When we think about American ornithology, John James Audubon is often the first name that comes to mind. As evidence to Audubon's lasting ability to enrapture readers, it bears repeating that an original Double Elephant Folio of Birds of America sold for an astounding $11.5 million in 2010 (2). Yet, for a man who produced such stunning and memorable visual and literary work on the avifauna of North America, some of the important details of his life and origins have remained highly contested.
Even though Gregory Nobles's new biography is not explicitly tied to the study of the Great Plains, it does bring a fresh and dynamic perspective to Audubon's life and work—which included one trip to the Plains late in his life. According to Nobles, Audubon was largely a "self-made" (in many senses of the word) naturalist-artist, born in Saint Domingue (now Haiti) to a white French slave-owning father and (most likely) a black mother. Nobles argues, however, that it is precisely Audubon's work that allowed the naturalist to fashion himself as the "American Woodsman."
Nobles structures the book chronologically beginning with Audubon's early childhood, a childhood that Audubon inconsistently and at times ambiguously or fallaciously retold. Whether it be in his personal journals, letters, or published works, Audubon always wrote with an eye toward crafting his own public character. After the opening two chapters, the remainder of the book recounts Audubon's struggle for acceptance from elite American and British intellectual circles as well as his tireless efforts (1827 to 1838) to create, compile, market, and sell Birds of America, his magnum opus.
One of the most compelling aspects of the book is that it provides a vivid picture of a culture that thrived on intellectual gatekeeping and self-promotion. Nobles dramatizes major moments throughout Audubon's life, continually drawing from the vast amounts of published and private primary texts. Nowhere is this historical reconstruction more engaging than in Audubon's lifelong contest against Alexander Wilson (championed and defended by his Philadelphian patron, George Ord) to create the "best," or most "accurate," book of birds.
Audubon succeeded in becoming the most lasting name in 19th-century American ornithology; however, Nobles's biography has a tendency to soften those less flattering details of Audubon's life, such as the artist's own racial whitewashing, his racist attitudes, and his ownership of slaves. To be clear, Nobles does briefly note many such details, but he neither provides much development of these particulars nor does he attempt to trouble Audubon's American Woodsman self-identification in terms of race. Nobles's opening and closing "genius" label of Audubon should give clues as to why he chose to soften these less desirable characteristics. Yet Nobles's biography importantly highlights the interconnection between Audubon's work and his crafted public image as well as opens possibilities for further examination.
University of Nebraska–Lincoln