046: Aaron Sachs, 37

Basic Facts

Teaching Position: Assistant Professor of History and American Studies, Cornell University
Area of Research: 19th century US, Intellectual history, Environmental history
Education: Ph.D., American Studies, Yale University, 2004
Major Publications: Sachs is the author of The Humboldt Current: Nineteenth-Century Exploration Aaron Sachs JPG and the Roots of American Environmentalism(Viking, August 2006); based on his dissertation, The Humboldt Current: Avant-Garde Exploration and Environmental Thought in 19th-Century America. A paperback version of the book is due out from Penguin in August 2007. There is also a British version of the book: The Humboldt Current: A European Explorer and His American Disciples (Oxford University Press, February 2007).
Awards:
Sachs is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships including among others:
Andrew W. Mellon Short-Term Fellowship, Massachusetts Historical Society, 2006-7;
Humanities research grant, Society for the Humanities, Cornell University, Summer, 2006;
John Addison Porter Prize (for PhD dissertation), Yale University, 2005;
George Washington Egleston Historical Prize (for PhD dissertation), Yale University, 2005;
Prize Teaching Fellowship, Yale University, 2003-4;
Mrs. Giles Whiting Dissertation Fellowship, 2003-4;
Graduate Affiliate Fellowship, Whitney Humanities Center, Yale University, 2003-4;
John F. Enders Research Fellowship, Yale University, 2002;
Jacob K. Javits Fellowship, U.S. Department of Education, 1998-2002;
Huntington Library Research Fellowship, 2001-2;
Howard R. Lamar Center for the Study of Frontiers and Borders Research Grant, Yale University, 2001-2;
Beinecke Library Research Fellowship, 2001;
Honorary Mellon Fellowship, 1998-9;
Project Censored Award in U.S. journalism, for an article on Nigerian playwright and environmentalist Ken Saro-Wiwa, 1997;
Elected to Phi Beta Kappa, 1992;
Best Senior Thesis in History and Literature, Harvard University, 1992.
Additional Info:
Sachs is a member of the Advisory Board for the website “Humboldt in the Net” www.uni-potsdam.de/u/romanistik/humboldt/index_eg.html, fall 2004-present.
Sachs was also a former environmental journalist, and a regular contributer to the magazine “World Watch.”

Personal Anecdote

When I was a senior in college, I wrote my honors thesis in History and Literature without really thinking about who would read it. I considered it a historical research project, a creative writing project, a thought-piece about where the environmental movement was going, and a collaboration of sorts with my adviser, who over the course of about two years had become a close friend. In short, I considered it a true “essay”: not a comprehensive or definitive study (if such a thing has ever existed), but simply an attempt. Little did I know that, a couple of months later, I would be initiated into that strange academic rite so misleadingly referred to as “peer review.”

I’ll never forget the Reader’s Report on top of the pile. It was penned by someone who had won the Pulitzer Prize in History—twice. And it seemed to me to be, well, kind of mean-spirited. Fifteen years later, I’ve of course seen much nastier, but what struck me at the time was how rule-bound the writer’s perspective was. Apparently, there was a Code of Conduct for Academic History Writing, and I had ripped it up and trampled on it. My sins were many, but the one that this particular reader simply could not abide, the one that compelled him to rail against me for the bulk of his Report, the one that confirmed ineluctably my identity as an arrogant, pretentious, indulgent, opposite-of-tough-minded Student Who Would Not Be Governed, was my use of the first person. The thesis, by way of reference, was 139 pages long. I had used the first-person singular exactly four times.

Now, I don’t want to pretend to have been more naive than I actually was, and I should certainly note that my adviser warned me about all the rules I was breaking (and then, excellent adviser that he was, encouraged me to do whatever I wanted). But, ever since 1992, I have been continually shocked at the virulence with which academics will lash out at those who break what they perceive to be The Rules. Honestly, I have always thought that it was part of the job of an intellectual and a writer to question professional assumptions and to push the limits of whatever genre one might be working in. But I guess if you attempt to write history using what Gibbon called “the most disgusting of pronouns,” you are automatically lacking good taste and fostering the general breakdown of “objectivity.”

With all due respect to my interlocutors, I have been asking for 15 years why it is that academic historians insist either on erasing their personas or on turning to the ridiculously royal-sounding “we” or the awkward, self-deluding formality of “the author,” but not once have I gotten a compelling answer. Needless to say, then, ever since I received that first Reader’s Report, I have been trying to use the first-person singular in my historical writing as often as possible. This practice has generated its share of rejection, scorn, and misunderstanding, but it has also allowed me to maintain a sense of self in the all-too-impersonal world of academia, and I also think it has made me a better teacher. Certainly, my students seem to appreciate the encouragement I give them to develop their own personal relationship to essay topics rather than simply prove they have understood the course readings in a particular way.

I’ll readily admit that I sometimes use the first person rather selfishly. I hope that it adds a layer of depth to my analysis, but what I care about most is that it allows me to tap different aspects of what I take to be my core identity. Or, if you were my therapist, you might say that the first person allows me to express my schizophrenia. I enjoy being a historical scholar, but I also want to be a teacher, an environmental activist, and a writer of creative non-fiction—preferably, all in the same essay, however short or long. I doubt I’ll ever succeed at wearing all of those hats simultaneously, but no set of rules is going to keep me from the head-spinning joy of trying.

