Maggie Monaghan’24, is an American studies and environmental studies major and an electee of Wesleyan’s Gamma Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa. Maggie is developing a thesis on the influence of naturalist and writer Alexander von Humboldt, and how language plays a central role in the development of culture and our conceptions of history. As a recipient of a Bailey College of the Environment summer fellowship she had the opportunity to work on a musical about Alexander von Humboldt, set in the modern day.
Where are you from? What drew you to your American studies and environmental studies majors?
I always knew I was interested in sustainability, so choosing to be an environmental studies major was a clear choice. My American studies major took me by surprise. I took an introductory American studies class during my freshman year and found it fascinating. I think of the American studies major as a blend of anthropology, history, and government; it examines ideological and cultural trends across the Americas. The blend of these two majors has been a very interesting combination!
What are some of your favorite extracurriculars?
I used to work as an EcoFacilitator through the Wesleyan Sustainability Office, which I really enjoyed. Last year I was in a musical with Spike Tape. I am also on the board of Spike Tape, and I am writing my own musical that I am hoping to pitch for the spring season. I also run weekly Open Mic night and I’m captain of the golf team—and I’m a singer-songwriter. You can stream my original songs on Spotify or search “Maggie Monaghan” on Apple Music!
What is the central area of research for your thesis?
I took a class by Professor Rosemary Ostfeld during my freshman year and read a book called The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wolf. The book is a biography of Alexander von Humboldt, a Prussian naturalist from the 1700s. He played a crucial role in developing our modern understanding of science, yet nobody seems to remember him. One main question I am trying to address through my thesis is analyzing what allowed his name to be forgotten within American culture. I am doing a lot of historical research, looking over his writings and also trying to study the scope of his influence. I am also fascinated by examining the idea of how our language shapes culture.
Would you tell me a bit more about Alexander von Humboldt and why you found him so interesting?
Alexander von Humboldt traveled for about six years and wrote incessantly about his time in “the new world.” He was known by notable politicians and artists of the time, including Thomas Jefferson and numerous transcendental poets. One approach Humboldt had while traveling was that he only wanted to speak the language of the people he was living with. Although he was certainly still a vehicle for U.S. expansionism, he did interact with people and the environment in very unique ways for his time.
How does language influence our perceptions of history?
I’ve always been fascinated by language because it has such an influence on how we think. In the book Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer, she describes how in some indigenous languages most of the words are verbs rather than nouns, which shapes how everything is perceived as either alive or dead. These understandings change our relationship with what can be extracted as a resource, and how we treat other people and animals.
Humbolt’s language is very influential in the way it impacted people at the time. He was informing discourse through the ways he was talking about the people he was meeting and describing nature. In the exchanges between him and Thomas Jefferson, the way Jefferson interprets their communications and applies them is very informative about American culture at the time.
What has your research entailed so far?
I spent last summer reading his writing directly, and now I have transitioned to reading historical analyses of his work. I have also been going through the Library of Congress database and finding out what legislators at that time were saying about him, and I’m transcribing newspaper and magazine articles written about him at the time.
One of the conclusions I have drawn is that other writers of the time have major claims that can be more concisely distilled. It is extremely difficult to describe what Humbolt’s writing was about, because he wrote down his observations on everything. For example, one of his most famous works was called Cosmos which has five volumes, and it presents his understanding of the physical universe and nature. He generated thousands of pages of content, both about his personal life and his observations about the world.
Have you faced any challenges so far?
Even when I approach writing a short essay, I need a clear structure and outline. With this project, there is so much content that I cannot start with a specific question in mind. I have to read and hope that I will find common threads that I can tie together. It feels like it could be never ending, because there is so much information on this topic. I think my biggest challenge will be narrowing my scope further.
What advice would you give to students with similar interests?
I would tell people considering doing a thesis to take many different kinds of classes with different professors. This has definitely helped me zero in on what I am most interested in. It has also given me a wide range of perspectives to pull from. For example, studying American environmental law is the reason why I am so interested in examining how interpretations of language shape our modern culture and conceptions of history. I think by taking these classes I have critically examined what my language means, making me more equipped to be an effective activist, and to promote the causes I believe in.
This summer you were a recipient of a Bailey COE fellowship. Would you share a bit about the work you were engaged in this summer?
The Bailey COE fellowship gave me the opportunity to have time to work on my musical. When you are working or in school, it becomes difficult to make the mental and emotional space to sit down, focus, and write. This summer I had time to develop drafts, and to work for hours on songs. I also had the chance to work with my friends from home, who are amazing musicians.
What is the premise of your musical?
Alexander von Humboldt comes back from the dead. It takes place in a McDonald’s-esque fast food restaurant on the side of the highway. The musical discusses the role of environmental justice in our capitalist society, and highlights the way we are often isolated from one another. I explore the grief that comes from a lack of community. This grief also ties into the state of our modern world, and our neglect of the climate. There are many societal shortcomings we have when it comes to grieving, and I hope to really explore this throughout the show.
Alexander von Humboldt definitely is surprised to see how the world has changed. He is very confused by our modern society. In the first scene he is asking for a job, while walking up to a drive-thru window. Von Humboldt was from a wealthy royal family, and he is completely out of his element in this fast food restaurant. Right now, the title of the show is Not Really Strangers. I think this title captures how although we think we are so separate from each other, we are much more connected than we realize. I am excited to see how my musical and my thesis continue to develop throughout my senior year!