John James Audubon: The Audubon Reader edited by Richard Rhodes. New York. Everyman’s Library. 2006. 630pp. ISBN: I-4000-4369-7
I bought this book when it was first published yet it sat on my shelf for 10 years before I finally read it. The reason it collected dust was because I read much about the hero during that time span. Little of what I read compelled me to pick this book up sooner. It is something of a tome. What I learned over the years was that Audubon was a resolute artist but a dissolute businessman. His ego was very large.
There have been several biographies, autobiographies and memoirs written by other famous ornithologists that I did read…and hated. Kenn Kaufman’s egotistical Kingbird Highway told about the time he took attempting to see a kabillion birds as well as how intelligent he is. Rosenthal’s Birdwatcher: the Life of Roger Tory Peterson was a hagiography of a self-centered though talented superstar. She may just as well written a book about Donald Trump. Isabella Tree’s biography Birdman was not cloying or sentimental but damned John Gould as a vain aristocrat who bullied all who came in contact with him. Reading Alexander Wilson’s letters was pure torture. Had I been one of his communicants I would have slapped this brilliant and talented ornithologist for being such a whiny human being. My interest in reading about the great ornithologists waned rapidly the more I read.
There it was, sitting on the shelf while I was getting rid of all the physical books I have read. I determined to read it and was pleasantly surprised. Indeed Audubon was a pretty self-centered person with a lot of faults as anyone reading his many personal missives can see, but he also was a very interesting man and a true naturalist. Audubon combined his seeking fame and money with being a firsthand researcher and often in extraordinary circumstances.
He corresponded with many of the greatest ornithologists of his day. He was a close friend of John Bachman (both saw their offspring marrying so the two were in-laws as well) and in touch with Gould, Macgillvray and other birdmen whose names are attached to bird species. His associates are legendary in the history of ornithology. Like so many of the great ornithologists including Darwin, the men communicated often and traded specimens for species identification and artistic representations. Audubon (like his nemesis Alexander Wilson) exchanged information and specimens but he also did the field work. He did the grunt labor that included frigid, rainy and arid explorations to present the Birds of America in its folio form. He tramped forests and wetlands in search of the matter of his artwork.
He did employ others much and I suspect, to much of their suffering. He used the virtues and contents of his many correspondents but his exploits were a family affair to a large extent. His long suffering wife put up with his years of being away and his sons dedicated (forced?) much of their own lives for the endeavors of their father. Not only did Audubon hobnob with ornithologists and scientists but with politicians as well. He was driven by a dream of immortality and we know he succeeded in that endeavor.
In the midst of this obsession was a true naturalist and an autodidactic scientist. He was cautious in his estimations about animal behavior. He offered suggestions but not determinations about the actions of animals. He studied them and reported on them deeply. That was well detailed in his writings. Scientists are cautious about determining things but their evidence can suggest things, Audubon worked within that parameter.
He evoked a deity often in his writings as if to be remembered as a god fearing man. He also wondered often why a creator would burden a species with features that imperiled their own survival. I would be curious to read what this same thinker would have to say some 170 years later in the experience of today. That will remain whimsy of course.
The many letters between him and his wife Lucy, were far more tedious than anything else. They did ultimately reflect loyalty that persevered years of distance and ultimately a reunion, so good for them I guess. The details of letters between Audubon and other correspondents likewise had to be culled for viable information that often was not discovered. It was often simply tiresome reading.
The two long essays that I most appreciated were the travels in Labrador and the co-authored one with Bachman about the American Bison. In both, the reader finds a monograph of scientific merit as well as a social science lecture. Audubon was not an aristocrat yet he had some allusions towards that. He also understood the plight of Native Americans and saw that from a politically liberal point of view. The Indians got screwed with European desire to take control of the land and he reported such. The Bison population was destined to endangerment from the reckless and needless exploitation of that animal. The natives were not free from the burden of that exploitation either. Bison were destroyed in vast numbers for want of their tongues for instance. Like his contemporary one Audubon never mentioned and may not have known about, Alexander von Humboldt, he was of an understanding of human’s role in what would become incontrovertible. We are the cause of environmental change and its impact on fauna. We use the voice of Audubon today.
In his later years Audubon related in letters his passion. “I have a great desire that the name Audubon should be handed to posterity, but as that is absolutely my present feeling, I say so to you in confidence.” He may have been sage enough to keep his desire in confidence so far as bragging would not have been acceptable behavior. Most of his contemporaries knew that the “confidence” he aspired was not tenable. They saw him in his true spirit. Notwithstanding Audubon did attain the merit he sought. It is far more deserved than otherwise.
He was a vain man seeking his own personal rewards at the expense of his loved ones. It is apparent from his letters that he was oblivious to his own vanity but no evidence was displayed in this book suggesting that he did not deeply love all of those who catapulted his name into what it is today. I am glad I finally took this book off the shelf to read and will be sharing it with others.