During the late 1820s, colleagues, publishers, and potential customers alike would mutter warnings to John James Audubon that his plan to publish The Birds of America could never succeed, for the proposed book was utterly impractical—too large, too expensive. But when Audubon opened his great portfolio of drawings, a silence would descend on the room. “The effect was like magic,” said John Wilson, as the images conveyed their viewers to the distant and mysterious land of America:
The spectator imagined himself in the forest…birds in motion or at rest, in their glee and their gambols, their loves and their wars, singing or caressing or brooding or preying or tearing one another into pieces.
Even the commercially astute were seduced by the Audubon birds. When the eyes of the experienced Edinburgh printmaker William Lizars fell upon the peregrine falcon he stood speechless, his arms hanging limply at his sides, before he gathered his wits and exclaimed, “I will engrave and publish this.” As with many a declaration made in the heat of passion, Lizars was unable to deliver on his promise, for he lacked the resources to maintain the flow of prints that the project demanded.
Duff Hart-Davis, Audubon’s most recent biographer, informs us that at over a yard tall and two hundred pounds in weight, The Birds of America is large enough to crush a coffee table. In the cold light of morning William Lizars must surely have asked himself who would pay the modern equivalent of $40,000 for such a book, and patiently wait the twelve years it would take to complete? Yet in the end it was Audubon who got his way, for so in love was he with his birds that he felt he must depict them life-sized or not at all; and to so portray a trumpeter swan or a wild turkey only “double elephant”—the largest-sized paper available in the nineteenth century—would do, and even then it was occasionally necessary to bend the larger birds into awkward poses.
Yet over the years it’s been the unlikely format of The Birds of America that has helped to increase its value on the market, for so few people could afford the work that only around 170 sets were ever made. One hundred and nineteen remain in existence, and so coveted are they that decades often pass before a set is offered for sale. The last copy auctioned—in March 2000—sold to Sheik Hamad Ben-Al Thani of Qatar for more than $8.8 million, and such is the quality of the work that as its new owner turns the thick, textured linen-stock pages, admiring the 435 plates, he will find them as vivid and sturdy as they were at the time of printing more than 150 years ago. And the birds. It’s their eyes that arrest the viewer, for they look out at you with such knowingness and emotion as to take the breath away.
Perhaps the most famous of Audubon’s images depicts a family of mockingbirds harassing a rattlesnake which is attacking them at their nest. The reptile is shown open-mouthed as it lunges at a terrified victim, while a second member of the beleaguered family, desperate perhaps to rescue its fellow, pecks at the snake’s eye from behind. For all its apparent authenticity this illustration is an invention, for it was widely known even in Audubon’s time that rattlesnakes do not habitually climb trees; nor do they often eat mockingbirds. Yet so powerful is this frontier allegory that it begs viewers to suspend their disbelief. And herein lies the wonder of The Birds of America, a work filled with images of nature so intimately observed that they continue to astonish, yet so rendered as to be considered by the literal-minded as palpable fiction.
Although Audubon’s biographers are now legion, two new ones join the flock this year. American William Souder is described as an “avid outdoorsman” and contributor to The Washington Post, while Duff Hart-Davis is a retired assistant editor of London’s Daily Telegraph and a commentator on English country life. Hart-Davis’s hardcover volume is an illustrated account of Audubon’s sojourn in Britain, while Souder’s less lavish hardcover is a combined biography of Audubon and his rival, Alexander Wilson. Intriguingly, while both agree on the essential facts, each evokes a very different portrait of America’s most famous naturalist.
Audubon’s life seems to have been one long preparation for producing The Birds of America. He was born Jean Rabin, the illegitimate son of a French sea captain and a chambermaid in what is today Haiti, and according to Souder he “showed a curiosity about nature as soon as he could walk.” When he was six his father took him to France where he was accepted by his father’s wife, taking the name Audubon and later the Christian name John. An unremarkable pupil who cared for little except drawing birds, nonetheless at age eleven he entered into the naval academy in Rochefort. There the young Audubon became an accomplished musician, dancer, and fencer, but did so poorly at his studies that he was dismissed after three years. Revolutionary France was a dangerous place for an able young man, and John’s father, fearing that he would be pressed into the service of the military, sent his son to America to superintend a farm near Mill Grove, Pennsylvania, which he had purchased before leaving the Caribbean. By the time John junior left France his only achievement was the two hundred drawings of European birds that he’d completed while he should have been studying.
Perhaps fathers have always felt they know what’s best for their sons, yet it strikes me as strange that Audubon senior did not take those two hundred drawings as an indication of his son’s true vocation. Instead he packed him off to a career in farm management, and the result was predictable. Mill Farm languished, and if you wanted to meet John Audubon you were advised to head into the woods where he spent most of his waking hours in hunting and drawing. Some of his happiest days, he later said, were spent in the company of a pair of wood peewees that nested in a grotto above Perkiomen Creek near the farm. They eventually became so trusting that he could hold the dear creatures in his cupped hands.
