Voyager, Naturalist, Revolutionary
Voyager, Naturalist, Revolutionary
“Stunning. . . . Read this book: in equal measure it will give you hope and trouble your dreams.”—Laura Dassow Walls, author of Henry David Thoreau: A Life and Passage to Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt’s Shaping of America
Georg Forster (1754–94) was in many ways self-taught and rarely had two cents to rub together, but he became one of the most dynamic figures of the Enlightenment: a brilliant writer, naturalist, explorer, illustrator, translator—and a revolutionary. Granted the extraordinary opportunity to sail around the world as part of Captain James Cook’s fabled crew, Forster touched icebergs, walked the beaches of Tahiti, visited far-flung foreign nations, lived with purported cannibals, and crossed oceans and the equator. Forster recounted the journey in his 1777 book A Voyage Round the World, a work of travel and science that not only established Forster as one of the most accomplished stylists of the time—and led some to credit him as the inventor of the literary travel narrative—but also influenced other German trailblazers of scientific and literary writing, most notably Alexander von Humboldt. A superb essayist, Forster made lasting contributions to our scientific—and especially botanical and ornithological—knowledge of the South Seas.
Having witnessed more egalitarian societies in the southern hemisphere, Forster returned after more than three years at sea to a monarchist Europe entering the era of revolution. When, following the French Revolution of 1789, French forces occupied the German city of Mainz, Forster became a leading political actor in the founding of the Republic of Mainz—the first democratic state on German soil.
In an age of Kantian reason, Forster privileged experience. He claimed a deep connection between nature and reason, nature and politics, nature and revolution. His politics was radical in its understanding of revolution as a natural phenomenon, and in this often overlooked way his many facets—as voyager, naturalist, and revolutionary—were intertwined.
Yet, in the constellation of the Enlightenment’s trailblazing naturalists, scientists, political thinkers, and writers, Forster’s star remains relatively dim today: the Republic of Mainz was crushed, and Forster died in exile in Paris. This book is the source of illumination that Forster’s journey so greatly deserves. Tracing the arc of this unheralded polymath’s short life, Georg Forster explores both his contributions to literature and science and the enduring relationship between nature and politics that threaded through his extraordinary four decades.
"Marvelous. . . . Goldstein is a wonderfully imaginative biographer. In sparkling prose, beautifully translated by Janusch, he captures the highs and, even more memorably, the lows of Forster's short life."
Christoph Irmscher | Wall Street Journal
"Georg Forster is not really a biography of Forster at all. The chronological facts are detailed . . . at the beginning of each chapter, leaving Goldstein space to explore the development of Forster's mind. Forster's political ideas, he is keen to show, were formed not from abstractions, but from his direct experience of nature, 'realistically' rather than 'idealistically.'"
Maren Meinhardt | Literary Review
"Goldstein’s goal is to connect the thought of Forster the observant voyager and naturalist who accompanied Cook on his second voyage, and Forster the German revolutionary who died in exile in Paris in 1794. . . . Goldstein considers Foster an alternative to traditional Enlightenment thought: a figure who grounded his thought not in reason but in experience, in action not ideas, and who saw culture as emerging not in divergence from but out of nature. . . . Those who want to understand Forster’s thought and his contribution to political modernity will be well served by Goldstein’s prize-winning book. . . . Recommended."
“Step aside, Poe; take a bow, Melville: this brilliant, dark, even eerie meditation introduces the life and writings of Georg Forster, the greatest writer you’ve never read. In Janusch’s elegant translation, Goldstein’s quiet pages burn ever brighter with the voice of prophecy as we follow the youthful Forster around the world with Captain Cook, back to a Europe simmering on the brink of revolution, and into calamity as the vortex of revolutionary violence silences him, it would seem, forever. But thanks to this stunning book, Forster—the friend of Goethe, the teacher of Humboldt—lives once again to inspire us with his free-thinking vision, enlighten us with his incandescent descriptions, haunt us with his incisive honesty—and drive an arrow straight into the heart of modernity. Do you think revolution is the answer? Do you believe nature should be our model? Read this book: in equal measure it will give you hope and trouble your dreams.”
Laura Dassow Walls, University of Notre Dame, author of "Henry David Thoreau: A Life" and "Passage to Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt’s Shaping of America"
Winner of the Leipzig Book Fair Prize (Non-fiction)
Winner of the Gleim Literature Prize
“A rich and exciting book. . . . It imagines Forster as a thinker and therefore the relationship of the two main parts of his biography—circumnavigation and revolution—unite for the first time.”
Gustav Seibt | Süddeutsche Zeitung
“The two key concepts of the era, ‘nature’ and ‘revolution,’ which were in Forster’s thinking and actions, Goldstein reconstructs in an impressive way: in a thrilling, lucid style drawing on Forster's diaries, letters, and works.”
Oliver Pfohlmann | Neue Zürcher Zeitung
“The revolution is not a figment, but a natural phenomenon, a ‘self-ignition of the reason’ for Forster. To have developed this relationship, a ‘natural revolution,’ from Forster’s natural and human science is Goldstein’s no small merit.”
Alexander Košenina | Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
“Goldstein explores Forster’s experience of life and the ambivalent relationship between nature and philosophy. He shows Forster as more than a shipwrecked hero, but rather as an insightful thinker who was as bold as he was stoic.”
Benedikt Erenz | DIE ZEIT
“Using extensive quotes, Goldstein thrillingly depicts Forster’s great journey, the impressions and ordeals of which are said to have remained with him for life.”
Janika Gelinek | Neue Zürcher Zeitung
“An extraordinary life story that is thrilling to read.”
Lina Kokaly | Radio Bremen
Table of Contents
1. Beginnings: 1754–1772
First Impressions from Afar
The Right Place at the Right Time
2. View of Nature: The Voyage around the World, 1772–1775
A Well-Told Tale
Perils in the Ice
First and Final Sightings
Bloodshed and Mayhem
A Community of Equals
The General Rights of Mankind
3. Interludes: 1776–1788
A Debate about the Human Race
Political Sheet Lightning: Cook, the Statesman
4. Views of the Political: The Revolution, 1789–1793
Historical Signs of the New World: Revolution
Political Views of the Lower Rhine
Nature as Fate
The Principle of Political Change: Fermentation
The Liberty of French Mainz
The Mainz Republic
Experts on Subterranean Passages: Forster and Goethe
5. The End: The Great Perplexity, 1793–1794
The Cold Fever of Terror
Dancing on the Brink of Absurdity: Adam Lux
Back to Nature: Human Dignity
The Revolution Is the Revolution
Forsaken Like a Child
A Source of Strange Introspection
Epilogue: The Mahogany Trunk
Bibliography of the German Edition