Portraits of a Legend
John James Audubon's life was as dramatic as the birds he rendered on canvas. Three new biographies flesh out the man, the artist, and the lore.
By Fred Baumgarten
a Wild Sky:
John James Audubon, whose legacy is enshrined in the name of this magazine and the conservation organization it represents, rose to fame mainly on the basis of one great work: The Birds of America, a stupendous collection of 435 prints depicting 449 species found on this continent. He captured each bird in life size and in meticulous detail on an enormous sheet of paper known as a "double elephant." A French naturalist and Audubon contemporary, Baron Cuvier, gave us perhaps the best-known quote about the work, dubbing it "the most magnificent monument that has yet been raised to ornithology."
But if Audubon's bird images are familiar to many of us, his life story has, in the 153 years since his death, largely overshadowed his actual achievement. Few Americans have had more attention lavished on them than Audubonnot only in biographies, but also in poems, musicals, even in an upcoming television documentary. The three books reviewed here are among a spate of new works about Audubon.
Why the intense interest in Audubon the man? As chronicled in Richard Rhodes's new biography, Audubon's life story is as gripping as a good novel, a classic rags-to-riches tale. After Audubon spent an uneventful childhood drawing and studying birds around his boyhood home near Nantes, France, his father sent him to America in 1803 to avoid the Napoleonic draft. During the next 15 years he enjoyed some success as a store owner while continuing to draw birds on the side. In 1819 a string of business failures bankrupted him. The following year, with few options, Audubon set out on the epic quest that led to his greatest work, the Birds.
Through it all, there was Audubon's incredible partnership with his wife, Lucy, a union that at times hung by the barest of threads yet was also full of passion and intensity. The correspondence between them, generously quoted in Rhodes's book, it's almost embarrassing in its raw emotion. One of the couple's most difficult periods occurred during Audubon's first sojourn in England, where he became an overnight success; Lucy had stayed behind with their two sons. A bitter battle raged over whether she would join Audubon in England, where he was overseeing the publication of the Birds and finding subscribers to it. In one letter, Audubon writes, "Do my Lucy understand me well: my work will not be finished for 14 years to come from this present date, and if it is thy intention not to join me before that time, I think it will be best for both of us to separate, thou to marry in America and I to spend my life most miserably alone for the remainder of my days." It ended up taking Audubon 12 years to finish his work, but somehow his marriage to Lucy survived for 43 years, sustaining him and his work to the end.
Rhodes's style is crisp and unembellished; the many dramatic events of Audubon's life and his own words propel the reader at a lively clip. At times, though, Rhodes, the well-known author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb, gives Audubon's words too much weight. Audubon was a notorious fabulist, and his tales should be approached with a healthy dose of skepticism. When, in the dark days of 1819, a swindler absconded with a steamboat Audubon had purchased, did the artist really pursue him down the Mississippi River in nothing but a small skiff? William Souder, in his admirable book Under a Wild Sky, has the good sense to raise questions. "It's possiblein fact it seems likelythat Audubon was looking for an excuse to get out of [Louisville]," Souder writes of the incident. "Harried by his creditors, still distraught about [his two-year-old daughter's] death, and generally miserable over his sorry state, Audubon probably welcomed a chance to disappear into the wilderness. And the longer the better."
Souder's book has other merits. Instead of writing a conventional biography, he looks at Audubon's achievements as an artist and naturalist in a larger context, by comparing him with Alexander Wilson, Audubon's ornithological predecessor, whose American Ornithology was the model for, and was then eclipsed by, Audubon's Birds.
Duff Hart-Davis, a British outdoors writer, focuses his oddly titled volume (referring to the double elephant folio) on Audubon's years in England and Scotland, going into substantial detail about this key period in Audubon's life. The writing is somewhat dense, but the book is handsomely made, with 71 beautiful plates. In condensing Audubon's pre-Europe years, Hart-Davis rehashes some outmoded ideasimplying, for example, that Audubon was a terrible businessman. In truth, Audubon did quite well as a merchant, although he overextended himself, losing all when the economy collapsed in 1819. He later managed the business end of the Birds with a miserly zeal, achieving a modicum of material comfort by the time the publication was completed.
Americans' fascination with Audubon seems unlikely to
fade, as each new generation finds inspiration in his story: the paradigm
of the self-made man and the adventurer who studied birds up close in
the wild when the wild meant wild. He was a man of his times, yet a
strikingly modern, if flawed, hero with whom we can identify today.
Water: Saving the Everglades
In 2000, after decades of haggling and political stalemate, Congress approved and President Clinton signed into law a $7.8 billion plan to restore the Everglades. Though a few grumblers complained it wouldn't fix the ecology, the plan received applause from most corners. W. Hodding Carter, a veteran magazine and book writer, is a passionate grumbler. Stolen Water is his love song to the Everglades as well as a heartfelt rejoinder to the deal makers who brokered its restoration plan, which, "while well-intentioned," he writes, "is a gutless compromise that has nothing to do with the original congressional request to restore the Everglades." What the plan is, he believes, is a sellout to agricultural corporations, real estate developers, and turf-conscious government agencies, all of which are less interested in ecosystem repair than in enhanced water control. Many environmentalists have countered that an imperfect plan is better than no plan at all; to his credit, Carter evenhandedly presents the complex political and scientific issues that have long muddied the debate over the treatment of the Everglades. Stolen Water is richly peopled with an eclectic array of biologists, activists, Big Sugar executives, and government bureaucrats. In the end, though, purist sentiments prevail: The Everglades, Carter concludes, was cheated out of a full ecological rescue.
Warrior: One Man, Three Tribes,
In Coyote Warrior, Paul VanDevelder does far more than document another sad chapter in the plight of American Indians. He holds a mirror up to postcolonial America itself, showing how we are entwined with and indebted to those who have lived here for thousands of years. VanDevelder's poignant story of North Dakota's Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara tribes chronicles their decades-long fight for compensation from the federal government, which, after World War II, built a dam on the upper Missouri River that flooded their homelands. But VanDevelder reveals a deeper history of the descendants of the tribal members who fed and sheltered Lewis and Clark during the bitter winter of 1804, a history that explores the cultural quandaries between Indians and whites to this day. "How we resolve those great paradoxes is our own Age of Discovery," says Raymond Cross, the book's compelling protagonist and a "coyote warrior," who represents a new generation of Indian lawyers and scientists seeking justice for their tribes.
Fire: Coping With
Nobody knows fire better than environmental historian Stephen Pyne. He has written 12 books on the subject that, in sum, have explained how the earth's biosphere has been shaped by fire ever since the earliest humans became conscious and enthusiastic pyrophoric agentsmostly to enhance hunting and agricultural lands. Today, of course, the yearly conflagrations in the U.S. West that most of us see on our TV screens have rendered this history obsolete. Pyne blames a century of institutionalized fire suppression and, more recently, a schizophrenic public policy that has reintroduced prescribed burning at the same time it continues to wage a war on forest fires. Consequently, he writes, the land has become "a shambles, a fire-bulimic biota, suffering fire binges and fire purges." Why can't we get it straight? Pyne argues that politics, public fears (who can forget Smokey the Bear?), and weak science have been the biggest impediments to sound wildfire management. Tending Fire is a cogent, reader-friendly treatise that lays out necessary reforms; it should be read by decision makers and anyone else who cares about the stewardship of America's forests.
© 2004 National Audubon Society
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