Quotes

By Aaron Sachs

  • Follow Humboldt up the river, watch as that jaguar pokes its head out of the forest to drink: you’ll stare into its eyes, and suddenly you’ll sense The Humboldt Current JPG both its viciousness and its innocence. Better than any modern writer I’ve come across, Humboldt captures the miraculousness and bafflement that have characterized my own wildlife sightings and my immersions in unfamiliar natural worlds. He understands how experience can undermine any classic understandings of natural beauty or peacefulness, how a landscape can be “at once wild and tranquil, gloomy and attractive.” He grants nature its own separate reality, acknowledges that its workings are vastly complicated and utterly different from our own, yet reminds us that this is where we come from. — Aaron Sachs in “The Humboldt Current: Nineteenth-Century Exploration and the Roots of American Environmentalism” (Viking, 2006)
  • About Aaron Sachs

  • “Through the lives of Americans who followed or echoed Humboldt, this fascinating, insightful book gives us a brilliant new account of U.S. geography and ecology, exploration and eccentricity.” –Felipe Fernández-Armesto, Prince of Asturias Professor at Tufts University, and Professorial Fellow of Queen Mary, University of London.
  • “In this magnificent book, Aaron Sachs re-introduces us to a forgotten giant, Alexander von Humboldt, who cast an extraordinary spell over our Victorian ancestors and inspired some of the most heroic adventures in American science. Humboldt, Sachs reminds us, was a revolutionary figure whose bold vision of global ecology and human fellowship remains as urgent as ever.” — Mike Davis, author of “Planet of Slums”
  • “In this groundbreaking book, Aaron Sachs plucks from relative obscurity the nineteenth-century Prussian scientist Alexander von Humboldt and demonstrates his profound, lasting influence on many aspects of American culture, including literature, art, science, and environmentalism.” — David S. Reynolds, author of “John Brown, Abolitionist”
  • “The Humboldt Current is a dazzling debut performance by a young scholar-writer of extraordinary gifts. The book itself is a gift–or carefully researched, and beautifully expressed, and deeply humane, understanding. This is one of those rare works in which historical learning makes a lasting difference on our way of seeing both past and present worlds.” — John Demos, author of “The Unredeemed Captive”
  • “Alexander von Humboldt is always in season. Aaron Sachs gives us a heartfelt meditation on an engaging gallery of American Humboldtians.” — Stephen J. Pyne, author of “How the Canyon Became Grand”
  • “Alexander von Humboldt was one of my heroes, as were the explorer-scientists of the American West, and writers such as Whitman and Thoreau, precursors of cosmic consciousness and American environmentalism. But it never occurred to me to bring them all together in one all-encompassing, yet detailed, narrative. That is left to Aaron Sachs in a work of striking originality, meticulous scholarship, and deep humanist sympathy.” — Yi-Fu Tuan, author of “Escapism”
  • “As a work of history, The Humboldt Current is impressive. It is smartly conceived nd superbly written. Most important, it argues persuasively that the course of American empire was ‘many-sided and intensely contested’ (18), even by those whose explorations led the way.” — Gregory Summers, U Wisconsin-Stevens Point, in “History: Reviews of New Books,” Vol. 34 (Summer 2006)
  • “Sachs creates a different relation between past and present that is quite un-Whiggish and quite liberating. The book is smart, closely observed, lively, and full of sharply etched characters, who carry his story…. Sachs narrates the lives of these men movingly and well, and he is aware of their contradictions and their struggles.” — Richard White, Stanford U., in “Raritan,” Vol. 26 (Fall 2006)
  • “Sachs has a huge agenda to push: overthrowing white, Anglo-Saxon dominance, capitalism, and imperialism, and debunking the leading figures in the history of nature preservation. His book is original, ambitious, provocative, at times enthralling…. As a history of exploration, it is brilliant, imaginative, and bold. Like the great Humboldt, Sachs has taken us to new worlds, given us new meanings.” — Donald Worster, U. Kansas, in “The American Scholar” (Autumn 2006)
  • “The book’s greatest achievement lies in its deeply impressive scope, its integration not just of science and exploration, but also of the art, literature, and politics of the 19th century. In this, the author achieves a unity and harmony of vision not unlike that of Humboldt himself.” — Kirkus Reviews (June 1, 2006)
  • “It’s a safe assumption that Napoleon’s derision was born less out of comfortable superiority than of bitter jealousy. Napoleon ruled France, but Humboldt, the central figure in Aaron Sachs’s ambitious first book, “The Humboldt Current,” was the toast of all of Europe, as well as a subject of great admiration in the fledgling country across the sea….Sachs, who teaches history and American studies at Cornell University, argues that Humboldt left an indelible mark not just on American science but also on American history…. Sachs’s subjects are strong, and he describes them in extensive detail.” — Candice Millard in the “New York Times Book Review”
  • “Sachs is clearly smitten with his subject, and his enthusiasm bubbles over in the lively chapters he devotes to Humboldt’s life…. Sachs has done something worthy of gratitude: He has reintroduced a 19th century sage to a generation that sorely needs his wisdom. Given the precarious state of our planet, we would have done well to remember Humboldt sooner and better.” — Judith Lewis in the “Los Angeles Times”
  • The Humboldt Current is an astonishingly good piece of writing and research, and an essential piece of American naturalist history that has been too long in coming. Science and history buffs and the lay reader will equally enjoy this outstanding book.” — “Science Book Reviews,” September 14, 2006
  • “Highly skilled discussion leader. Lots of reading, but really interesting and fresh material. Interested in helping students develop writing skills and encourages taking “intellectual risks” in papers (ex. lots of self-reflective writing). This class was by far the coolest class I’ve taken here yet: included a weekend-long backpacking field trip!”… “Sachs is obviously passionate about what he is teaching and makes the topic interesting.”… “Sachs really is interested in what he is teaching, and it shows. Class is lively and he really is interested in what students have to add to discussion and even lecture. One of my favorites for sure.” — Anonymous Students
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