Monday, January 19, 2009

The Man I Believe Henri Was

Henri was a man born into privilege and wealth but part of that privilege vanished when noble titles became purely ceremonial in the canton of Neuchâtel where he lived. Unlike his forefathers he would not hold the title of Baron, but rather that of a simple landholder. The dissolution of the feudal class structure and the changing face of European society propelled Henri to look beyond its borders in an effort to find his own place in the world.

He was moved to travel to the Americas by Alexander von Humbolt’s accounts of the flora and fauna of Latin America as well as he was certainly intrigued by the customs, lifestyles and politics of the new world. He would travel the Americas not only as a trained botanist, but also as a man of culture, stopping often to paint, engage in intellectual discourses with his contemporaries and document his observations in his journal and letters home to his family.

His journal entries and letters ultimately paint a complex and nuanced portrait of a young man finding his identity. He comes across as a man of high principle and ideals. At times he can be a classist or a cultural snob, but these passages are tempered by others that show his reverence for nature, and appreciation for human ingenuity. Henri ultimately left on a trip of scientific discovery and in the end I believe he found himself.

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