- The Missouri River Journals of John James Audubon by John James Audubon
This book certainly shouldn't be judged by its cover, handsome though it is, or at least not by its title. The prosaic-seeming promise of yet another account of Audubon's 1843 western trek hardly does justice to the richness and erudition of Daniel Patterson's accompanying commentary, which makes a commendable contribution to Audubon scholarship. At the outset, Patterson notes his hope that readers will gain "a new understanding of Audubon" and enjoy "the numerous good stories included herein" (xviii). The book succeeds on both counts.
The stories are indeed good, giving us a glimpse of the aging naturalist doing his final field work. On April 26, 1843, Audubon turned fifty-eight while steaming up the Missouri River on a boat called the Omega, a name that now seems ironically prescient. This trip would be Audubon's last great outdoor adventure before his eventual decline at home in New York City; in less than eight years, he'd be dead. But as he headed out in the direction set by Lewis and Clark in 1803, the year he first came to the United [End Page 117] States as a teenaged immigrant, Audubon summoned his strength for one last scientific expedition, this one ostensibly to collect specimens of viviparous quadrupeds for a book he and his good friend John Bachman planned to publish. But the various prairie dogs, rabbits, and badgers on the agenda—even Audubon's beloved birds—faded into the background when the American woodsman encountered the American bison, the near-mythic mammal of the Plains. Although not always able to ride with his fellow hunters on horseback, Audubon still shared their manly fascination with bringing down this big and abundant beast. Writing of being in on the kill on one hunt, Audubon wrote, almost poetically, "off went the guns and down went the cows, or stood bleeding through the nose, mouth, or bullet holes" (104–5).
Patterson uses the guns and the blood as the centerpiece of his larger study of Audubon as a naturalist with a nascent environmental ethic, and he does so in wise scholarly fashion, rooting himself in the primary sources—some of which he helpfully provides in his book. He begins by taking issue with Maria Audubon, the granddaughter/editor who so often bowdlerized, sanitized, and then destroyed Audubon's original writings, presumably in the interest of making him over to her late Victorian liking. Maria apparently invented the "Great Auk Speech," Audubon's alleged prediction that the bison, like the bird, seemed doomed to extinction. Patterson both explores and explodes that fabrication, and he also takes aim at all the Audubon biographers who have defended, explained away, or simply looked past Audubon's predilection for killing fauna, from birds to bison. Instead, Patterson offers a nuanced analysis of Audubon's life and writings, arguing that Audubon tried to "teach his readers to come down an ethical notch or two, to adopt a somewhat humbler stance in relation to nature," to accept their own complicity in his killing. "Whether the strategy works or not," Patterson concludes, "is another question" (296–97).
The same could be said for Patterson's own strategy. Audubon has always been an elusive and elastic figure, and any attempt to find conscious coherence in his written work seems a rather generous gesture. Still, the great strength of Patterson's work lies in not giving Audubon an easy pass, as so many other writers have, as a "man of his time," thus separating him so much from our own. In many ways, in fact, we may still be of his.