At 5’8″ (he frequently exaggerated his height by several inches) with long dark hair, bright hazel eyes, and an aristocratic face, the young John Audubon was strikingly handsome, which, combined with his strong French accent and boyish vitality, made him irresistibly likable. At least young Lucy Bakewell thought so. Her family had migrated from England to an adjacent farm known as Fatland Ford, and she seems to have fallen so deeply in love with her Frenchman that she did not demur when, three days after their marriage on April 5, 1808, John took her from the relative sophistication and security of her life in Pennsylvania to the frontier town of Louisville, Kentucky. There they resided for two years in the Indian Queen Hotel amid enough squalor, frontier roughness, and lack of privacy to test the truest of hearts. Worst of all, perhaps, Lucy had nothing to do; but even so, when writing to a cousin in England she spoke only of “the excellent disposition” of her new husband, and of a mysterious, powerful attraction that “adds very much to the happiness of married life.”
With an entire continent of birds to explore, business seemed dull stuff indeed to John Audubon, who soon moved his growing family a further two hundred miles down the Ohio to the tiny settlement of Henderson, and thence to Louisiana. As one business venture after another failed and Audubon became mired ever deeper in debt, he took to deserting Lucy and his two young sons for long periods as he traveled in search of birds. It was only when Lucy came to the disappointing realization that it was she who must somehow financially support the family that her unconditional love began to fade. She soon found a job teaching in a local school, yet she never let on to an outsider that her husband was anything but a paragon of virtue.
Souder finds it curious that in letters Audubon addressed Lucy as “my friend,” and sees as merely quaint his use of “thee” and “thou.” Hart-Davis clears away the mystery by pointing out that Audubon learned his English among Pennsylvania Quakers. Despite this lapse, Souder’s account of Audubon’s marriage is by far the superior of the two, providing a tender and perceptive record of their love in all its vicissitudes. While they were together John Audubon’s failure as a provider seems hardly to have mattered, for even after he had been gone for years at a stretch, jailed for debt, and living off his wife’s income, the couple could still be blissfully happy in each other’s company. Souder tells how, when they settled at Beech Woods, Louisiana, following many privations, “the Audubons would ride together to a small lake where, while Lucy swam naked, Audubon lolled on the beach admiring her.” When they were separated, however, a great fear and doubting caught at John Audubon’s heart, a condition that reached its climax while he was in England trying to get The Birds of America published and fully subscribed.
With his fortunes changing by the day, there were times when Audubon seemed to be on the brink of madness. He agonized about asking Lucy to join him, but he never did say how lost he was without her, nor could he bring himself to command her to leave her job as a schoolteacher. Tragically, she seems to have read his diffidence as indifference toward her, and with letters taking months to get from hand to hand a gulf opened between the pair that was seemingly as wide and salt-filled as the Atlantic Ocean. But when, after an absence of three years, Audubon arrived with the dawn at Lucy’s house in Louisiana, unannounced and with tears streaming down his cheeks, the gulf closed in an instant.
Audubon’s character has proved an endless source of fascination, for he lived by a morality seemingly foreign to most of us. He was, to begin with, an outrageous liar. Souder catches him out with some whoppers such as that his father was an admiral, that he studied under the great French artist David, and that he had hunted with Daniel Boone. Indeed Audubon was characterized by a contemporary as rivaling Baron Munchausen in his lying, his published writings, about his experiences in the wilderness, being lambasted as “a tissue of the grossest falsehoods ever attempted to be palmed upon the credulity of mankind.” In truth Audubon seems to have freely lied about everything except his birds and his beloved Lucy—as if they were the only real things in the world to him. His enemies hated him for it. The English naturalist Charles Waterton, incensed at some of Audubon’s misrepresentations, went so far as to write to his rival George Ord in an attempt to dig up muck on Audubon’s personal life. To his credit Ord wrote back, “He is a well-meaning sort of man, though a great liar.”
Perhaps because he seems to have researched matters less thoroughly, Hart-Davis finds less mendacity in Audubon’s character. Both biographers agree, however, that there was not a streak of meanness or vindictiveness in the man, and that he preferred to ignore his detractors rather than enter into public slanging matches with them. His guiding principle in such circumstances seems to have been derived from his Quaker friends. “To have enemies is no uncommon thing nowadays,” he was wont to say, but “to deserve them we must ever and anon guard against ourselves.”
