- John James Audubon: The Nature of the American Woodsman by Gregory Nobles
John James Audubon, Birds of North America, Academic history, Alexander Wilson, Spencer Fullerton Baird
Audubon's fan base has never approached Thoreau's among academics. His genius merits a more generous appraisal by academic historians, a wider and deeper analysis of his writings, and an appreciation of his art as texts as well as works of science and aesthetics. Surely, Audubon's place in the history of the book and publishing is secure as the genius who created the closest thing to a Gutenberg Bible that this nation will likely ever produce. Birds of North America, especially in the elephant edition, is a cathedral among books, a product of unbridled ambition, of hubris on the scale of Orson Welles and Citizen Kane, and that might easily have become Audubon's "The Other Side of the Wind," Welles's infamously unfinished film. [End Page 178]
Thoreau was more bookish, less active and more reactive, a troubled yet more placid soul. Audubon was the more flamboyant outdoorsman, an immigrant, a hunter, more Napoleon than St. Francis. He was more robust where Thoreau displays as fragile and died young. While both were men of their time, Audubon the immigrant was more Daniel Boone than Walt Whitman. Thoreau had more in common with Audubon's direct predecessors William Bartram and Alexander Wilson than Audubon did, although Thoreau was not an artist like the other three men. Audubon was less of a visionary than Thoreau or Bartram and an artist of genuine genius whose imagination was only slightly less wild than Bartram's, while his skill with a brush is unsurpassed. Perhaps historians are more comfortable with literary stylists than with artists, more confident with written texts than graphic ones. For whatever reasons, though, the appreciation of Audubon has always been more critical than worshipful, restrained than unbridled, drear than celebratory. So, we can always use a good, new book that takes a historical perspective on Audubon.
Audubon was a character, lived bigger than he could afford, and often was on when not over the edge. But historians do not like that about him and prefer the more modest and bookish Thoreau to the greater outdoorsman, hunter, and self-promoter. He was a better artist than George Catlin, but was a bigot, a bastard mixed-race Frenchman rather than a Harvard-educated Yankee, neither a celebrator of the American landscape like his contemporary Thomas Cole nor begat by Puritanism evolved into Transcendentalism like the protégé of New England's intellectual scions. He was more Teddy Roosevelt, without the lineage and American birth certificate, than he was John Muir, more Andrew Jackson than John Quincy Adams. He owned slaves and slayed birds by the score; he was a complicated man of the antebellum nineteenth century. His hands were bloodied, his soul more of the eighteenth century, and thus his legacy is tarnished perhaps once and for all.
For all that, Audubon has had his biographers, his society of birders, his volume in the Library of America, and his place in the history of books vandalized for their images. There have been quite a few women among Audubon's most thorough and appreciative biographers; indeed, his first in 1856, one I haven't read, was Mrs. Horace St. John, but also over the twentieth century there was Constance Rourke, Ella Foshay, Shirley Streshinsky (my favorite), and Alice Ford, who tend to romanticize the man while embracing the limitations of men, bloody creatures that we are, in his time and since. Art historians and literary critics have [End Page 179] perhaps plumbed Aububon more deeply than historians have. Christoph Irmscher and Richard Rhodes have done him justice, thinking more creatively about the artist and his work, but there is no Audubon industry, no phalanx of scholarly guardians as Jefferson and Thoreau have.
Gregory Nobles's John James Audubon is in the historical tradition. It is not a comprehensive biography and identifies no new sources...