Wednesday’s Book Review: “New Lands, New Men”

New LandsNew Lands, New Men: America and the Second Great Age of Discovery. By William H. Goetzmann. New York: Viking Penguin, 1986.

William H. Goetzmann, long of the University of Texas, has been a star in the study of the history of exploration for more than forty years. He first gained broad recognition for his Pulitzer Prize-winning Exploration and Empire: The Explorer and the Scientists in the Winning of the American West (Alfred A. Knopf, 1966), which traced in scintillating prose the expeditions of what he referred to as the period of settlement and investment (1845-1860) and the era of the great surveys (1860-1900).

This work, New Lands, New Men, is in some respects an expansion of that earlier book. He makes the case here that there have been two great ages of exploration. The first originated out of the ideas of the Renaissance, was largely fueled by a quest for greater wealth, and served to incorporate into the European sphere of influence widely dispersed regions of the world. New Lands, New Men takes as its subject a second great age of exploration that began in the seventeenth century and lasted through the nineteenth century. It incorporates much of the understanding offered in Goetzmann’s 1966 work, but broadens the theme to the world as whole rather than focusing on the American West.

This book takes as core components the Lewis and Clark expedition to the west of North America from 1803 to 1806, the efforts of Sir Richard Burton and Stanley and Livingston in Africa, John C. Frémont’s Rocky Mountain expeditions, and travels to the sources of the Amazon River in South America and the Nile River in Africa. It also included the efforts of seafarers to map islands and the poles; and involved such international scientific endeavors as the International Polar Year of 1882-1883, which cooperatively sought to obtain scientific and ethnographic data about the Arctic..

This second age of exploration effectively closed with the conclusion of the last great expeditions into the interiors of the continents in the later nineteenth century and the activities of individuals like John Wesley Powell and efforts by such organizations as the U.S. Geological Survey. It, too, led to a massive accumulation of data about these lands new to European civilization and transformed the world with the gathering of much new information.

Goetzmann makes the case that this second great age of exploration, contrasting what had gone before, emphasized the advance of science and human progress. He argues that it effectively opened with Charles Marie de La Condamine’s 1735-1749 expedition to South America to test Newton’s hypothesis that the Earth is an oblate spheroid. That expedition employed an astronomer, a mathematician, a botanist, a surveyor, and engineers and equipped them with the latest instruments to maximize their data collection.

Through this effort, and others of a similar nature, Goetzmann believes that “science and art came together to change the thought of Europe” (p. 39). The result, he concludes, is that western civilization made a “quantum leap” in knowledge about the natural world that humans live in (p. 269). Goetzmann offers here an enthralling account of this effort; it is an accessible and thought-provoking narrative of “the good old days of the explorer-adventurer among the winds and currents of storm-tossed seas at the very ends of the earth” (p. 362). It is a superb reading experience for even those casually interested in the subject. Enjoy.

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