The young Audubon was attractive and inventive—a highly accomplished frontiersman whose unsophisticated world view was shaped largely by the wild woods of the New World. His was a life of direct experience, where rattlesnakes were a terrible threat to animal and human families alike; and so they should be depicted, even if in doing so he was unfaithful to the habits of serpents. Although it existed just two hundred years ago, the world that shaped this Audubon is, from a contemporary perspective, difficult to conceive of, for wild woods are gone forever. Then, bears, elk, and cougars abounded, and even wolves and bison could still be found in Kentucky. It was a land blanketed by thick forests of oak, walnut, hickory, chestnut, and ash, where tremendous stands of cedar and cypress grew in the swamps. All vegetable life, however, was dwarfed by the mighty sycamores—the kings of the eastern forest—whose smooth, pale trunks could reach twenty feet in diameter and whose canopies, bedecked with wild vines, reduced the blaze of day to a twilight gloom. And those groves were alive with birds—including some extraordinary creatures that the world will never see again.
Two species in particular seem characteristic of that young America—imagine Carolina parakeets and passenger pigeon. They were the most abundant birds of Audubon’s time, yet not a single one of either species survives today. If you want to picture the Carolina parakeets, says Souder, “think of a roiling, deep green ocean falling out of the sky.” All too often that ocean would descend upon crops, and Audubon tells us what would happen then:
The gun is kept at work; eight or ten, or even twenty, are killed at every discharge. The living birds, as if conscious of the death of their companions, sweep over their bodies, screaming as loud as ever, but still return to the stack to be shot at, until so few remain alive, that the farmer does not consider it worth his while to spend more of his ammunition.
Such scenes had, by 1914, utterly destroyed North America’s only native parrot, making Audubon’s painting of the bird all the more valuable.
There was one bird that surpassed the parakeet in abundance. “In the fall of 1813,” writes Souder,
while on his way back from Henderson to Louisville, Audubon saw a low smudge in the sky, at first like a dark cloud, pulsing and growing larger. Presently he heard a rumble, and in the same moment the smudge became a surging mass of dark points in the sky. It was a flock of passenger pigeons, flying directly at him.
Although it was midday the sky darkened as in an eclipse, and as the column of birds grew and thickened, their droppings fell like snow. For three days the vast flock passed overhead, at a steady speed of sixty miles per hour, undiminished and with no pause for day or night. At the last the very air smelled of pigeons and their droppings had whitened the earth. How many birds were there in that vast flock?
“Imagine,” Audubon reasoned, according to Souder,
a column of passenger pigeons one mile wide, and assume that this mile-wide flock passes overhead in three hours. If the birds are flying at 60 miles per hour, the whole flock could be visualized as occupying a rectangular area one mile wide and 180 miles long—180 square miles. Now assume a density of 2 birds per square yard …and you can figure the total number of birds at 1.1 billion.
At this reckoning, the flock that Audubon experienced in the fall of 1813 consisted of an unimaginable 25 billion birds.
When such a flock nested, as extraordinary a scene as was ever found in nature unfolded. “Here they come,” cried the waiting hunters at the sound of the arriving multitudes at one nesting site. The sound of the returning billions reminded Audubon of “a hard gale at sea,” and in the darkness he felt a “current of air that surprised me.” Soon, Audubon wrote, the perches of the birds on forest trees
gave way under the weight with a crash, and, falling to the ground, destroyed thousands of birds beneath…. It was a scene of uproar and confusion. I found it quite useless to speak, or even to shout, to those persons who were nearest me. The reports, even, of the nearest guns, were seldom heard; and I knew of the firing only by seeing the shooters re-loading…. The pigeons were picked up and piled in heaps, until each has as many as he could possibly dispose of, when the hogs were let loose to feed on the remainder.
While Audubon mourned the destruction of wild America, it seems that he also contributed to it. Souder tells us that “a day in which he killed fewer than an hundred birds was a day wasted.” Indeed Audubon’s love of stalking and shooting is patent in his writings, a love that Souder evokes in truly wonderful fashion:
He remembered what it was like when the stillness of a pallid dawn was split by the whistle of wings cutting through the air, sometimes like a gentle breeze and other times in a prolonged aaahhhh, like the sound of tearing silk.
Audubon was an integral part of this world. Most mornings found him in the forest before dawn, stalking, observing, and, in a naive sort of way, experimenting with his birds.
And it was, perhaps, a kind of frontier literalism that saw Audubon cling so resolutely to the notion of depicting all of his birds at life size. Certainly he was no businessman or scientist, and his genius lay not in creating scientific illustrations of birds, but in depicting and evoking with great immediacy life on the American frontier. This is not to say that his illustrations are in any way anatomically inaccurate, simply that they are largely based on his personal experience and impressions and a kind of anthropomorphic identification with wildlife, not on zoological research; for at times he depicts his subjects as if they had human feelings and motives—and that, of course, is why they continue to enchant us.
Of all creatures, Audubon knew the wild turkey best, and occasionally he felt that he could read the bird’s intentions. Souder writes,
If, for example, he walked briskly through the forest, whistling to himself, he could pass within a few feet of a hen on her nest without making the bird move. But if he attempted to sneak up on a nest, his stealth seemed to alarm the hen.
