage to Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Shaping of America,” Jan. 7 at the MLA’s annual convention.
The prestigious literary award follows Walls’ winning the Merle Curti Award for best book in American intellectual history by the Organization of American Historians in April. In October, she won the Michelle Kendrick Memorial Book Award for the best book in literature and science by the Society for Literature, Science and the Arts.
An English professor in the College of Arts and Sciences, Walls is the first scholar ever to win both a Lowell Prize in literature and a Curti Award in history.
“Dr. Walls’ accomplishment is absolutely unprecedented,” said Dr. Mary Anne Fitzpatrick, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “Her work is enriching the understanding of literary history, illuminating for us what is gained when literature is not separated from science.”
Walls says Humboldt was as iconic to his time as Einstein has been to our own. Her intent for “The Passage to Cosmos” was to share Humboldt’s life in America as a scientist, explorer, political economist, ethnologist and spokesman for social justice and to share his idea of “Cosmos” with readers today.
“Unlike a physical universe, which exists on its own, without us, Humboldt offered the notion of the ‘Cosmos,’ a universe that was an ordered and beautiful whole, a joint co-creation of humanity and nature,” Walls said. “This extraordinary idea moved a whole generation of American artists and writers, among them the founders of American environmentalism: Emerson, Thoreau, John Muir and George Perkins Marsh.”
She said the trio of awards from different disciplines reflects Humboldt’s 19th-century fight to keep the “two cultures” of sciences and humanities knitted together at a time when they were being split.
“That my book about Humboldt has been honored across this range of disciplines shows that Humboldt’s project truly does, as I have always believed, have new relevance in our time,” said Walls. “So much of what we need to know today lies in the spaces between disciplines, and I think this level of attention to Humboldt shows we are now at a stage where the many rich disciplinary specialties that arose beginning in the 19th century can, in the 21st, fruitfully enter new conversations, find common ground and build exciting new partnerships.”
The Curti, Kendrick and Lowell prizes aren’t the only honors Walls received in 2010. In May, she was named a 2010 fellow by the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. The Guggenheim Fellowship is one of the most esteemed awards artists, scholars and scientists can earn. The holder of the John H. Bennett Jr. Chair of Southern Letters in USC’s English Dept; Walls also received USC’s Russell Research Award last spring.
“It’s been an incredible year,” Walls said. “I’ve been honored at every turn, and it is so very gratifying to be honored by colleagues in my home field of literary studies with the Lowell Prize. Doing interdisciplinary work can mean leaving one’s original training. This prize signifies to me that I succeeded in making the many allied disciplines relevant to one another, enriching the cultural and literary landscape for others as well as myself.”
The Guggenheim Fellowship is enabling Walls to spend the academic year researching and writing a biography of Henry David Thoreau, the first full-length, newly researched biography on the transcendentalist in 40 years. She wants to reintroduce Thoreau to a 21st-century audience and connect him to 21st-century ideas of sustainability, responsibility and civic engagement.
Born in the small fishing village of Ketchikan, Alaska, Walls was raised on a forested island east of Seattle. She taught at Lafayette College for 12 years before coming to USC in 2004. In addition to “The Passage to Cosmos,” Walls’ books include “Emerson’s Life in Science: The Culture of Truth” and “Seeing New Worlds: Henry David Thoreau and Nineteenth-Century Natural Science.”