Anyone familiar with wild birds will recognize this behavior, and clearly Audubon is correct: birds, like us, are social animals, and they can, on occasion, read our intentions. This is not, however, how professional scientists described bird behavior in the great systematizing studies that took place in the nineteenth century, and it was a clash of cultures—between frontier naturalist and European savant—that would cause Audubon much grief.
In crossing the Atlantic to find a means of publishing The Birds of America, Audubon underwent a metamorphosis. The city of London, he wrote, was “like the mouth of an immense monster, guarded by millions of sharp-edged teeth, from which if I escape unhurt it must be called a miracle.” At the center of this forbidding world sat King George IV, and Audubon knew that a royal audience would be highly beneficial, yet he dreaded the meeting, having been told that the King “has the gout, is peevish, and spends his time playing whist at a shilling a rubber.” But when he did obtain an audience, all went well. “The King!! My dear book!” Audubon wrote in his diary. “His Majesty was pleased to call it fine,…and my friends all spoke as if a mountain of sovereigns had drummed in an ample purse at once, and for me.”
As it turned out, Audubon did escape unhurt from the “immense monster,” though the experience of living in it made him into another man. Publishing The Birds of America kept Audubon from his beloved wilderness for nearly a decade, and it forced him to learn a whole new set of skills, of which management and dissembling seem to have been foremost. Subscribers complained constantly of poor-quality coloring and issues frequently had to be replaced. The Earl of Kinnoul was a particularly crotchety customer. Upon subscribing, he told Audubon to his face that he thought the work a swindle, and as the project neared completion he canceled his subscription after finding pieces of beef (the remains of a worker’s lunch) wedged between the plates. And then there were the skinflints like the first Baron Rothschild, who declined to subscribe yet instructed Audubon to send him the book anyway. After having enjoyed the pictures for a year he was sent a bill for one hundred pounds, at which allegedly he cried, “What! A hundred pounds for birds! Why, sir, I will give you five pounds, and not a farthing more!”
As he spent more time in London supervising production, Audubon was forced to rely ever more heavily on the fieldwork of others to procure specimens and natural history observations of species he had not yet depicted. Cut off from the chance to see his subjects in the flesh, his drawings, which had earlier conveyed such life and emotion, took on something of the stilted look so common in scientific illustrations of the age. It was as if, along with shedding his long hair and frontier clothes, Audubon had shed his native genius and his woodsman’s innocence as well. The change is also obvious in his written texts. The earlier volumes of his observations and memoirs are full of hair-raising stories of life on the American frontier (including an account of a rattlesnake that kills three members of one family), while his last volumes are burdened by dry discussions of avian anatomy. In the end Audubon even went ahead with a cut-down (octavo-sized) edition of his book.
The Birds of America brought Audubon modest financial success, sufficient for him to purchase a forty-acre property at what is now Washington Heights in Upper Manhattan. With three hundred yards of delightful river frontage, the Audubons built a big, square house with ample porches front and back that commanded magnificent views of the river. Audubon did not long enjoy the tranquillity of retirement, however, for he seems to have aged quickly once his book was completed. Perhaps this was the effect of arsenic, which was then commonly used to preserve bird skins, or of toxins in his paints; whatever the cause, Audubon soon began to waver mentally. A year before his death Lucy wrote to a friend, “Alas, I have only the material part of my old friend, all mind being gone.” And so it was that on January 27, 1851, the prematurely aged sixty-five-year-old slipped quietly from the world.
And yet The Birds of America lives on, a production vastly different from anything published before or since. It is as close as we shall ever come to having a book on birds by an American Indian hunter; for, like a true native, Audubon saw the entire world reflected in the American wilderness. His birds are like people by turns wily, glorious, arrogant, and flawed. Later ornithologists would depict America’s wondrous birds in a more scientific manner, and in doing so lose the heart of that wild country.
These two biographies reveal different aspects of Audubon, in part because they deal, in effect, with two different men. Souder’s excellent work focuses largely on Audubon the frontiersman, while Hart-Davis chronicles an increasingly sophisticated yet uninspired immigrant to Europe. The story is essentially about a clash of cultures—the raw vitality of the American frontier and the sophistication of old Europe. One of Audubon’s greatest friends in Britain was the seventy-three-year-old Northumbrian naturalist and engraver Thomas Bewick. As the pair sat drinking hot brandy toddies, Audubon would tell tales of his life in America and every now and again Bewick would start and say, “Oh that I were young again! I would go to America too. Hey! What a country it will be!” At which Audubon corrected him with “Hey! What a country it is already, Mr Bewick!” And contemporary readers may feel compelled to reflect on what a country it might be again, should America’s wildernesses be allowed to flourish once more.